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311 W. Main St.: The Visions of the People

Residents, task force members offer their dreams and goals for the future downtown community center

There is a vision for in Lansdale, and residents and task force members made those dreams known Tuesday night.

The Task Force Visions

Doug Pett said the center should be a local destination for the performing arts community and the community at-large.

“It’s going to generate business back in Lansdale. The whole idea of why I am interested in it is it’s going to revitalize the borough,” he said. “All the important things happening throughout the borough are phenomenal. I think this is one more thing that’s going to add to the welcome and the ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ of Lansdale.”

Task force member Lindsay Schweriner would like to see a fixed auditorium and a flexible space in the center. The aesthetics of an auditorium are better than a room where chairs have been set up.

“A smaller space is OK, but you can’t really sell tickets unless you have the capacity you need to keep your ticket prices lower,” she said. “The general vision also includes a really great website and marketing plan to keep people excited about what’s going on. To keep it an interactive experience is a huge part of this.”

Task force member Robert Willi is excited about the prospect of bringing performing arts to the center, but he wants it to be more of a community center for Lansdale.

“I believe strongly in the community, and I believe strongly in a community center. It dictates a lot to keeping youth off the streets and teaching people musical instruments or painting, just to bring the community in so neighbors can meet one another,” he said.

Task force member Amy Rims agreed on the center being a place for performing arts and an education venue.

“In that (area), I see, every day, kids doing drugs in the park. I’d like to get them out of that park,” she said. “Maybe we can have a marquee out front, so when people drive by they see who’s performing and what’s going on.”

James Royale echoed those same sentiments. He is big on community and big on sharing with neighbors and friends.

“We have resources that we utilize here in the library and different places used for a lot of things; a theater or community center or performing arts center can be one of those vehicles to help take some of burden off the library and bring it back more toward the center of town,” he said. “It is a fantastic opportunity for the township (sic) to reach out to businesses and form partnerships.”

The borough should reach out to create strong foundations in Lansdale.

“I ask for people here that you talk about the 311 project and the task force,” he said. “Your buy-in is more important than mine. This will be community facility, and we have to have the buy-in so this will be a success.”

Borough manager Timi Kirchner said it is important for the community to buy into the project and feel it is theirs.

“I see this as a catalyst, a place that makes great restaurants come into Lansdale and open up,” she said, “because they know they are going to have good crowds before and after whatever goes on in this building.”

She said the center could be a creative arts building that promotes and celebrates all forms of arts and entertainment, and a building that serves as a gathering place where kids can learn.

“I see it as a vibrant building that celebrates this borough,” she said.

Task force chairman Mike Sobel said a decision hasn’t been made on the future of the center. Everything are ideas and suggestions at this point from the people of the town.

“I would love to see this as a destination here. The building is the middle of the downtown. Let’s make it something nice, something desirable,” Sobel said.

Task force vice chairman Charles Booz said the building is “pure potential.”

“The property is owned by the borough, which means it is owned by everybody. Everybody has a part and stake in it,” he said. “It’s our fiscal responsibility to maximize the square footage so that way it’s a return on the investment of the community.”

Task force member Dawn Harvey said the center must be a destination for people from other towns; they should reconsider going to Doylestown and come to Lansdale to eat and shop in the downtown.

“I still have an open mind as to what this building can be, whether it be a theater, music, art or all of those,” she said. “It can be a professional performing arts center that brings people in from other towns, yet still have programs that benefit the community.”

Task force member and council president Matt West said the borough shouldn’t take an “if we build it, they will come” approach to the building.

“Now is the time to act, now is the time to turn it into that what we think it can be,” he said. “(You have to) separate the bricks and mortar from programming. How can you design bricks and mortar for programming if you don’t know what it’s going to be? How can you define programming based upon a building if don’t know what its going to be?”

Task force member and councilwoman Mary Fuller said her vision includes a building you can access from Main Street.

“One of the reasons I am here is my passion for the community. Those who know me know I have that: I love to be involved, “ she said.

Her vision for the center is limitless.

“I see this building as a blank canvas on which Lansdale can begin to paint its revitalization,” she said.

She said the voice of the Lansdale resident and taxpayer is critical and important as to the future of the center.

“You do own this building as a virtue of a taxpayer. You will buy into it, if you have input into it,” she said. “The time is now. If you’re not excited about it, I sure don’t know why not, because we can have it all.”

Borough parks and recreation director Carl Saldutti applauded the borough for acquiring the building. He said it is the most interesting piece of architecture in town.

“Government should lead the way and should get the community involved, as you are the shareholders and you should get involved in the operation,” he said. “Certainly, when we talk about flexibility, theatrical, cultural, musical, education, film, corporate seminars should be considered and what the potential use would be. It has to serve as the economic engine that will continue to drive the borough and move the borough forward.”

The Peoples' Visions

Resident Bobbie McKenzie said it is important to get the community’s input on the project.

“I ask the task force if it has a focus or has plans on how to reach the public? If it’s a mass mailing plan – anything to get input. If you give input, the more excited you are to be involved and happy about it,” she said.

Resident John Darab suggested running a big banner across East Main Street asking, “What’s Your Opinion of 311 West Main Street?” Willi suggested handing out questionnaires at First Friday.

Resident Will Liegel agreed with a statement by Sobel that the borough cannot bring up the past as it relates to the 311 W. Main Street.

“Yet, at the same time, the past must inform the future,” he said. “We have to understand there were many good people who planned what we did already and spent many dollars to have things still be not prepared.”

Liegel said the borough must plan now for the arts events two years ahead.

“I would encourage the task force to be looking at the facilities, but also right along side of that, specifically who is going to be there, when they will be there. If you are looking to open in two years, some things need to be booked two years in advance.”

Skippack resident, and Lansdale native, John O’Hara told of his involvement with Act II Playhouse, and the “laser sharp vision” that Alan and Stephen Blumenthal, and even Tom Quinn at Montgomery Theater in Souderton, wanted to establish in their towns.

“I was at the Cheltenham Arts Center. There was a desire to include every sort of arts. The Cheltenham Arts Center often times became a little bit of everything and nothing of everything,” he said. “The arts thought the theater was doing too much, and the theater thought the arts people was a mess. There was no vision.”

Sobel agreed with O’Hara. He said the goal is to channel all ideas into one common goal.

Kirchner said O’Hara’s statement is exactly what the task force needs to hear.

“From your particular mind’s eye, think about this, and think about that, or I didn’t see this or I didn’t see that – this prompts further thinking on the task force as we work on this vision,” she said.

Liegel piggybacked O’Hara’s statement, and said the task force must consider the whole region and how it wants to fit the center into that. He said if the borough succeeds at taking everything away from one theater, it hasn’t done anything for itself.

Henry O’Hara said the idea of the center has to be sold to people beyond the borough.

“If it’s a $3 million project to actually create a nice facility, the idea is who is going to pay that and it’s not necessarily strictly a borough burden,” he said. “If it can be presented as a capital campaign beyond the borough that people beyond can contribute, you can make it happen.”

Betsy Falk, of Theatre and Kids in Lansdale, mentioned how people not from the area are shocked at how many people come out to support Lansdale and how many are interested in making Lansdale something bigger.

“Getting acts in and others from Philadelphia at-large is a great idea,” she said. “It’s very important to also look at what is available in the area. It’s important to keep a local tie. The passion people have for the talent in the borough can be put into the performing arts center.”

Candance Masucci was a former harp teacher at the old performing arts center. She is originally from Philadelphia, and came into Lansdale because she heard about the arts center. She also married her husband Tom, whose family is from the area.

“I moved here and I’m just very excited and I hope in the next couple of years there is a space for me to bring all of my business here. I really do believe this is a great place,” she said.

Former councilman Al Rieck said it doesn’t matter what the building becomes, as long as it becomes the focal point of the downtown area.

“Redoing streetscapes, new trees, new curbing, new effects, that in of itself doesn’t revitalize the downtown. If it had, we would not be sitting here; we did that 25 years ago and it wasn’t enough,” he said. “We’ve got to have a focal point that’s going to bring in business and bring in the people. It doesn’t help when people come in once and say, ‘That was nice’ and not come back.”

He said the borough could lose out and revert back to where it was if the center doesn’t come to fruition in the next couple of years.

“Failure is not an option,” he said.

Water Elemental Gallery co-owner Aaron Wiener said his type of business is low-cost, high-impact and unusual; it’s a place people don’t find elsewhere.

“We need to think of ways to give something for (high school artists and local artists) to do to get involved with the project,” he said.

Royale compared the potential of the center to what his church youth group did for him as a child: it gave him the opportunity to be impacted and provide a place for positive experiences.

“One vision I have is it will become self-sufficient. It has a large impact as far as experiences of being able to go to a community theater, or a place to participate in arts,” he said. “It has minimal tax impact on the residents of the borough.”

He said the borough must sustain the building through the programs in the building, so that it doesn’t become a burden on the people. The community has to buy in; the residents, businesspeople and citizens have to see that borough is sticking its neck out for them, so that they want to support the center.

“That way, we are making this the most productive use of a facility as we can,” he said. “You are putting money out to do this. Let’s make the investment worthwhile.”

What Would You Like to See at the 311 W. Main Street Building? Tell us in the comments!

Tony Di Domizio November 04, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Let's get a discussion going: I'd love to see a small two-screen movie theater. You could combine an auditorium to have a movie screen/performance stage. I believe there's a projector in there already. You could have a ticket office storefront. I love the idea of a multipurpose area in the front of the building, and even classrooms for music and art classes.
Steven Long November 04, 2011 at 07:35 PM
More than likely, I'd would not be financially feasible in this area, based upon real estate values and real estate taxes.
Leif Skoogfors November 05, 2011 at 11:13 AM
311 Can't be everything for everyone. It requires sharp focus and intensive research to fit the community. A local theatre or musical venue may not be able to draw the quality shows that would bring folks here. Lansdale, in my four years here, builds big expectations for renewal, but falls short. Perhaps interesting a community college or state university into making it an extension is possible. Rehashed community plays, puppet shows and cappuccino bars won't pay the bills. State funding, unavailable in today's climate, won't help. The Bryn Mawr Film Institute is an example of a a place filling a unique need and education and theatre experience. Its 10 million budget covered by a combination of strong community and arts support. Unless a unique need, as opposed to a wish, is found. Sell it and move on.

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