I attended last week’s 311 Task Force meeting regarding the future of the building and the future of the arts in Lansdale. After listening to the Task Force’s comments, reading the final business plan from AMS Consultants, reading the Reporter’s article “Lansdale Task Force hones in on recommendation” and Lansdale-Montgomeryville Patch’s article “Early Task Force Opinions Go Against the Recommendation of the Consultant”, I have made this observation and conclusion: the discussion continues to revolve about the building and not about the arts.
The Borough bought the building in 2004 because it was afraid of the wrecking ball which had taken so many other historic buildings in town. This was certainly admirable, but a little naive because, as we have seen, there was the indigestion of running the arts center after we swallowed the building. Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself here. Last Thursday night at the 311 Task Force meeting there was talk about construction costs and historically low interest rates and if the building sits vacant a cancer will grow around it– a desparate plea to do something with the building. These are almost the exact same themes that we heard in 2004.
As part of my research, I have carefully gone through the AMS Business Plan, done a little follow-up research on my own by calling the Executive Directors of AMS’s comparison studies and re-read the Task Force Committee meeting minutes. AMS lists only eight local arts organizations interested in a potential arts center with one of the eight on the fence. Two others– Saint John’s Church and the Boys and Girls Club– are not arts organizations, but rather a religious institution and a social service organization which also happen to promote the arts in their programming. While a venue would be nice, I don’t believe that the rental revenue derived from these eight organizations will be nearly significant enough to support spending $4 million. AMS also indicated this in their report.
AMS lists four communities with arts/community Centers that are comparable to Lansdale. I called each one and spoke to their Executive Directors, and asked a few questions of each of them. Each conversation provided interesting results. The Colonial Theater in Phoenixville has received almost no money from the public other than $150,000 from the County for an elevator and $200,000 from the State. This was also the case at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River, Oregon where two arts organizations pooled their resources, secured a few major donors and bought a building to become their arts center. Of note, is the fact that Hood River is typical of the West in that it is the only significant municipality within a radius of 40 miles and therefore, it has a virtual monopoly on arts and entertainment. The Firehouse Theater in Newbury, Massachusetts is also primarily, privately funded however, there was a small State grant for its initial start up. For comparison purposes the average family income for Newbury is $103,000 whereas the family income for Lansdale is $54,000 and $72,000 for Doylestown. Onto the Chaska Community Center in Chaska, Minnesota. The Chaska Community Center is a 200,000 square foot center (311 West Main Street is 22,000 square feet) that is almost entirely funded by the Chaska local government. It offers everything from daycare to swimming lessons to theater to dance to athletics to an ice skating rink to senior activities– almost like a YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, drama club and senior center all wrapped into one. In the examples above, the arts centers in Newbury, Hood River and Phoenixville are mostly privately funded whereas the community center in Chaska is publicly funded. As the reader can grasp from the above, there are many different considerations to investigate before committing another $4 million to 311 West Main Street.
“Do the project now before the political climate changes” is one argument I’ve heard. In 2003, there was a feasibility study done by EMC Arts out of New York City; in 2004, the Borough bought the building; in November 2008 the Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts opened; in February 2009 an Executive Director was hired; in April 2009 the first fundraiser was held which lost money; in December 2009, the President of the Board of the LCPA asked for a $75,000 bridge loan for the LCPA; in November 2009 a new Council is elected; in April of 2010 the Executive Director is let go and the building is shut down; in September 2012 the new Council decides to spend another $4 million to rehab the facility; in November 2013 there is an election… My point here is that just because one Council approves a project doesn’t mean that that same project can’t be stopped dead in its tracks by another Council as we have seen with 311 West Main Street. This is even more of a reason to flesh out every detail possible so that the basis for committing to the project or not committing to the project is crystal clear from both ends of the political spectrum.
Most of us want the arts downtown. This is an undeniable fact. The issue is– and I have stated this before in a previous blog– whether or not the public should foot the entire bill. The arts are subjective unlike roads or electricity which are essential to our daily lives. One could argue that we need art; I would argue that I need art to survive. I need Beethoven and Oscar Peterson, Dvorak and Kreisler, Matisse and Klimt, Vuillard and Sargent on a daily basis. Yet are they essential to my neighbor and should he or she pay for my tastes in art?
And one final, fundamental question to be posed: Was the previous Council’s decision to buy 311 West Main Street and turn it into an Arts Center in 2004 a good one? If the answer is ‘yes’ it was a good idea, BUT it failed because there wasn’t a viable business plan then we are in exactly the same position we were in eight years ago. Where is the new business plan if we are rejecting the plan provided by AMS Consultants? Furthermore it doesn’t matter if this project is to be completed in one phase, two phases or three phases, this project needs a viable business plan.
If the answer to the above question is ‘no’ and buying 311 West Main Street was a mistake, then the argument to continue with the project because “we have already invested $4 million into the building” is not valid because what is worse, $4 million wasted or $8 or 9 million wasted?
The prevailing sentiment gleened from the meeting last Thursday was that the Borough should reject AMS Consultant’s recommendation and Montgomery County Planning Commission Representative, Brian O’Leary’s recommendation of a phased approach and push forward with a single phase, “rehabilitate it all at once” approach. Part of their rationale was that a phased approach didn’t work. This begs the question, “Why did the Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts fail?” Was it because of the phased approach? Or was it because of the former executive director? Or was it because of the Board? Or was it because the LCPA was open for less than a year and a half? Or was it the economic meltdown in October 2008 only a month before it opened that spooked donors? The problem is we don’t know exactly why it failed and to assign any one cause is a bit simplistic. And moving forward, I see the following issues that need to be addressed: the Borough doesn’t want to be in the business of running a theater, but an executive director will need time and a contract to build an audience and revenue, but how much time is appropriate? five years? seven years? ten years? I have also heard that five hundred seat theaters don’t make money, so how much money is the Borough willing to subsidize each year? Or to take the single phase approach to the extreme, should the Borough build a thousand seat theater with the possibility of being profitable?
Some may call me a pessimist, but these are some of the difficult questions that I believe need to be answered before moving forward. I love the arts. I love the idea of an arts center, but to press forward and spend money on a building without a plan for the arts is foolish as we have all seen. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.