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Could Amazon be key to an Arlington performing-arts center?

At Civic Federation event, officials with firm don't use out partnerships

Might Amazon hold the key to creation of a performing-arts center in Arlington’s future?

At the very least, those within the firm whose job it is to stay engaged with the local community aren’t ruling it out.

The idea of a performing-arts facility is “something we’ve heard loud and clear,” said Patrick Phillippi, who with his Amazon colleague Brian Stout discussed the company’s goals and objectives during the April 12 Arlington County Civic Federation banquet.

Their comments came in response to a question about Arlington eventually getting a new performance venue. But Stout (a former county-government staffer) and Phillippi kept the conversation away from any specifics.

“We would be supportive for sure of another venue, if it comes about,” the latter said. “We are trying to be the best partner we can possibly be – be the best neighbor.”

Amazon’s “HQ2” now has 8,000 employees in its Arlington offices, about a third of its planned final occupancy. And it has become a major player in local philanthropy.

One of the groups it supports is Embracing Arlington Arts, an advocacy group that has developed a plan for a privately-funded-and-operated performance venue. Amazon covered the costs of a consultant to draft a business plan, and will be underwriting the costs of a feasibility study for a possible capital campaign, said the organization’s president, Janet Kopenhaver.

“Certainly we would happily partner with Amazon on this project if they are interested,” Kopenhaver told the GazetteLeader. “Amazon has financially supported several other Arlington arts organizations, and we thank them for all this support.”

Another potential partner on a performance venue could be Synetic Theater, which is now homeless after its lease on a Crystal City venue expired earlier this year. Synetic officials say they continue on the hunt for space. The troupe’s only current firm plans are for a summer-of-2025 production in Olney, Md.

In the audience at the April 12 dinner were two current members of the Arlington County Board (Susan Cunningham and Maureen Coffey) and most of those currently in the running to succeed incumbent Libby Garvey upon her retirement at the end of the year.

Their ears might have perked up at the thought of partnering with Amazon on a publicly run arts facility. But at the same time, the county government may not have put what was, to some minds, an arts-venue fiasco fully in the rear-view mirror.

That was the Artisphere, which for a time occupied space in Rosslyn that had been used by the Newseum prior to its move to the District of Columbia.

The government’s business model for the Artisphere proved to be based on what turned out to be wildly overoptimistic expectations. The venue bled cash until county leaders  in 2015 shut it down, putting the facility and taxpayers out of their collective misery.

The county government in a way also has partnered with Signature Theater, which occupies the upper level of the building that also houses the Shirlington branch library. Several times in recent years the county government has had to come to the financial rescue of Signature rather than potentially have the arts group depart.

Embracing Arlington Arts has said it does not want a direct government partnership, and will be able to run a leaner facility that will not bleed massive amounts of red ink.

The advocacy group in 2022 laid out a plan for a venue that would cost about $10 million to build and, based on its business model, require a modest annual subsidy to operate. But early optimism that a site could be found quickly and construction started by late 2023 or early 2024 did not bear fruit. The group has intimated that it has since found a potential development partner.

The arts-center question was one of a number fielded by Amazon representatives at the April 12 event. In their remarks, Stout and Phillippi discussed both the first five years of Amazon’s relationship with Arlington, and what the future may hold.

“We are really looking forward to the next five,” Stout said.