Renovation of the eyesore at 311 W. Main St. in Lansdale is a go.
After 90 minutes of presentations and civil discussions, Lansdale Borough Council Wednesday night voted 6-3 toapprove the recommendation from the 311 W. Main Task Force to pursue the framework for the vision of renovating the former arts center in one complete, full phase into a mixed-use arts and cultural center.
However, along the way, council must seek the guidance of an architect and arts consultant to fulfill other specific requirements of the recommendation, such as:
- Lansdale should commit to most of the cost of renovation with the expectation that the some capital funds will be raised from outside sources.
- Lansdale should hire an architect, a theater consultant, and an acoustician to renovate and develop the interior space.
- Lansdale Borough should retain ownership of the building.
- A 501(c)3 nonprofit should manage and program the daily operations of the building.
- The borough should contribute a significant amount of money toward the first few years of operation, and decrease its contribution as years go on. The nonprofit entity will increase its portion of revenue at the same time.
- There should be shared risk and cultivated partnerships with the public and private sector
- A volunteer core should be established to aid in ticket sales and production, among other things
- A membership program should be established, with varying levels of benefits
- Fundraising operations should be ongoing and diverse funding solutions should be pursued through state and local government, foundations, businesses, individuals, naming rights and rehabilitation tax credits.
Borough Manager Timi Kirchner revealed Wednesday that the borough will have a dedicated county grant writer aiding in its process.
The vote last night did not commit Lansdale Borough to spending any money at this time.
Councilman Dan Dunigan said if council "can't hit all the marks," it will have to revisit the process. Down the line, council might discover the project cannot be done in one phase, he said.
Dunigan likened the process to chapters in a book, with the end chapter being the expense of as much as $3.8 million to bring the center up to code.
"It's one single phase, and that is if all these things line up," Dunigan said.
Even if the borough decides down the line to make it phased construction, it is still looking at a figure of around $2.7 million for a first phase renovation of the lower two levels of the three-story former Masonic temple.
"It's still a very arduous process," said councilman Denton Burnell. "We may learn more as we progress. That number could come down. We failed in the past to do right. Now, we have the opportunity to take the bull by the horns and invest the resources to do the best thing for the building now."
Dunigan, the chairman of the borough's administration and finance committee, said residents wish the $3.8 million figure wasn't so high. He said the renovation of the center is "a tough thing for the group of us to swallow."
"The borough is very financially sound," Dunigan said. "We have borrowed wisely, and we are likely to borrow again even more wisely."
Council, he said, doesn't think twice about spending $1 million annually on the parks and recreation department, or funding the library at $400,000 a year. Should any of those things deteriorate and, for example, call for $4 million to reopen, Dunigan said the borough would pay those costs to reopen such facilities.
"We need to push the past aside. We'll figure out a way. There are plenty of resources to figure out how to do this," Dunigan said. "Everything that has a monetary value to it will come back to us, and we will have the opportunity to look it over, judge it and move forward. We will make a decision based on what we believe is the best for our long-term interest."
With volunteers and strong leadership — the latter of which was lacking from before — council will find a way "to create from nothing."
Task Force Chairman and Councilman Mike Sobel said everything now are rough figures, and council needs a specialist on board to guide it.
"This is not going to be on the shoulders of the taxpayers. That's not going to happen, folks," Sobel said. "This is just step one in a multitude of steps to come."
Councilmen Jack Hansen, Rich DiGregorio and council Vice President Paul Clemente voted against the recommendation.
Hansen's dissenting vote was based on the task force not emphasizing how to bring arts into the building.
Hansen said he wanted to see the building open, and remembered six years ago when he was a resident and listened to the initial idea of an arts center in Lansdale. At that time, he said, he wasn't sure if it was a good idea.
It was open for a year-and-a-half before closing for code issues. In that time, he said, the 200-seat theater had been filled twice.
"In the end, the building failed," he said. "If we can't fill a 200-seat theater (now), I don't think it is right to put taxpayers on the hook for $4 million to put in a 450-seat theater. I think we have to show ourselves, our citizens, and also the investors, and the county and state, that we can fill that 200-seat theater first. When we do that, we can move on to another phase and finish the other theater."
Mayor Andy Szekely also dissented against the recommendation. However, he is not a voting member of council. Szekely said the borough should be encouraging the arts and should not be spending money just because it can for the project.
"If you had 20 organizations paying $500 a month, that is $10,000 a month. That can almost mortgage $4 million," he said.
Councilwoman Mary Fuller said you can't put a price tag on the quality of life.
"You can't measure how much businesses will benefit from a viable downtown destination," Fuller said. "We will have fundraising and resources of county grant writers. It doesn't have to be on the burden of taxpayers. Nothing is impossible. If we believe in it, it can be done."
Fuller said Lansdale Library and even Discover Lansdale are two non-revenue venues whose events have benefitted the borough overall.
"The time is now. We have a buzz. No stop. No start. We did that. I'm tired of waiting," Fuller said. "There's no better time to ride on the spirit of what the community is creating."
Former 311 W. Main Task Force members spoke out either in favor of or against the recommendation.
"The commitment needs to be made by you to put Lansdale on the map," said former member Robert Willi. "This is the time. There's no looking back now."
Former member Lindsay Schweriner — the lone vote against the recommendation — criticized the AMS Planning and Research report where only seven arts organizations said they were interested in using the center.
"Is that enough to spend $4 million off the bat? It's not," she said. "Phased is the best way. Just because you failed the first time, doesn't mean you will fail again."
Former member James Collins said the center needs to be rebuilt in one shot. He said businesses won't come to Lansdale without customers having a place to go to daily.
"Are we going to show we are serious about what we are doing? If you do something, do it right the first time," he said. "I say move forward all the way. We have to do this to get people to come to businesses."
Resident Drew Stockmal urged council to defer the vote until a nonprofit comes on board to run the center. He wanted to know how much it was going to cost to operate the center.
"What if you build it and you do not hit the mark of what you want there? Wait until you get all the answers until before you say let's build it and hope they come," Stockmal said.
After the vote, council President Matt West said now is the time for everyone to come together.
"I'm tired of the fighting. I'm tired of the wedges between us. I'm tired of the 'he said/she said.' I don't give a rat's ass about that anymore," West said. "Now's the time for the town to prove it can rally around anything."
Do You Want to Know More?
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- 311 Task Force Chair Takes on 'Unfounded Criticisms'
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- Seven NPSD Residents Wanted for 311 West Main Task Force
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- An Errant History of 311 W. Main St.
- Task Force to Choose A&E Consultant by December
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- Let 'Em Know What You Want at 311 W. Main
- 311 W. Main Task Force Vacancy Needs NPSD Resident
- 311 Task Force Chair Says Long Road Coming to End
- [UPDATE Dec. 5]: Demolition, Sale of 311 W. Main Not an Option
- Defunct Performing Arts Center is Talk of the Town
- Special Meeting Set to Determine Future of Lansdale Performing Arts Center