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Councilmembers, Residents Mixed on 311 W. Main Recommendation

Residents and councilmembers debated with the 311 W. Main Task Force last week on their recommendation of a full renovation of the former arts center. Their biggest gripe: What's it going to cost to operate the center?

The 311 W. Main Task Force voted 8-1-2 last Tuesday to recommend a full renovation of the former Masonic Temple into an arts and cultural center.

In its recommendation, the task force defended its vote with two reasons: it will show to investors that Lansdale is willing to make a commitment toward its future and the economic development of the town, and it will avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, where phased development and mismanagement caused the initial detriment of the building.

However, certain councilpeople, dignitaries and residents offered their insights into the vote, as well as support or objection of the task force's recommendation.

One outspoken audience member Tuesday night was Lansdale Borough Council Vice President Paul Clemente.

Clemente thanked the task force for its time, effort and energy through the whole process. He admitted to not reading the study, but acknowledged the intrinsic value of making an investment into a cultural facility.

He broke down the $4,485,576 originally invested into the building: $450,000 to purchase it; $976,280 from a Montgomery County grant; $500,000 from a state grant; $58,000 from a Department of Community and Economic Development grant; and $2,501,296 from borough taxpayers. Should the borough not keep the building an arts center, it would ultimately have to return all grant money back to the issuers.

Clemente said Spiezle Architects had already told the task force it would cost $4 million to get the building up to code and into a functional community multiuse facility.

"We haven't discussed what it's going to cost operationally," he said. "While I acknowledge certain investments we can decide to make that improve the quality of life and enhance living in the borough, does anybody know whether this is going to be self functional and profitable? If cant be profitable, who will fund it indefinitely?"

Clemente also mentioned the millions in dollars in investment the borough will have to soon make on its borough hall and other facilities for renovations and upgrades

He also criticized the CreativeMontco cultural and arts surveys where 2,000 were surveyed out of 800,000 county residents, and the same for the AMS Planning survey where 300 respondents out of 17,000 borough residents answered a survey on the arts center. 

Clemente was told by task force member and councilman Denton Burnell that both numbers were a good collection of respondents.

"Let's assume you put $4 million into the building, what will it cost to run it? What is the sliding slope? The significant operational commitment? What's that look like?" Clemente said. "I don’t want to leave a legacy of throwing good money after bad."

Task force member Dawn Harvey told Clemente it takes nonprofits years to get sales comparable to 50 percent of revenue, while the other half comes from fundraising through private donations and state grants. 

"Ongoing fundraising for a nonprofit is completely normal and that shouldn't be a concern," Harvey said.  

Ex-officio task force member Nancy DeLucia, of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Creative Montco, said AMS Planning's business plan includes guidance for operation of the building for the first few years.

Clemente then asked what the consquences would be if fundraising activities don't amount to the recommendation in the business plan.

Borough Manager Timi Kirchner said the borough has to invest money in order to make money.

"If we don't take risks, nothing will ever happen," she said. "When you talk about making an investment in the building, you can't look at what that operation itself is asking, but you have to look at everything else going on around it. That is reflected in the Creative Montco and cultural alliance report: the millions that can be brought in as a result of having a strong destination."

The arts center, she said, could be used as a marketing package to show investors the Lansdale has a strong interest in its major developments.

"If we expect them to invest, they need to see we are willing to invest in ourselves," Kirchner said. 

Clemente said council's approval of the plan means the borough is giving a "blank check."

Councilwoman and task force member Mary Fuller, who also chairs nonprofit Discover Lansdale, said the recommendation is a point of positive.

"I liken it to what Discover Lansdale had done. With a promise of commitment from the borough, and with the stipulation for the business community to step forward, we found out not only did they step forward with the commitment they were asked for, but they doubled it," she said. "If we put those goals in place, or stipulations in place, with this, I'm confident the same thing can happen." 

Burnell said the issue comes down to shared risk and shared support.

"We are not deciding whether council should vote for 75 percent of ($4 million) or 51 percent of that. We are not stipulating that here," he said. "I think we all have to step back and realize this facility may never be profitable."

He said it's about investing in the community and believing in the community.

"If the borough has to spend $50,000 a year to keep this place open, I'll sign up for that right now," Burnell said.

Clemente said it wasn't the original goal of the original plan to fail — and then he took his seat with frustration. 

"The original plan was poorly conceived," Burnell told Clemente. "Our goal is to diminish our support."

Resident Richard Strahm accented various newspapers reports and borough events that emphasize a "multibillion dollar impact" on the arts in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lansdale. First Friday, he said, has a big draw in the arts and music. The same goes for the Lansdale Farmers' Market with the Liberty Belles and the recent Oktoberfest with German music and cultural dancing.

"It's important (that councilmembers in attendance) listen to what the task force says and vote appropriately for what is good for our community," Strahm said. "This arts center could be the keystone of downtown Main Street and of economic revitalization for our community."

Mayor Andy Szekely has been an outspoken proponent for phased development of the arts center. 

He warned there needs to be a limit on how much the arts center will bleed money.

"This is government, and politics can get nasty every two years. What needs to be in place is a rock solid business plan that Republicans, Democrats and even skeptics can say 'That makes sense.' I'm not saying don't invest the money. The public needs to know how much is it going to lose money," Szekely said.

Szekely said the arts center under the previous administration was only open one year, and asked what the reason was then for its failure. 

He also remembered in December 2009 when North Penn Council for the Arts Chairman Bob Kerns came in requesting a $75,000 bridge loan from the borough; Councilman and task force chairman Mike Sobel, who was a resident at the time, stood up and said the borough couldn't afford that because it were bad economic times, Szekely said.

"That was $75,000 in 2009. Now, we're talking about $4 million plus operating expenses to the tune of maybe $600,000," he said. "Again, to play devil's advocate, make sure council comes up with the best business plan possible, or we risk falling on our faces with $10 million invested in this."

Fuller said the $4 million includes $500,000 to fix what should have been done in the very beginning.

"That's money that shouldn't have to be spent, but it has to because it was not done right the first time," she said.

Task force vice chairman Charles Booz, owner of Chantilly Floral Boutique, said the investment means an opportunity of learning what was done in the past. 

"We can't learn much if it was only open a year," Szekely said.

"Oh, but you can," said Booz. "You can look at it and say it didn't work because it didn't open up to Main Street. How can it be accenting and helping business on Main Street if there's no direct access to it?"

Booz said there was no connection between previous managment and the business and arts. Through Discover Lansdale, the nonprofit has been able to bridge those gaps. The investment, he said, is going to be significant.

"Yes, it's going to be a stress on the board. Yes, it's going to be a challenge. The alternative is if we do nothing, it is a potential blight. That scares the life out of me," Booz said. "Four million now is the cheapest time to get it. Five years from now, $4 million will be $12 million."

"We don't know that," said Szekely. "An executive director has to rebuild the reputation and would want a long-term contract. You enter that vicious cycle of, if you offer a long-term contract and are not producing, what happens then?"

Kirchner said it will not be an easy venture, but doing nothing is the more fearful issue.

"We are willing to commit to an initial investment that has to be done for this community," she said.

Former Manna on Main Street Executive Director Tom Allebach said he has concerns about the financials of the center.

"Coming from the nonprofit world, I have some idea of what that's about. There will be a point in time where you will have invested this much, and ask how much more can we put into this? What's the impact on the community in that respect? I think we all want this because we know what good it can bring. At the same time, let's have a sound business plan. I hope we get to that piece sooner than as things develop."

Resident Al Rieck said there are two costs involved for not doing the renovations: one is paying back about $1 million in grants and having nothing to show for it, and a second are ancillary costs.

"We have had plenty of evidence of all these businesses who are interested in the borough, or have stayed in the borough, or have come to the borough because they thought of the performing arts center as an anchor," Rieck said. "If nice trees and fancy sidewalks and pretty streetlights was enough to revitalize the town, this town would have been revitalized 25 years ago. There's a lot to be considered."

Rieck said the recommendation isn't an endpoint, but a beginning point.

"It's up to council to decide to go forward or not. The devil's always in the details," he said. "You either play to win or play to lose. A team that wins plays to win. Doing it all at once is playing to win. Incrementally is playing to lose, and that's worse than not playing at all." 

Resident Ray Liberto noticed how task force members with arts backgrounds recommended a phased approach, and everyone else without an arts background recommended a complete renovation.

"Sometimes you win the game in four quarters, and sometimes it takes overtime," Liberto said. "(Task force member) Lindsay (Schweriner)'s opinion is valuable. Let's not rush to say it has to be all at once. With their background, phased is better."

Booz said the public is funny when it comes to posting a sign that says, for instance, "Closed for Renovations." He said such a sign was posted at Chantilly Floral and he had customers coming in because they thought it was going out of business.

"Once you get that out there, that's it. It affects fundraising and everything in the operation. As soon as you have to start explaining to people, you're in trouble," Booz said.

Szekely said he strongly disagreed, and Booz said they have to agree to disagree.

"If you start grassroots and get that following, if you close because you are expanding, that's going to be a good thing," he said.

Harvey, who was initially for a phased approach but voted for full renovation, said there was a discussion in a previous meeting on using empty storefronts as black box theatres to put on performances while renovations are completed. A buzz starts, she said, and those performances and followings can be moved into the building. 

Schweriner said her concern falls on the borough getting over its head again.

"I think the code violations can be fixed. I think small yet successful self-sustaining programs can be implemented. You are gaining interest, and gaining trust and getting people to donate money," she said. "I want the community to know we are doing this right the second time around, and we're hellbent on not making the same mistakes."

Task force member Robert Willi said he supported the renovations all at once.

"It shows we're involved and we want to succeed," he said. 

Schweriner said the borough cannot predict what anyone is going to do.

Resident Dave Lynn said he had mixed emotions on the renovations, but wanted to know one major thing — how much is it going to cost the taxpayer.

"I want to see specific numbers," he said. "There's a lot of work. It's great you want to do something, but how much will it affect me, and thank you for not raising taxes."

Drew Stockmal October 15, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Man, I hope this works out. This town could really use a functioning arts/entertainment center. I'm going to sound like a Republ. when I say this, but I get very worried when government tries to involve itself in activities outside its core responsibility. Why are we better prepared now as a Borough to run an Arts Center than we were a few years back? We need to know one simple question: "how much?" Truly. We're starting at $4M. Operationally we may need another couple million for the first few years (minimum). With 6 thousand or so households in the Borough, we're asking each household to contribute roughly $1,000 on this center. I'd be willing to write that check myself but I can't imagine we'd find a majority of L'dale households that would agree to that--especially right now. And community arts centers seldom are revenue generating...ever. Arts usually rely on ongoing public financial investment. This is a HUGE leap of faith. I hope it works out. I, at least applaud Mr. Clemente for asking everyone to take a deep breath and give this one a really close look.
Drew Stockmal October 15, 2012 at 09:43 PM
..and put me in the category that states that we don't necessarily need an Arts Center to promote arts and events downtown. Do a google image search of the Piazza at Schmidt's in Philly to see the possibilities of an multi-use outdoor venue for town events, concerts, specialty events, etc. I doubt something like that would carry a $4M price tag. With the development of the Madison lot, could we not look for a collaborative design that could integrate something similar? It's proximity to regional rail, could make it a home run, if we are looking for visitors to come downtown. I concede that we need some sort of anchor area down there, but not sure of the $6M-$8M investment is prudent. I guess time will tell.

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