The Lansdale 311 W. Main Task Force spent 105 minutes Tuesday night discussing green room locations, portable dressing rooms, bathroom layouts, sloped theaters, soundboard setups, expanding theaters to more than 300 seats, moveable chairs, flexible mutli-purpose theaters, food courts and art.
At the end, borough council vice president Paul Clemente said he supported the arts, and the efforts are all well and good. Then, he asked a big question: Where's the money?
"I have a simple question that piggybacks off of (Montgomery County Planner Brian) O’Leary's, and that is this whole discussion seems to be very academic thus far because nobody’s talking about where the funding is coming from," Clemente said. "We have an estimate that’s $4.5 million to $5 million to put it to this type of a use, which I think has been a great creative design given the albatross that you are handed to come up with a creative design for."
"I think this task force ought to be spending as much time as we are talking about design and where a bathroom ought to go as they do for the funding of this project," he said.
Clemente said there might be a combined effort that could happen with the Madison Lot development. He said it was worth exploring.
"Quite frankly, let me be crystal clear: I will not vote to spend a boatload of money on this building. I just won't," he said. "I might be a minority vote on council, but I don’t think we should throw good money after bad. I think this task force should spend the appropriate time in discovering the funding, if it exists in the environment and economy we are in."
Councilwoman and task force member Mary Fuller asked if Clemente's solution would be to do nothing.
"I don’t know if we shouldn’t raze the thing. I don’t know that. That’s not been discussed either," he said. "I certainly think we ought to get some idea of where is this money coming from."
He said the costs will be "in the hundreds of thousands," as it is going to be $400,000 to keep it as is and bring it up to code.
"There's $400,000. You’re going to multiply that number by 10 potentially? Where's it coming from? I'm not an expert in this stuff," he said.
Borough manager Timi Kirchner said the ordinance that created the task force is to do exactly what Clemente was talking about at the Tuesday night meeting.
"Part of the exercise we are going through today is part of that: What are the potentials for the building and ask all the questions, but then consider public and private sector solutions is a statement throughout that ordinance," Kirchner said.
"Certainly, we don’t have a consusltant yet to take us through that. The question about whether or not it sould be a 300 seat gets to that business plan, because that’s what we also have to come up with. A business plan that says this is how we are going to pay for this, that says part of it could be public, part of it could be private, et cetera," she said. "Certainly, we should consider razing the building, but then what does that do for the downtown? What's the other side to that?"
Clemente said he wasn't being combative; the business plans must include a financial look at the property.
"I don’t know if a 300-seat theater could ever bring in $4 million to cover the potential minimum end of the cost," he said. "No disrespect to theater or anyone in the room that is artistic. I'm a financial guy and that’s what I look at."
He said he didn't know if the borough was at the fiscal point of having a mixed-use building in town.
Ex-officio task force member O'Leary said earlier in the meeting that the expansion of the auditorium on the third floor to more than 300 seats and its doability has a high cost to it.
"Is this usable without all that cost upstairs? You spent a lot of money making it usable," he said.
O'Leary said that it would be helpful for the borough to have a couple different scenarios for the building.
"So far, you mostly had a scenario of the upstairs is the big theater with a lot of money being spent to expand it. It just might not be realistic," he said. "From the county standpoint, we put a million into this and I don’t think we have another million to put into it, and we’re one of your big sources."
O'Leary said there should be a Plan B if the borough can't afford to do a big theater, like going back down to the first floor and making sure it works a little better as a small theater.
Task force member Doug Pett said regardless the building still needs to be brought up to code to use it.
"We’ve already come up with numbers, a total of $400,000 to do that," he said.
Task force chairman Mike Sobel said that as chair of the public safety committee, he too would not vote to spend money on the project.
"If this thing ain't up to code, I'll table any motion that comes forward. I'll tell you that right now," Sobel said. "I won't even bring it to a vote, until I hear from Jay Daveler that this thing is where it's supposed to be. You can forget that."
Fuller asked a number cost on knocking down the building.
"Obviously, you lose the $4 million that is already put into it. What does it cost to knock down a building in center of town?" she said.
Kirchner said it was a good question to be saved for the next meeting.
Sobel said the next meeting will have some "napkin figures" on what things would cost.
Scott Malin, of Spiezle Architects, the firm hired to design the revamped building, said he would be happy to work additional figures.
"I could create a diagram (on potential changes) and the cost to demolish the building, but in between those two things, I'm not sure what other options you are looking for," he said.
Malin said it would cost under $4 million for the entire project.
"Most of changes don’t appreciatively change the figure," he said. "A dramatic change on (the upper floor level) would lower cost."
Kirchner said the task force needs to think about whether to do something minimal now or wait down the road to make changes.
"What is the better approach? Do it all now or do it in stages? I don’t know if there's a way to estimate which is going to cost us more," she said. "We need to look at the full picture: If in the long run it is cheaper to do everything now, and staging it down road, that’s another question. This council could bite off so much and let other councils bite off the rest."
Borough Director of Community Development John Ernst said there is an unwritten cost in this whole thing.
"If this council or committee should decide to do nothing or get rid of it, I think there's a cost to the community, to the North Penn area, to the arts community, to any of the communities that would potentially see use out of this facility," he said. "If nothing is done and these communities don’t have any stake in what the project is, that could be a bigger cost to the overall community."
Fuller agreed "1,000 percent."
"I think it sitting there in an unusable condition is a far greater disservice than the cost of putting money into doing something with it," Fuller said. "It's empty, it’s a building of contention, it’s a white elephant in the borough."
Task force member Bob Willi agreed with Clemente - no more money should be put out by the borough.
"As a borough resident, and seeing money that went into there already, I would not expect the borough to sit up there and pass money," he said. "It's on us now to see where we can get the money from. I don’t want to see my taxes go up because borough council decided to jump in and put more money into that."
Lansdale Business Association member Roger Hammond asked about the code violations and movement of an elevator within the building.
He then provided an insight on something that happened nearly nine months ago.
"Several business members of the community looked at the building and went to a consultant contractor. We got an estimate of $2 million to $2.5 million to build a brand new, same square footage, 2-story, 2-theater structure, which wasn’t in that place," he said. "If you spend $6, $7, $8 million to build something worth $2 or $3 million, it seems like a very bad investment," Hammond said.
Phoenixville native and Villanova resident Stephanie Bearoff said if the borough plans on renovating parts of the building to completion, in order to have people occupy the building as it is being worked out, then keep safety precautions in mind.
"It seems like a better idea to do it all at once rather than drawing it out," Bearoff said.
Sobel said the borough would not allow anybody in the building until the entire structure is safe.
North Wales resident Kevin Thomas asked about the status of the nonprofit Discover Lansdale.
Kirchner said the nonprofit was formed and will be activated through the yet-to-be-hired events coordinator/downtown investment district coordinator.
"It is the vehicle through which we can do fundraising is what I can say now," Kirchner said.
Thomas asked if it was feasible to get the building up to code as one goal, and then raise money to get it further.
Kirchner said getting it up to code where it is gets us to what we have now, to where we can occupy it again, is not feasible.
"The front of the building is the more important part of that building. A lot of money was spent on just what we have now, which is pretty inadequate," she said.
Pett said furthermore you will be spending $400,000 on a space that nobody wants to use.
"And you can't get at it from Main Street," he said.
Ernst said there's a chance of having to redo what the borough is doing to bring it up to code.
Thomas said tearing it down would be a great loss to Main Street.
Sobel praised the public for all its input. He stressed that nothing is in concrete with the conception and discussion on 311 W. Main St.
"I do not want to dwell on past, prior to this committee being formed," Sobel said. "We have to look at what we have here."
After the meeting, new task force member Denton Burnell - replacing temporary member Matt West - was asked about Clemente's comments.
"I do believe Councilman Clemente's comments were valid. How we fund any decision that the task force ultimately recommends to council will need to be a part of the discussion before long," Burnell said. "The good news is that's definitely something we'll be tackling as we move forward."