Residents and non-residents who attended the special meeting of Lansdale Borough Council on Tuesday night expressed their desire for a music hall, a visual arts center, a community center, a community theater, a Lansdale orchestra, an art gallery – they want something, anything at 311 W. Main Street.
And they want it now.
Will Liegel, of Susquehanna Avenue, directs Theatre and Kids with his wife.
He said he, his wife and their associated thespians have walked through, changed in and stumbled over every space that was open to the public because of their involvement with the building at 311 W. Main Street when it was open to the public with the children theater programs and acting classes.
He told of a meeting at Penndale Middle School in 2004 where the idea of a performing arts center in Lansdale was proposed for the first time. He said then Mayor Mike DiNunzio approached him and asked him to write a grant to “encourage people to understand why we would need a building like this.”
“It was my understanding as much time would be put into the use of the building as the design of the building and I think, to me, that’s the one thing that we need to be very careful of this time,” Liegel said.
Liegel said Theatre and Kids has been in business for 25 years and he and his wife work with 720,000 youths a year.
“We have offered to be involved in the planning from the very beginning, but, to be honest, we have received no response to repeated desires to be involved,” Liegel said.
He cautioned council that there is a misunderstanding that “if we build it, they will come.”
Liegel said he was involved in the beginning of Sellersville Theater, and in its first year, the seats were empty because of the time that was required to plan for a building to be full.
“We were there to watch some tremendously bad running of the building in its first years, and part of that problem was the building was opened and programming was begun to be chosen at same time,” Liegel said. “I would say you need to be planning now for what the building’s going to be used for.”
Liegel recommended a team needs to be active in procuring an orchestra that would like to make the performing arts center its home, a theatre organization, a children’s theater, a series of teaching situations and other community groups now, so it channels how to design the building and what use the building would be put to in the future.
“If this is to go forward, that we think right now how the building will be used, and a team be working so that the day the door opens, programming is set for the next two years,” Liegel said. “That’s what’s making Sellersville a success. We plan 18 months in advance even for our Theatre and Kids program.”
Joy Keener, of Bucks County, is a performer who said she still hasn’t seen “one dime” since signing a contract to perform at the center for a show that never happened.
“I’m in sympathy when you have no money and I think this is wonderful,” she said. “Don’t you think you better see the money and pay your back bills before you get another one?”
Keener said she was 100 percent for having a theater in Lansdale.
“We need the art,” she said, “but performers can’t go on if we don’t get paid. And I’m still waiting.”
She said she would come see Lansdale’s productions, but she “won’t under this stand because you’re playing with money again you don’t have and don’t know where to get it.”
“I wish you a lot of luck because I would love to see something like this in Lansdale, but I think you better find out where you’re going to get your money,” she said. “That’s like taking a cruise and thinking, ‘I have to pay my mortgage yet.’”
Caroline Niesley, of East Seventh Street, is a member of the North Penn Art Alliance and teaches cartooning in the North Penn Community Education program.
She recommended that the renovations and re-construction be done in stages very carefully.
“If it does come to pass – I heard a glass wall might have to be removed and the architect said you might not need anything there at all – it came to mind there are a lot of professional artists and community artists that would love to do murals for that building. But that’s far down the road,” she said.
Chris Flyzik, of Mt. Vernon Street, said although it is a lot of money, it’s something the borough really has to do.
“I know your costs are going to be more because when you built it, it was to the 2003 code and now you have to go to 2009. I’m sure it adds a lot of expense, but I’m sure it will be money well spent,” Flyzik said.
Charles Booz, owner of Chantilly Floral, pleaded for the project for months and he told council it was time to get started.
“We’ve waited a long time. It is an investment in our future and our children,” he said. “Now is the time that we can actually make a difference in our community.”
Booz suggested the architects step back and see what Delta Development is working on with the Madison Parking Lot redevelopment project.
“We should stand back and say, ‘What can we do with the outside?’ I’m thinking of the backdrop that we could actually have outside performances, outdoor videos or movie nights in the parking lot for kids in the future park possibly that we’re going to develop back there,” Booz said. “We just don’t have to look at what we’re doing on the inside, but also look at the outside structure and the possibilities out there.”
Booz said the issue is much bigger than just what the borough is spending on the building itself.
“Three million is not that much when you look at the return in 20, 30 years that we’re going to get out of the use of this building if it’s done correctly,” Booz said.
James Collins, aka James Royale, is a local comedian and resident of Lansdale.
Collins said bringing things to the community and making it somewhere we want to live are part of the contributions that help to enrich the community as a whole.
“As a person that does performing arts, I will travel to different townships to do theater shows because I’m improving my resume, but I also enjoy enriching those communities,” he said. “How important is it to me that I go to Skippack to perform on their stage, I go to Hatboro to perform on their stage, I go to Philly, but when I come home, I can’t even perform in my own community.”
Collins said artists will perform on stage if given the opportunity. He said it’s not a matter of building a backstage or an outdoor backdrop. There are performers who have no problem performing on the street.
Children in high school bands and children in theater will participate in activities as long as they have a place to do it in.
“Now, we talk about enriching kids and setting an example for kids, what example are we setting if we put their needs on the back burner?” Collins said. “Because part of what helps develop them as an adult is not only an appreciation of education, not only an appreciation of finance, but also an appreciation of the arts.”
He said this is Lansdale’s culture; this is something we can contribute and show people this is what Lansdale is about.
“This is the face of Lansdale. It’s not just stores, the shops, the bars. It’s the community theater because it’s the theater where you have a place where people can express themselves freely,” Collins said. “They can express ideas through that freedom. Isn’t that what we want to teach our kids?”
Collins said if the borough places the proper investment in the building, if the building is built strong, if the theater is done right, if programs are set two years in advance and scheduled properly, then there’s no reason why Lansdale can’t become the premiere area where people come for entertainment.
“What’s important to us? To me, it’s to be able to say I was part of something that was built and developed so that they can improve as people,” he said. “I believe in Lansdale.”
Leah Jones, of Green Street, told a short tale of being a mom of two teenage boys. One son, aged 15 and a pianist, was unsure of what he wanted to do in his life.
“I took him to the arts center to see performances, and based on some of the performances he saw, he decided that he wanted to go into music as his profession,” she said. “So I’m super excited.”
Ed Kane, of Hatfield Township, is also a member of North Penn Art Alliance.
“You keep talking about performing arts. We hope when you go through with your task force, you do not ignore the visual arts,” he said.
Borough manager Timi Kirchner said council consistently refers to the task force as the 311 West Main Street Task Force, and that means it won’t limit the use to one type of art.
“Hopefully, what you’ve heard is this is a building that can have many uses and can truly be a community center that celebrates all of the talents of the community itself and brings in talent from other areas,” she said.
Mary Schwalje, owner of Sign-A-Rama, asked if it is possible to get the first level up and going once it is completed before the second level of the center is totally completed.
Kirchner said that is up to the community.
“If council authorizes the creation of the task force, we will have these experts available to discuss possibilities. It could include staging on the way to full completion,” Kirchner said. “I have to emphasize and I’ve said this in my remarks earlier: this is up to the community as to what it wants. This is a big decision and the community should be expressing its desire through the task force.”
Steve Moyer, of Ninth Street, paraphrased Mother Teresa with his comment, “It is said that yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow is yet to come, and yesterday and tomorrow are the twin thieves that rob us of the day.”
He agreed yesterday is gone, and commended council on its actions.
“I wholly approve of having this function here and I’m amazed at what you folks have done,” Moyer said.
Liegel spoke again, emphasizing that the borough and its residents own the building and the money has since been invested.
“I don’t think we can imagine anybody coming outside of our town to take over that building and do anything majestic with it,” Liegel said. “We know there are many empty stores downtown and they are empty because we are not a destination, but to invest in that building is to invest in the downtown.”
Booz made a second comment about the cost of repairs for the center.
“Three million, 800 thousand divided by 17,000 people in the community is $223. I’ll write a check tonight,” he said.
Ron Skotleski, owner of Skotleski Productions in Lansdale, told of how he was once involved in the failed Frankford on the L project. He said it failed because the area where the theater was going to be located, had no after-hours structure to keep people there.
“Lansdale has this. You’re changing the look of the town. People will come,” he said. “Having this center is such an asset, you don’t realize the potential when you have musicians.”
He said he attended a Chicago concert in Reading that sat 500 people. Musicians who play the Keswick or another venue in Philadelphia don’t want to go to Ohio to do the next gig.
“If there is a theater in Lansdale, they’ll book it,” Skotleski said. “If you have headliners, people will come in.”