“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.

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One response to ““A Riddle of a Building…”

  1. Edward G Scheuring

    Good for you Andy….stick to your guns. I think Council made the right decision to sell with contingencies. Now let’s see if this provides the catalyst to get the Arts people off their Arss’s and make a move to continue or fold. I hope they continue and find a way to secure the building and their future…If they don’t, then all they have been doing is blowing smoke up everyones skirt – they would have been wrong for Lansdale to support.
    Thanks for your convictions and detail,
    Ed S

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