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Mayor: 311 W. Main Focus Should Be Arts, Not Building

Lansdale Mayor Andy Szekely disagrees with 311 W. Main recommendation in a letter to the editor

Dear Lansdale Resident:

As Wednesday’s Council meeting approaches, there is a motion on the agenda to recommend the acceptance of the 311 Task Force’s recommendation to move forward with a single phase renovation of the building.

While I support the arts and I am in favor of some sort of venue for the arts in Lansdale, I am writing this letter stating my disagreement with the single phase proposal put forth by the 311 Task Force for the following reasons:

  • The consultant, AMS, hired — for $48,500 — indicated a preference for a conservative, phased approach to rehabilitation of 311 West Main St.
  • Lindsay Schweriner, the most experienced member of the Task Force who works full time in the arts management field, expressed her opinion that a phased approach was also best in that this was the best way to regain the trust of the residents and arts organizations of the Borough.
  • Brian O’Leary, section chief of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, also indicated his position that a phased conservative approach also be adopted. 
  • In the course of their study, AMS surveyed 94 arts organizations in the area of which only 7 responded that they are interested in inhabiting the arts center. How will an architect know how to design a building based on 7 interested parties? And why would we spend up to $3.8 million on a building that does not know who its inhabitants will be or what their needs will be? A facility will have different design considerations for opera, for garage bands, for cabaret, for meeting rooms and for theater to name a few.
  • The conversation continues to focus on the building and NOT the arts which is the proverbial cart pulling the horse.

There is a desire to further rehabilitate 311 West Main Street into an arts center, which is admirable, but I firmly believe—as do the most experienced members of the Task Force INCLUDING THE CONSULTANT — that a PHASED, CONSERVATIVE, ORGANIC, GRASSROOTS approach to rehabilitating 311 West Main Street is the best way to understand the need for an arts venue in Lansdale. As we have seen from the past, committing the money first without a concrete plan is foolish.

Andy Szekely
Mayor of Lansdale

Brian Rox October 17, 2012 at 09:23 PM
" A facility will have different design considerations for opera, for garage bands, for cabaret, for meeting rooms and for theater to name a few. " Big Thanks to Michael at 3rd & Walnut for providing a space in Lansdale that does exactly that. Just need to get some Opera there...
Heather Feerrar October 17, 2012 at 09:48 PM
I guess I just don't see how dragging this out is in anyones best interest. Labor is cheap NOW. People need work NOW. How many more years do you want the focal point of main street to be an unused empty building. Although I respect the mayor's opinion I would have liked to see him at more of the meetings regarding this matter before he put his opinion in writing. IMHO
nicole October 18, 2012 at 01:16 PM
The Mayor might not have been invited to the meetings... Just a thought to consider. Also, there's no such thing as cheap labor. Especially when your concern is a theatre staging development with rehearsal rooms, sound isolation, mechanical isolation and environmental balance so you can actually hear the performance and talk to your guests simultaneously, the fine arts programs requirements - to name a few. I coordinated over 3 dozen build-outs for Class A sound stages, recording/mix studios and theaters to date and know first hand you can do an amazing Class A design/build for 3.8 million with direction and careful planning that is future ready for expansion and evolving technology. The Mayor is 110% accurate in his remark.
C. Smith October 18, 2012 at 01:47 PM
These were public meetings. Everyone was invited, so he could have been there. I'm not sure which remark of the mayor's you are saying is 110% accurate though? What the mayor (and others who spoke against a complete rehab) couldn't seem to grasp is that the "interest" shown in the building was based on the pile of crap it is today, not on what it could/should be. I recall hearing a proposal from one of the Task Force members that we do a black box theater somewhere else on main to (re)build this grassroots interest while planning the complete center and building the plan and doing fundraising, etc. Makes a lot of sense to me. Congrats to those on Council who supported moving forward -- Lansdale needs this badly!!!
nicole October 18, 2012 at 02:12 PM
C. Smith, Understood! The frustration is that those of us who grew up in this county, lived the difficulty daily of the limited resources available, went out in the world to seek information and experience in these industries to bring back home for the good of our home towns. The Council isn't interested in local experience. Grassroots will always be there. That's why it's called grassroots. Importantly, developing competitive facilities requires regional review of other facilities based on a defined set of limiting factors specific to the local function of the center.
nicole October 18, 2012 at 02:13 PM
C. Smith, cont.... Without that defining set of factors, no money should be spent. The task force seemingly reviewed the building system condition. But against what set of factors? I have yet to hear that delineation and proposition.
nicole October 18, 2012 at 02:15 PM
C. Smith..cont... I believe those opposing it had that direct past experience of moving forward on the original build and understand now they were without accurate limiting factors and rightfully fear it is repeating itself. The council appears to react to them as a threat instead of an asset. My understanding is that the original budget was about the same range est$4mil. for the original build out. Interesting coincidence! I had a site visit. To name a few of the reasons it is "a pile of crap" as your stated, There is no acoustic or HVAC isolation. There is no backstage. There is no communication or stage support Front of House or a technical closet. The acoustics are mail order. All of these details of use needed to be planned from the very beginning of laying the foundation, pouring slabs, running conduit that are acoustically sensitive, dropping walls and tying in ductwork- to name a few. These are the finishing details of a structural rebuild/rehab. It is much more intense than a task force could understand. It would require a general contractor consulting with acoustic/architects to clarify the exact requirements to rehab this building condition. Which they might have, but I've only heard consulting reports to date publicly. I am 100% for moving forward with planning- you're right, Lansdale really needs this. However, history is repeating itself and unfortunately the money to be spent on this is too. There is real potential that needs to be addressed. Good luck
C. Smith October 18, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Actually, Council authorized the planning you recommend, and authorized no money to be spent without it. I think they are very concerned about repeating mistakes of the past, but also realize that trust in the so-called "grassroots" approach (such as it was) has been violated. It seems a "new" grassroots approach is called for. Half completing the center AGAIN just seems like a huge mistake. It was also clear to me that no one wants the Borough to foot the whole bill -- that private fundraising is critical and required. And I couldn't agree more.
Drew Stockmal October 18, 2012 at 06:22 PM
CSmith, here's the problem I have...I openly spoke out about it at last night's meeting (you can see my name so there's no anonymity from me). I didn't hear here anyone saying that the Borough shouldn't move forward with this Arts Center. I didn't hear Jack, Andy, or Lindsay from the Task Force, say it was a bad idea. There was close to 100% agreement that investing in an Arts Center is a great idea. The issue becomes at what cost. Building the Taj Mahal would be great for Lansdale too but is it a prudent decision (unless there were so study that could show a revenue stream potential beyond scrutiny)? How can our local leaders make a decision to go "all in" without a clear understanding of what that even means, and a definitive mandate from the public that this is what is wanted? If someone said to me : "would you like to own the nicest house in the area" I would say absolutely. That's basically what the 80% survey respondents equate to. Now if they told me it would cost me an extra $5K a month I would have to weigh if that's right for me. If they told me: "it could be $5K or it could be $10K, and you may need a new roof, or maybe not," how could I make a decision? Full completion may be the best scenario, but without a real business plan, without engineered drawings, contractor estimates and any idea of programming, and input from the group that is going to run the center, how do we know what exactly the Boro will be on the hook for? Is it only $4M? $6M? $8M?...
Drew Stockmal October 18, 2012 at 06:24 PM
...If no one can answer that question how can a decision be made on going "all in?" If we are going to make a habit of blank check Project Planning, we have learned nothing from the past Administration and what happened here 6 years ago.
C. Smith October 18, 2012 at 08:42 PM
I guess I'm confused where the "all-in" comes from? I agree -- no one should make any financial decision without having a plan. Which, as I understand it, is exactly what the recommendation calls for. If everyone wants this place to succeed as you say, it sounds to me like we are mincing words. You seem to be stuck on whether the plan evaluation should focus on a complete or partial renovation. Why wouldn't you start with a view to make it a 100% viable place? Didn't we try the partial approach before with disastrous results? Seems to me the optics look much better (for folks looking at Lansdale and the potential opportunity) to show full commitment as your desired goal. If the financials ultimately end up not making sense, and no benefactors emerge, no harm done. Maybe you pull back and do less, or, God forbid, do nothing. If we're all in favor of this place, I'm not sure what we're debating.
Drew Stockmal October 18, 2012 at 09:15 PM
I think what we're debating is that what I heard repeatedly last night is that we're going to jump in with both feet without looking back. I'd like a better understanding of what that means. Does that mean $4M from the borough? Does that $4M with another $2-3M over the first 4-5 years until it becomes somewhat viable on its own? What are the target fundraising goals? Are we building it to be more like a movie theater? An opera house? A classical music venue? Wouldn't the construction plans be affected by that? Do we even know what the market is for the center yet? If we bring in someone viewed as competent to run it and they recommend a phased approach, will we pull back on the reigns or again, are we all in? Are there any contingency plans to be developed that says that if the Borough reaches $6M in contribution that public funding will stop? If we're $6M in and still not filling it to which it is bleeding tax payers monthly (more than it is now), will it be sold? I find little solace in the "no harm done" approach after the $4M or more is invested and gone. I just want to see a real plan. Why not just vote to take the next step instead of voting for full construction commitment as the Task Force recommended?
Drew Stockmal October 18, 2012 at 09:16 PM
And the "all in" canme from Mike Sobel, numerous Task Force members, was repeated at least 4-5 times by the Borough Manager and seemed to be the only point in which there was debate. Were you at the meeting?
C. Smith October 18, 2012 at 09:25 PM
I believe all the decisions you're talking about still have to be reviewed, discussed and made, at least from the recommendation I read on the Borough's website. I think you will get to see the plan, as that's definitely mentioned as a prerequisite. I think the commitment to doing full construction is simply a signal that Council is sending that they are fully committed to making the Center a complete facility, which, to me, makes a lot more sense than "let's evaluate the 'try it out and see' method". Again. My opinion only.
C. Smith October 18, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Sadly, I was not, which I regret. It's just that in reading the Task Force recommendation, with all the other requirements that are there, the "full construction" idea seems to me more about marketing to the world that "we're in it this time to win." Anything less would sound wishy-washy. And truly feel like repeating past mistakes. Reasonable people may disagree, but planning to do the whole thing, if it turns out to be financially viable, feels like the right approach to me. I just wouldn't be inclined to plan to build half a house.
Robert Willi October 18, 2012 at 11:07 PM
If you want to know what was sent to Council to vote on I suggest that you go to the Borough web site and look. There were stipulations put into the recommendation to Council. Certain criteria has to be met before even one cent is spent. There is also the discretion of Council to do as they see fit. This is only phase one of many phases. I think that my fellow Task Force members and I took all the information we had and all the recommendations and came up with a recommendation to Council that we felt was the best option. I am sure there are many who disagree with our final decision and think we should have gone a different way. I stand behind the decision made by the Task Force. I was also an honor to work with real great people on the Task Force.
Drew Stockmal October 19, 2012 at 01:11 AM
I think your missing the point Bob. The Task Force did a tremendous job and I agree with everything I heard last night and all I've read. I want the fully constructed center but my wishes do not a sound decision make I will be absolutely stoked when it opens and will support it fully My issue is that I know many of the folks on LBC and they are collectively smart, well intentioned people. But their job is also to be the stewards of our tax dollars. Providing a blank check for any project, when a solid plan is yet to materialize and NO one can provide even an estimate of what the ultimate price tag is going to be, is not sound financial management. As the R's like to say: "Hope is not a strategy."
Drew Stockmal October 19, 2012 at 01:32 AM
csmith: "I would not build half a house.". Using this analogy, would you commit to building a house without any budget whatsoever? Would you ever say: "start building and if it starts to look like it's not going to work out I'll just adjust later.". No. The debate last night was clearly about making the full commitment regardless of cost. If we knew it was just a $4M investment, then I would be OK w/ the ultimate decision. But it may end up being many millions more. Or less; no one can answer that question as of today. And as much as I personally desire this center to happen, I am concerned about what I view as a questionable basis for this decision. What I hate is what the blank check symbolizes which is that public funds are limitless. We see the same attitude with school boards who are able to raise taxes whenever funds get tight.
Denton Burnell October 19, 2012 at 08:38 AM
Drew -- I certainly value your perspective on this. As someone who voted not once, but twice, in favor of this, and someone who is a steward of our tax dollars, I know what's at stake. But I must say, the arguments I heard against "proceeding" on Wednesday, and read here now, assume far too much. By this action, I have not spent $4MM of tax payer money. At best, I have started the ball rolling on doing just what you and most others so earnestly desire: figuring out what it's going to take to actually get 311 open. Obviously, we differ on what "open" means. I do not want a plan that calls for a half-completed community arts center. I want a plan that envisions a complete, and fully-functional venue. But I must emphasize, I need to see a PLAN before I vote to authorize ANY money being spent on renovation. I disagree that my vote last night symbolized a "commitment regardless of cost" or a "blank check." It symbolized a commitment to work toward the goal of a fully-completed center. Even with that goal in mind, I am also committed to the idea of shared responsibility, another key aspect of our recommendation. While the recommendation certainly recognized that the Borough must shoulder a share of the burden, it also called for private support as well, and I will insist on that. When we have a plan, fundraising and financial planning can begin in earnest, and only then can we gauge what the Borough's true financial commitment ought to be.
Drew Stockmal October 19, 2012 at 01:27 PM
DB I appreciate your comments... I admittedly feel much better hearing those assurances and those of my other two reps, MW and DD at the end of the meeting. But you must admit that much of the discussion on Wed centered around the acceptance of ALL Task Force recommendations including full construction. I was under the impression that the vote was to confirm that all steps would be committed to "no matter what it took.". I even recall Timi intimating something similar to that sentiment. As long as you guys are resolved to take this process one step at a time, I can't see how anyone could be in disagreement of that. Let's all hope that it opens and is wildly successful from day one. Thanks.
Denton Burnell October 19, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Thanks Drew -- I did feel as the night wore on that we were tilting at windmills a bit, since my sentiments above are exactly what we've tried to convey. I recognize that there is a difference of opinion on whether we should plan based on a partial vs. complete renovation, but the assurances above remain intact from my perspective.

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