Salisbury University could expand further downtown with proposed $100 million performing arts center

By Richard Caines
Posted 5/9/24

SALISBURY — Salisbury University officials have announced plans to further expand downtown, with a $100 million performing arts center that could open within five years.

If approved by …

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Salisbury University could expand further downtown with proposed $100 million performing arts center


SALISBURY — Salisbury University officials have announced plans to expand downtown further, with a $100 million performing arts center that could open within five years.

If approved by Wicomico County Council, the facility would be built on the site of the current home of the Wicomico Public Library’s Paul S. Sarbanes Branch, featuring an auditorium with seating for up to 1,000 people, a music and theatre space with seating for up to 450, a convertible dance studio, scenic and costume design facilities, dressing rooms and classroom and rehearsal space.

The proposed performing arts center would be the second largest indoor performance space in the county after the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center when constructed. The facility would join the SU Downtown campus and the Museum of Eastern Shore Culture, which is scheduled to open later this year.

Officials said a pending agreement between the county and Salisbury University would allow the university to take possession of the library located at the intersection of South Division and West Market Markets to build the performing arts center. In return, the university would lease the former Ward Museum to the county for the downtown library’s relocation.

Pending terms call for a 10-year lease with the county having the option of renewing it for two additional periods of 10 years each. The base rent for the initial term and each renewal period would be $1.00 annually.

The plan still needs approval by Wicomico County Council.

“We believe that this forward-thinking partnership will bring two new assets to the community and will provide incredible opportunities for economic development, improve library services and the advancement of the performing arts on the Eastern Shore,” Salisbury President Carolyn Ringer Lepre said during a May 7 County Council meeting where the project was presented.

Under the agreement, the county would be required to make roughly $8 million in renovating 909 S. Schumaker Drive, or the former home of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art which closed following an HVAC failure at the facility in July 2022.

Officials said those renovations would include a new HVAC system, with the library eligible to request 84 percent of that cost to be covered through the Maryland State Library Agency’s Capital Grants Program.

Demolition of the downtown library would take place in 2026, with a grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. However, officials said they will maintain downtown library services at a smaller branch following the library’s location.

“The goal of everyone is no loss of services,” said Andrew Illuminati of the county attorney's office at the May 7 meeting. “There may be reduced services for a very brief period of time, but that exchange will result in an amazing new facility, ample parking to come down to the library and then continued growth in downtown Salisbury.”

Officials said they are looking into adding a bus stop near the future library.
Salisbury University officials said the performing arts venue would be available for community use and could help enhance pre-existing events like the annual Maryland Folklife Festival.

“SU’s music, theatre and dance ensembles are renowned throughout Maryland and the Delmarva Peninsula,” said Dr. Maarten Pereboom, dean of the University’s Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts. “While we enjoy inviting the community to our performances on campus, it’s exciting to know that, in just a few years, we may have an even bigger and better venue to showcase the talents of our students, our faculty and our community partners in a facility that would place us on par with our peers throughout the region.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Executive Director Seth Hershberger told the council on May 7 that Wicomico County lacks a flagship library that would instill pride in the community. He said the county has been ranked last or next to last in per capita funding provided for library operations in capital budgets.

“This is an opportunity to make up much of that lost ground and I’d add at a modest cost to the county,” Hershberger said.

Hershberger told the county that they have recruited Marty Neat, who will chair a newly reconstituted foundation with the immediate goal of directing a capital campaign in support of reopening the Shoemaker Pond facility as a library. He also said Tony Sarbanes has committed to contributing his energy and connections in support of the campaign on behalf of his late brother’s name moving with the main library location.

“This is what I consider to be, what I would call it, very unique and a creative collaboration and opportunity,” Council President John Cannon said during the May 7 meeting. “When I first heard about it, I was actually shocked. I wasn’t sure which way to go with it and the story just seemed to be getting better.”

Hershberger said when they learned the former Ward Museum was potentially available, they worked with the Greater Salisbury Committee to bring the proposal to university officials.

“That’s our mission,” Greater Salisbury Committee President and CEO Mike Dunn said during the May 7 meeting. “We look out at the community and look at the challenges and opportunities and the problems. We try to come up with solutions and as you’ve said, this is a pretty good one.”

The next county council meeting is on May 21. Dunn urged the county to support a plan that he called “historic.”

“This is a historic opportunity that we have not seen in this community since the mid-1990s when a group of people just like you had the foresight to look ahead and go, you know minor league baseball in Wicomico County would be a great win,” Dunn said. A performing arts center in Wicomico County is the kind of thing that 40 years from now, those of you who will still be around will look back.

"History awaits.”

Reach Managing Editor Richard Caines at

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