By Len Lazarick
The $552,000 purchase of 32 Steinway pianos by Bowie State University for its new $79 million performing arts center opening next year is “out of touch” with the current economy, Comptroller Peter Franchot said at the Board of Public Works Wednesday.
“Given the challenges that these universities face, I think it’s a luxury at this point that the taxpayer shouldn’t be paying for,” said Franchot, who voted against the purchase. Couldn’t the university buy “some Chevrolets rather than all Rolls Royces?”
Marymal Holmes, coordinator of the music program at the historically black university, defended the proposal. Holmes said that in her 28 years there “the facilities have been substandard” and the purchase of the Steinways “will help us at Bowie State to elevate our program.”
Franchot maintained that few audiences could tell the difference in sound, but Holmes insisted that for the sophisticated listener, “I think they would know the difference. It’s unmistakable.”
The comptroller suggested that the university buy “a couple of Steinways,” the prestige piano, and the other 30 of lesser brands, and use private funding from the university capital campaign to pay for them.
The purchase of the Steinways would make Bowie one of only two historically black university music programs in the country with all Steinways, Holmes said, as Yale University and University of Maryland College Park have.
It was only after an extended back on forth between Franchot and Holmes over the quality of the Steinways that Holmes explained that the pianos being purchased would actually be of differing quality.
Only 4 of the 32 would be made by Steinway & Sons. Five would be the Steinway-designed Boston model that would go to faculty and 23 would be the least expensive Essex model. Both the Boston and Essex models are manufactured by Asian piano-makers to Steinway specifications and sold by Steinway.
The batch sale also gained the university an average 25% discount from the Steinway Piano Gallery of Rockville. The single-source purchase was exempt from university procurement policies.
When State Treasurer Nancy Kopp found out that most of the pianos would not be full Steinway & Sons instruments, she wondered if it would be false advertising to say that Bowie was “all Steinway.”
The students are “very excited at the prospect of having this,” Holmes said.
Even after the fuller explanation, Franchot still voted against the purchase which was supported by Kopp and Gov. Martin O’Malley, who chairs the Board of Public Works.