The Future of 311 West Main Street

I posted on Facebook on Thursday that I would provide my solution to the “riddle of 311 West Main Street” in response to Bill Henning’s following comment:

Politics at it’s worst. Something as big and important as this should definitely have been on the agenda. Not doing so is SO irresponsible of our council people and mayor.

I suppose now it’ll sit vacant for years until it becomes just another eyesoreand lost Lansdale historical building, eventually the state will be looking for their 1.5m returned and yet another lost opportunity to bring people & new quality businesses in town.

For the sake of this town that I love so much, I hope I am proved wrong but currently I fail to see ANYTHING proposed to bring some heart & soul back into our downtown like the 311 arts would be able to do if all our leaders stood behind it and worked for the common goal rather than constantly put it down and be an impenetrable obstacle.

Unfortunately, it was the government that kept the building vacant for the past five years while it analyzed it to death at the cost of the tax payers– over $1 million since it was shuttered in 2010. Three consultants– AMS, Laura Burnham and Schultz & Williams– said different things while those interested in seeing the arts take off in Lansdale waited for government to be the answer. More time and the government will figure it out. Well, we saw how that worked.

Now onto the solution. In the three days since Wednesday night’s Council meeting, no less than four interested parties have come forth with four different ideas for 311 West Main Street. Now keep in mind this is preliminary, but each of these potential uses for the building will bring people into Borough and this is just the beginning. Imagine what other proposals will come in the weeks to come and what choices the Borough will have to foster growth on Main Street.

Furthermore, if the 311 Arts Board is seriously committed to the arts in Lansdale and securing the building for its venue, now is the time to put together a business plan and raise the money to buy 311 West Main Street. It will certainly be a few months before it actually goes up for sale giving the 311 Arts Board time to organize and fund raise. And the building most certainly won’t sell for the $5,000,000 the Borough put into it, so there you have the public money put into the project. Now, it’s time for the private money to come to the table.

There are residents that I will never please, and I have already been condemned by those who say that what I and others Council members did was underhanded. However, as an elected official I have to make difficult decisions and voting on ‘yes’ on the motion to sell 311 West Main Street is one decision about which I have no regrets.

 

 

The Next Step for the Arts in Lansdale

After Wednesday’s Lansdale Borough Council meeting, I believe the writing is on the wall for 311 West Main Street: after much discussion both in the Administration and Finance Committee and in Council Chambers the direction is now to separate the building located at 311 West Main Street from the arts. In other words, commitment to the arts does not necessarily mean commitment to the building. Finally, at least a little common sense.

However, now the current thrust of the administration is to extend Ms. Burnham’s contract (she is the current business manager advising the Borough on the arts for the past year and a half, and the amount of her next contract is undetermined) to manage the arts for us in Lansdale. The issue that I have with this blanket, open-ended desire to support the arts is where does the spending end and what metrics will be use to assess the effectiveness of this spending on the arts?

We currently have a few worthy arts organizations in town including the North Penn Arts Alliance and Theater and Kids and the Montgomery County Concert Band which have been in the area for an average of 20 years each. The question I have is how do we support these organizations? Does throwing more money at another bureaucratic entity help them or if we’re dolling out cash, why don’t we just write each of them a check? A question to consider is whether Laura Burnham and the newly created 311 Arts Board know how to better promote the arts than the organizations themselves?

In order for the commitment to the arts to be genuine, there needs to be a grassroots effort to raise the money. As Carl Saldutti mentioned in his speech to Council on Wednesday night, a venue for the arts in Lansdale may take years to achieve in Lansdale. The pressure is off to save 311 West Main Street. This episode of the arts is over in Lansdale.

If people in Lansdale want the arts, go to see a production of Theater and Kids, attend the North Penn Arts Alliance Winter Show at North Penn Art or their Spring Art Show at Elm Terrace Gardens. Check out Mike Mohamet Jazz at Round Guys Brewery every Wednesday night or the incredible Irish Sessions at Molly Maguires every second Sunday (they used to play every Sunday, but the sessions were poorly attended so they cut back to once a month). Go to the Tuba Christmas Concert.

Or better yet, support these already existing arts organizations by becoming a Board member or by contributing to them financially. I think they would appreciate this more than yet another Borough sponsored board meeting dedicated to “supporting the arts in Lansdale.” Go straight to the source of the art and make a real difference in the life of an artist or their organization. Do we really need government to do that for us?

Here are the websites for ways to support local art:

http://www.montcoband.org/

http://www.northpennarts.org/

http://roundguysbrewery.com/event/jazz-jam-with-mike-mahomet-and-the-band-11/

http://www.theatreandkids.org/contact.html

https://www.facebook.com/creepygirlscraftsandcurios

http://www.spso.info/mission.html

http://www.mollymaguireslansdale.com/our_events.php

“A Riddle of a Building…”

*Dear Reader, please keep in mind this blog post was written before Lansdale’s October 1, 2014 Council meeting. A follow-up blog post will be coming shortly.

“A riddle of a building…” These were the words of Shirley Trauger, the consultant from the firm of Schultz and Williams, to describe 311 West Main Street which is slated to become Lansdale’s destination arts center. As I have written in previous blog posts (January 2012,  September 2012 and August 2013) the discussion continues to revolve around the building and not around the arts.

The conclusion of Ms. Trauger’s presentation to Council on September 17th was that the viability of an arts center downtown is far from a reality. With an additional $7.5 million needed in renovations and Over $5 million already spent the Borough is no closer to understanding what an arts center should look like in 2014 than ten years ago in 2004. The reason for this is because of the drive to establish an arts center in Lansdale has come from the top down, e.g. bureaucrats, and not the bottom up, e.g. the artists, as successful arts centers have done.

Please allow me to elaborate: the Borough wanted to save an historic building from the wreaking ball in 2004, so it purchased the building with the intention of turning it into an arts center. The problem here was that there was no real demand for the arts center by the artists themselves. In every successful arts center that I have examined– including the Phoenix Village Arts Center, the Steel River Play House, the Montgomery Theater, the Colonial Theater, the Columbia Center for the Arts, the Doylestown, Ambler and Bryn Mawr Theaters, the Keswick, the Sellersville Theater– the birth of these organizations all came from the artists themselves or investors willing to possibly lose money.

Let’s look at the Montgomery Theater for example. The Montgomery Theater began as a group of actors wanting to put on plays for their friends, neighbors and local residents interested in acting. Tom Quinn– the driving force behind this organization– put blood, sweat and tears into making it a success without monetary remuneration. Eventually, it paid off and slowly over time, the organization grew until it gained the confidence of the community at which time there came some governmental support. The Quigleys who own the Sellersville Theater risked everything to make their theater a success. Again, growing slowly over time assured them of a loyal and dedicated following. The same holds true for the other arts centers listed above. There has always been that one person or group who has worked tirelessly without pay to ensure success. Plain and simple, Lansdale does not have this person or group. Instead, we have had to hire this person. I would ask these questions: would Laura Burnham be willing to work for free for years to ensure 311’s success? How much money has 311’s Board raised to date? How much money have the Board Members contributed themselves? The answer is nothing, because they are waiting to see what the Borough will contribute which is backwards thinking. Any monetary match from the government should come after there is a proven track record from the organization itself and not before.

For those who don’t know, I was a founding member of the art gallery, Water: Elemental Arts and Crafts, that opened up in Lansdale in 2011 and which, unfortunately, closed in 2013. It consisted of 10-12 member artists with specialties ranging from oil paintings to furniture making to glass making to jewelry making. We negotiated a favorable rent and each of us contributed approximately $50 per month to cover the rent and utilities. There was good press coverage in the beginning with articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Reporter. It worked for a while, but then slowly the artists dropped out of the cooperative and some new artists couldn’t afford the $50 monthly fee. Eventually expenses became more than income and the gallery members decided it wasn’t worth the investment, and they closed the doors. My point in mentioning this is that there weren’t even 12 people in Lansdale or the surrounding area to ante up $50 per month in order to support the gallery and their art! For a paltry $50 per month! And the business model was that the members commit two days a month manning the gallery and the gallery would take 30% of the members’ sales.

In the case of Lansdale’s arts center, the following has been spent on 311 West Main Street:

  • $500,000 for the building in 2004
  • $2,400,000 for renovations including the “Black Box” in the back from 2004-2008
  • $500,000 grant from then State Senator Rob Wonderling in 2008
  • $783,000 grant from Montgomery County in 2008
  • $75,000 for the Executive Director from 2008-2009
  • $30,000 for Code Violation report 2010
  • $53,000 for AMS Consultants
  • $38,000 for Laura Burnham
  • $70,000 for Schultz and Williams
  • $70,000 extension for Ms. Burnham’s contract for
  • $268,000 for the facade restoration
  • ??? for the architectural designs from Speizle & Associates
  • ??? unknown staff hours
  • $90,000 per year* 4 years (according to then Councilman Dunigan) for general repairs and HVAC

This gives us a grand total of $5,077,000 spent on a building that we still don’t know exactly what to do with– at least according to Schultz and William’s report. And according to preliminary estimates, another $7,500,000 is needed to make the building inhabitable for the artists. The grand total is then $12,577,000 for a structure that is 22,000 square feet. Furthermore, the fundraising capability of the community to support this project– according to our consultants– is a mere $500,000 over three years.

The numbers don’t lie. It’s time to admit our mistake and move on. It’s time to be honest with the artists in the region and the residents of the Borough. This project is simply not viable.

Vandalism in White’s Road Park

Walking with my five year old through White’s Road Park a few Sundays ago during a beautiful spring afternoon, we noticed some vandalism. “What’s that on the tree?” my daughter asked, “That’s the letter ‘A’ for Anna,” she claimed. “How did it get there?” Questions, questions. I proceeded to tell her that some people– especially teenagers– when they like each other very much carve their initials or their names in trees for everyone to see. “Why don’t you put our names on the trees?” A logical question from a five year old. I can imagine the headlines in the Reporter, “Lansdale mayor caught defacing Borough property”. As I looked at some of the dates and messages scrawled into the trees, I couldn’t help but smile. I lightly contemplated this destruction of Borough property and of these trees– which I am sure someone will criticize– but there is something stirring about this form of rebellion that is reminiscent of a simpler time.

Whites Road Park 023

It’s interesting to see how the inscriptions have become larger with the passage of time and the growth of the tree. Note the dates May 1 1976, 3-21-79, etc.

Whites Road Park 001

LH + DS

Whites Road Park 003

LH + DS on another tree

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Punam (I looked this one up and it is an Indian girl’s name which means Day of Full Moon. It’s also the title of 2006 documentary about a Nepalese girl.)

Whites Road Park 012

Holly Seipt

Whites Road Park 013

Steve + Christy

Whites Road Park 014

Angela + Sal.

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This is the ‘A’ that my daughter Anna noticed.

Whites Road Park 017

Lots going on this tree.

Whites Road Park 019

Erv loves Brit 8-14-05

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Antonio love Rosa 4 ever

Whites Road Park 022

JU + ELI 4.13.93

The (Administrative?) Arts Center in Lansdale…

Last night at our Council meeting, we were informed that the website for 311 West Main Street was up and running, so when I arrived home from the meeting I decided to check it out (http://311arts.org/). As I perused the site and the designs for the building (http://311arts.org/311-building-plans/), I was intrigued to see that the Fine Arts Studios were placed in the basement and that Staff Offices were placed on the third floor with arguably the best natural light in the building streaming in through massive windows facing west.

As a painter myself and as any painter who takes his or her craft seriously, painting in natural light is a necessity. Who designed these renovated plans for 311 West Main Street? Fine Arts Studios in the basement with no natural light and Staff Offices in the lightest, airiest location of the building? Does this make any sense? Unfortunately, this backwards design is representative and symbolic of the entire approach to this project. As I have written and debated ad nauseam, this project lacks the artists to drive it. Instead, it is being driven by novices and bureaucrats at the expense of the tax payer. This is yet another major design flaw in the building. No artist worth his or her brushes is going to want to paint in a basement.

Reading from the June 14, 2010 Reporter article about the flaws in the arts center, then Council President Matt West described how the soundproof rooms for music instruction were anything but soundproof. (Here is a link to the article: http://www.thereporteronline.com/article/20100614/NEWS/306149991). The point of this expose on the arts center was to show its deficiencies related to the artists themselves, and to emphasize that its design came from the architects without artistic input and from what looked good on paper. This is the problem when an idea comes NOT from the people who are going to use the facility but rather from those novices who THINK their ideas will be good for the artists.

Imagine taking a group of serious painters and showing them through the beautiful, sunlit administrative offices on the third floor and then pointing them to the basement where their inspiration can come from florescent bulbs. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

311cross section

Wilf Wilkinson

Wilf

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of dining with Wilf Wilkinson (here I am giving him a Lansdale cap). Mr. Wilkinson was the President of Rotary International from 2007-2008. For the non-Rotarian, his name might elicit a “Who’s he?” and for the average Rotarian like me, it might elicit a feigned interest of an “Oh, really?” However, upon talking to this distinguished and spry 82 year old Canadian, I was thoroughly awestruck by his energy, his travels and his meetings with Bill Gates (twice) who gave Rotary $255 million dollars to fight polio, Pervez Musharraf, then President of Pakistan where there are still a number of polio cases per year, both Pope John Paul II and Benedict and no less than 30 heads of States and Nations throughout the world– all in the name of service to others. And without a salary. In fact, all Rotarians are volunteers from the newly inducted all the way to the President of Rotary International. 1.2 million members worldwide giving their money and time for worthy causes. Grass roots, one Rotarian, one dollar at a time making a difference both locally and globally.

The Arts In Lansdale. Jazz at Round Guys Brewery.

I have written much about the arts in Lansdale–  mostly critical of tax payer dollars spent on the arts center. Here’s something a bit more positive about the arts (and it doesn’t cost the tax payer a cent unless of course, he or she buys a beer): Round Guys Brewery has fantastic jazz every Wednesday night courtesy of the Mike Mahomet Jazz Company. Having worked in a jazz bar (The Saloon on U Street) in Washington after college, the caliber of  Mike Mahomet’s Jazz Company is first rate. Comprised of seasoned jazz veterans, such those below in the photos, Lansdale is very lucky to have this art form. With the silky smooth melodies of 1920’s jazz tunes, Mike and his jazz cohorts play some of the best jazz standards from one of America’s finest art forms. And this all takes place in Lansdale at Round Guys Brewery on Wood Street.  Mike Mahomet jazz 008 Mike Mahomet jazz 013