In the wake of an overwhelming, newfound estimation that the price tag to refurbish, repair and bring up to code 311 W. Main St. in Lansdale has nearly doubled to $7.8 million, coupled with the fact that a fundraising campaign for 311 Arts, the future proposed arts and cultural center in the heart of the borough to be operated out of the former Masonic Temple, would bring in a half-million dollars by 2018, Lansdale Borough’s Administration and Finance Committee is beginning to look at the possibility of separating the arts in the region from the physical building.
At Monday’s borough council work session, Administration and Finance Committee Chairman Denton Burnell reported that Schultz & Williams, the contracted firm whose job it was to investigate the feasibility of a capital campaign for 311 Arts, did their job, and determined what a capital campaign would achieve with the building plan and programming.
“They thought we could raise a half-million. What we heard from both (Schultz & Williams’ Shirley Trauger and 311 Arts consultant Laura Burnham) was this is not the time for a capital campaign,” Burnell said. “With the cost of the building accelerated to $7.5 million, and with very little of the original building that can be saved, I don’t think anyone up here is game for spending $7.5 million on the building.”
The concept of separating the abstract from the concrete came from council President Jason Van Dame, Burnell said.
He said Burnham has been directed to take 311 W. Main St. out of the equation and come up with a new proposal that separates it from the arts.
“She should focus her work on the arts and not on tying 311 Arts to that building. Take the building out of the equation … and responsibly look at what other options exist for that building and not tie the two together,” he said.
Since Schultz & Williams report did not produce sufficient results, Burnell firmly believed it was time to look at it as two different issues.
“There was a strong sentiment in the room (two weeks ago) that we continue to support the arts and I didn’t hear anyone say anything other than that,” Burnell said. “The point here is we are recommending to think about the building as a building, and not necessarily the home of 311 Arts.”
Van Dame said the borough has a responsibility to support the arts in the community.
“What we are dealing with, since the inception of the building (in 2004), is that, there is not a problem with the arts and there is ultimately a problem with the building and the way it currently sits,” Van Dame said. “It doesn’t function now. It’s going to cost a lot to do something with it. We can support arts in ways other than spending $7.5 million on a building.”
Kirchner said the building continues to cost Lansdale money for electric, heating and emergency systems.
Councilwoman Mary Fuller – who chairs nonprofit Discover Lansdale, which is the parent entity of 311 Arts – said she sort of got the issue, and sort of did not get the issue. She understood 311 W. Main St. is not off the table, but she did not know what it meant for the arts in town.
“If we separate any art-type movement from that building, what does that mean? Where does it go? Maybe it’s just too new of a concept to have a discussion,” Fuller said.
Van Dame said the picture for 311 W. Main St. may become clearer when the art community grows and develops in town.
“There could be a solution in the meantime, then you find a different building when it matures and ready to inhabit a building of that size,” he said. “Now, it just seems we are putting the cart before the horse. Let’s grow the product and find a home for it.”
Council Vice President Steve Malagari said he was once a proponent for the building. The report last month showed that a new approach makes sense.
“We’re not saying it’s off the table; 311 W. Main wouldn’t be the home to the arts. Look at other alternatives,” he said. “Building arts up … is a sound approach.”
Fuller worried what would happen when the state and county get wind that an arts movement is not happening in a building that it invested money in through grants.
Kirchner said 311 W. Main remains in the hands of Lansdale.
“This 800-pound gorilla is still there. The investments … are something to pay attention to. If not the arts center, then what would it look like? We can consider something different and not suffer (any downtown destination grants),” she said.
The Efforts of 311 Arts Consultant Laura Burnham
Van Dame said the borough can encourage 311 Arts to develop its board and even let them use the Wissahickon Park Building to meet, grow and develop in the meantime. Lansdale can assist in putting together a product for the community, such as at events and using storefronts at 311 W. Main as showcases for local artists.
“Does Laura need to steer that and help focus that grassroots effort?” Van Dame said.
Councilman Ray Liberto said Burnham, in one year, has not developed a solid business plan or targeted investors for 311 Arts.
Liberto could not see taxpayers footing the $60,000 annual bill for Burnham’s services anymore, especially when Administration and Finance is looking at the impact of raising taxes and sewer and electric rates to cover a potential $1.5 million shortfall in the budget.
“There were a lot of confident people in the arts to speak about how passionate they are. To say Laura needs to steer that …. Are all those people not artists of some sort? If we have a strong enough arts movement, it should fester and grow. It’s not something to tell taxpayers to support that financially and raise taxes on top of it. I can’t see it,” Liberto said.
Mayor Andy Szekely has always been a supporter of separating the arts from the building, and has even blogged in the past that the focus should be on the building, not the arts.
“If there is truly a desire for the arts,” he said, “someone will come and drive that on a volunteer basis. If we pay that person, in the form of Laura, then the commitment to the arts is only what we pay Laura Burnham,” he said.
One borough staff member strongly opposed to separating the arts from the building is Parks and Recreation Director Carl Saldutti. Saldutti also sits on the 311 Arts Board of Directors.
Saldutti confirmed that 311 W. Main was purchased to drive the downtown destination passion, and a lot of funding came in from the state and Montgomery County for support. In the end, it did not work and Lansdale picked up the pieces, he said, and moved forward.
The building, he said, is a key to the renaissance of an older borough like Lansdale.
“We do look toward successes. It does have a positive economic impact, if in fact, it is developed right and there is a sound business plan and sound program plan to that, and a fundraising plan,” Saldutti said. “That’s the pieces that the 311 board tried to put together under Laura’s leadership.”
It was not fair to even consider not paying Burnham, he said. As a 25-year director of the Abington Art Center, she developed grassroots support in the Abington area and has a “proven track record.” Burnham, he said, guides the 311 Arts board and works with the fundraising consultant to design a space to accommodate programming.
Saldutti agreed that the $7.5 million figure is disappointing, coupled with the fundraising goal being six percent of that figure.
“Nonetheless,” he said, “we have the building. Council invested money in the façade. If you drive down Main Street now and look at 311 Arts, it’s not an embarrassment. Although it’s dead inside, it’s not an embarrassment outside.”
The building is now grabbing the attention of the people. Lansdale needs to keep up that momentum.
“The 311 Arts board was established to take 311 W. Main and make it a destination and do that in form of an arts and cultural center,” Saldutti said. “I think the board’s hop is you continue to support that effort.”
Saldutti said in its initial 11-month lifespan, 311 W. Main sold out perhaps one show. He admitted he was not involved with the building and programming at that time.
Szekely argued with Saldutti that there needs to be radical change for arts to thrive in Lansdale. He pointed out there was “no one in the audience” to back up the efforts that have made venues like Sellersville Theater 1894, Montgomery Theater and the County Theater successes.
“Arts is subjective,” Szekely said. “The government needs to help – but to what extent? What we’ve seen here is a process going on 10 years, to the tune of close to $6 million. We still have no idea what arts we want, what the building should do, and I get infuriated the more I think about the path we are going down. Enough’s enough.”
Szekely said it was time to put the thing up for sale with deed restrictions.
Saldutti argued that the community has spoken on what it wants in the arts center: theater, music, educational programs and the like.
“There are people who believe in 311 Arts,” he said. “It would be irresponsible of 311 Arts not to look at alternate solutions or phases. They are committed to the building: that’s why the 311 Arts board was established to put that building to use.”
Liberto said the 311 W. Main Task Force wanted to “go all out” and now a vision is not lain out before him.
“If we hire someone to create a vision and go out and raise money … if they can’t get to the end point and have a light at the end of the tunnel to say, this is what we will give you in Lansdale … no one can say that,” Liberto said. “No one can say what it’s going to be or what we want it to be.”
Liberto criticized the 311 W. Main Task Force and Lansdale before for not heeding the advice and caveats from task force member Dawn Harvey, who recommended building a presence on Main Street, and not necessarily at 311 W. Main St.
“(She) dealt with nonprofits and she said ‘you should do phased’ and suggested black box theaters, and everybody ignored her and it was a boisterous go-all-out. Now, we realize we have to raise $500,000 and the $7.5 million doesn’t matter. Can anyone on the 311 board say in five years, this is where we are going to be and have faith we’ll be there?” Liberto said. “We are going without a vision.”
Liberto added that the initial opening of the Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts did not even sell out. Subsequent shows also failed to pack the house, he said.
“Everybody wants to see something there. At the end of the day, it’s what it’s going to cost us that’s a hurdle we can’t get over,” Liberto said. “The wall we are hitting is $500,000 in four years, and no matter what we do, we have to spend a lot of money to get there, and that’s money we don’t have.”
Fuller said the vision could develop over the next year with the work of the 311 Arts board.
“I see five, six people here in relation to 311 Arts,” she said.
“I’d say I see five, six against it also,” Szekely replied.
Fuller said the intentions and passions are there on the 311 Arts Board, but it is hard to grow a movement without a leader like Burnham.
“When you are looking at $7.5 million, which is next to impossible, I think the investment in Laura is a small ask for borough council to consider,” Fuller said.
Cut the Bait and Run?
The bigger question, Burnell posed, was what is going to help Main Street become a thriving destination for its businesses and visitors.
“Is it worth $60,000 to continue to have that conversation and to give Laura and the board the opportunity to build a sustainable program that is more grassroots? These are the facts. I think we are at the juncture where we need to start thinking about the building separately. To throw the baby out with the bathwater would be unfortunate,” Burnell said.
Councilman Leon Angelichio said the passionate arts community is asking someone else to foot the bill for a building.
“If we spend $7.5 million, that equates to $1,000 a household,” he said. “We have to think logically about this.”
Angelichio was disappointed that Burnham and Trauger’s report last month said nothing specific about investors.
“Not how many we needed, but who were they? Who had they secured to invest? What is the business plan? How can we attract an investor without telling them what the vision for the building is?” Angelichio said. “When I didn’t see that, I thought maybe I had the wrong expectation. The fact remains we must be held accountable for every penny that we spend.”
Angelichio said Lansdale should treat the arts and the building as two separate things that are not wholly dependent on one another.
“Do I feel we’ve gotten our dollars’ worth from Laura? No, I don’t feel that way,” he said. “The realization is we may have to have a different plan. Arts will survive without that building.”
During public comment, 311 Arts Board member Richard Strahm said Lansdale needs to invest in the arts. While the $7.5 million number is untenable, the price for Burnham is priceless.
“’People that like the arts should pay for it themselves and it should not be public money.’ If we said that about schools, pools, the library, the parks – that we invest public money in for public good – nobody would ever accept that. Why should we accept it for the arts?” Strahm said.
311 Arts Board member Bruce Schwartz said he and his wife had recently moved back to Lansdale after 30 years. Main Street, he said, is not the same anymore.
“We want to support the town, but it feels like we are pounding on someone’s chest, trying to give them resuscitation,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got to do something.”
Main Street, he said, has no center of gravity; there is nothing to bring people to town.
“You can’t go looking in the rearview. You have to look through the windshield and look for direction. You have to stand at one end of Main Street and look at the other end and think about what it should look like,” he said. “Then, take the first step to make the vision come true … Don’t’ cut bait and run.”
Resident Drew Stockmal commented that the arts do need to be supported by Lansdale. However, arts do not need to be tied to 311 W. Main St.
“Don’t cut the bait and say you will not support the arts. I don’t think any events in town require a building; they require a vision or an event interesting to people,” Stockmal said. “Please don’t’ go after a $7.5 million project. That’s a lot of money.”