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First the Consultant, Then the Money

The 311 W. Main Task Force is relying on an arts and entertainment consultant to guide them toward fundraising to cover the $3.4 million cost of fixing the former arts center

The words “money” or “funding” won’t show up on the 311 W. Main Task Force agenda until an arts and entertainment consultant is hired to steer them in the right direction.

“We want to seek professional help from a professional group that does this,” said chairman Mike Sobel at the Feb. 7 meeting. “We want to do it once, do it right and get it done right. Failure is not an option.”

Director Carl Saldutti said the borough would be interviewing three consultants this week. It would be the second round of interviews, as respondents from the first Request for Proposals didn’t live up to what the task force was looking for in a consultant.

He said eight proposals were submitted, and task force members ranked each submission. From there, they were submitted to the borough for compilation.

The task force steering committee met on Jan. 31 to look at the rankings and evaluations. Based on that, three consulting firms were invited in for interviews.

“Our hope is by the March meeting of this group, the steering committee will be in a position to make a recommendation to hire a consultant,” Saldutti said.

At the meeting, Scott Malin of Spiezle Architects once again presented options on what could be done inside the building over all three floors.

One option was to renovate the lower level and main floors of the center, leaving the top floor to be renovated in a future phase.

This strategy would cut about $1 million off the initial $3.44 million price tag to completely renovate and bring the building up to code.

“If you are going to find a way to reduce costs, or break the project up into two stages, it became very logical to say that maybe the second floor is the piece you don’t do right away,” Malin said. “You have to do the main floor level for a variety of reasons and you will have to do code upgrades elsewhere in the building to make the entire building safe. You don’t have to renovate the full auditorium on the second floor until you’re ready.”

In addition to renovating the Main Street façade, Malin recommended constructing a hall that could fit 150 people, a portable stage and an office on the lower level.

The first floor would include a multi-purpose theater that could fit 170 people, as well as space for green rooms and a separate entrance for performers.

“If the theater doesn’t work with the backup spaces to support it, then it’s not going to be a proper theater. Those fixes will get you two floor levels out of three, very usable space within the building. You could have potentially two highly-used performance spaces throughout the building,” Malin said.

The unfinished upper floor could be used as storage, office space or a meeting area for small groups. Due to one staircase accessing the upper floor – and no elevator – the room would only be able to accommodate legally 49 people.

“We are limited to no more than 49 occupants on that floor level because we have one stair tower that serves it. The other stair is across the roof, so you have an emergency way out, but it’s not code compliant,” Malin said. “We don’t want to spend a lot of money up here. We want to do bare minimum code upgrades, clean it up and use it for support-type functions.”

Task force member Lindsay Schweriner said the hard costs do not factor in operating costs.

“It’s a big thing – you can’t build it and have no one to run it and not pay them,” she said. “At some point, we should maybe find a number above $2.44 million. The minimum is not that number; the minimum is what it’s going to cost to build it and staff it and the utilities.”

Borough Manager Timi Kirchner said the consultant will be able to lead the task force through the process to determine what is sustainable, and the consultant will work with the architect to provide the numbers.

Theatre and Kids owner Will Liegel said the concept plan presented Feb. 9 addressed every problem in the practical use of the building that was there.

Task force member Doug Pett agreed – the concept does address a lot of the issues, although it is an example only.

“We can’t do anything until we get the consultant on board,” Pett said. “The consultant is going to be the person to guide us and tell us does this make sense? Feasibility-wise, operationally, they are going to give us proposals and detailed reports on what makes sense. A business plan is what we’re looking to get from the consultants. This may not work; it may work.”

Pett said the estimates went from $400,000 just for code compliance repairs to $2.4 million.

“I want to make it clear: you are using numbers that are off of square footage costs per types of construction. This is not a number set in stone: it could go up or down, and the reality is it would more than likely go down.”

Malin said the numbers could be used to compare the two ideas: $3.4 million to $2.4 million.

“Are those two numbers the real numbers? We don’t know that. I don’t want to be low,” he said. “I could be overstating the costs, but that’s where you want to be at the start.”

Council president Matt West waxed philosophical on the idea of a staged development. He said it would be OK from a fiscal standpoint to understand how $1 million by staging it in two phases reduced the potential cost.

“Often has been case with past developments in the town, when we have an opportunity to do something, and do something right, we don’t do that,” he said. “I’m concerned that if we don’t finish the project, it would also be perceived as ‘you didn’t do it right. What’s upstairs?’ It would churn negative responses to that from a public perception standpoint.”

West said that if you think of the staged approach as it relates to a construction process, does the borough want to invest in heavy construction on the upper floor while trying to continue functions on the first floor?

“Anybody ever been in heavy construction and trying to even do desk work? It’s impossible,” he said.

Sobel reiterated that nothing is etched in stone.

“We’re still in the information gathering. This is a projection of what it could be. We don’t know,” Sobel said.

Ex-officio member Nancy DeLucia, of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, said she was concerned about two floors of performance space and the idea of adding performance space on the third floor.

“You have to keep an open mind that, when you do hire the consultants, that it may be as you work through the process you have to think about the visual arts,” she said. “You have to think of an out-of-the-box creative use for the space.”

DeLucia said it would be great to have two theaters, each with its own programming.

“First, you have to be able to program one theater, and maybe something happening in the other space that’s generating income at other times of the day,” DeLucia said. “Keep an open mind about what this wonderful facility would be.”

Task force member Mary Fuller said the consultant might tell the group a better feasible solution for the building other than arts.

“We keep talking about some of the small things, like where the soundboard will go, where green rooms will be, when this may not even be that,” Fuller said.

Sobel said the ideas of a community center and a place to display art may not have been part of other concepts. He said those are other things to think of to include as well.

“That’s why we are seeking professional help from a consultant group to guide us,” Sobel said. “And we go from there.”

Task force member James Royale said it was his understanding that the task force was an informational board. It can spearhead the idea of RFPs and bringing someone aboard to give them information, so that the group can assess the information and make a suggestion to council.

“I don’t want anybody to think this board is going to go in the back room and decide we are going to throw $4 million at a building. That’s not why we’re here,” Royale said. “We’re here to guide through, so that way we can present to council this is what the guy we hired said we should do with the building, what do you think, and this is our opinion.”

Kirchner said the task force’s responsibility is to come up with a business plan.

“We will be presenting a conclusion to council, with a business plan that we’re saying is going to make the thing sustainable,” Kirchner said. “Part of that business plan could be 50 percent of the cost of this could be raised from private funds and this is how it’s done.”

Kirchner said the concepts of the building would be specific to the biz plan, but it is up to the task force to give a detailed recommendation to council and the community.

“If we do this job right, the community will be behind the idea we’re going to bring,” Kirchner said.

Pett said the task force would not look at just options A, B and C, but everything from A to Z.

“We need an informed decision,” Pett said. “What we’ve accomplished here tonight is getting everybody thinking outside the box.”

Councilman and liaison Denton Burnell piggybacked Pett’s comment on considering all options.

“If we are considering all options, and I know a lot had said this to me in private and otherwise, we should also be looking at, at least just the numbers, of starting over,” Burnell said. “We should at least answer that question. I want to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.”

Task force member Bob Willi said before anything is done, the borough needs money.

“That should be focused on first,” Willi said.

Sobel said that’s what the consultant will do with the business plan.

Fuller said you cannot get money without direction and what to do.

Willi said it dawned on him during discussions to find out where the money is going to come from to fund the project.

“I don’t want to see the borough putting more money into this. Sooner or later, it’s going to cost the residents tax wise,” he said. “I don’t want to be the person that sits here and says ‘Yeah, I helped raise your taxes.’”

Saldutti said to let the process take place.

“We went back with an RFP we were very sensitive to, and emphasized the needs to develop a business plan. We asked for several options on what might be feasible and sustainable at that location and put a business plan together to go with that,” he said. “That plan will include expenses, where your income is coming from, funding opportunities – all that stuff will be forthcoming.”

He said once a consultant gets on board, they would start moving along rather quickly and start taking form.

“Then we will know what we’re talking about with dollars and sense, and how we need to approach it and if more tax dollars will go into it,” Saldutti said.

West ended the meeting with a statement about not confusing fiscal responsibility with an unwillingness to invest.

“You can’t be fiscally responsible and be willing to invest. We’re at that point,” he said. “Get comfortable with the numbers. It will be a significant investment.”

West also called on the task force members to remember that they were selected due to their skill sets that lends to a unique perspective for the problem.

“The diversity of ideas is good. Accept it, embrace it,” he said. “On behalf of borough  council, we are excited about what you are going to recommend, not suggest.”

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