Apr 29 2011

PCA Editorial: Creating a new Arts Center – the Devil is in the Details

A number of citizens appeared before the Piedmont City Council on April 18 to endorse the idea of having an arts center in Piedmont.  The Council was swept up in the new proposal and eager to turn over city property for $1 per year to a new group,  The Piedmont Center for the Arts, which is likely to acquire nonprofit status before the end of 2011.

On April 23 all homes in Piedmont received a letter from the group announcing itself and requesting that tax-deductible contributions be sent to its Center at 801 Magnolia Avenue.  A mailing processor was paid to manage the mailing on its permit and standard bulk rate mailing rates were paid.  Once certified as a nonprofit corporation, the arts group can acquire nonprofit mailing permit, saving money for equipment, art shows, children programs, possibly book reviews, community meetings, etc.

What will the program for the arts center be?  It would be nice to invite all Piedmont citizens to contribute ideas for arts activities and other uses for the publicly owned property. To inform citizens about the building, a public walk through might be included on some of the days City Staff provides access to the new group.  Plans for the “newer” portion of the building (the Sunday school rooms not part of the Arts lease) could be opened for community discussion as part of this process.

Is the enthusiasm for an arts center causing the City to skip over normal steps?  Since Zone B section 17.6.1 requires use of the building only by governmental or nonprofit entities  compatible with their surroundings, why not wait until a certified nonprofit organization has had the benefit of wide citizen input and put together a comprehensive proposal of use, fees, and time allocations to school and recreation programs known to benefit the community as a whole?  The arts center would be even more welcome after the community has been consulted and feels ownership of the idea.  Shall we slow down in order to have a better planned arts center and other uses for all portions of the City-owned property at 801 Magnolia Ave?

The terms of the lease require careful thought. Improvements will be accomplished through community donations and/or community fees, while the lease requires the City to pay the group for costs not amortized at termination.  Water, sewer, garbage, landscape and sidewalk maintenance will be provided by the City.

A long-term lease was required by the Swim Club in order to operate on a public/private basis, but it was a known program that had been developed and operated for almost 50 years.  In the case of the Arts Center, a long-term lease is proposed without knowing the particulars. What Arts Administration expertise and credentials does the group have to run it in a professional manner, a past prerequisite for City owned public benefit property?  While everyone anticipates the facility will enhance our community in many ways, it seems prudent to ensure the Council retains ultimate control over fees and use.

If the arts program is as successful as all hope and anticipate, it could generate significant revenues. These revenues would appropriately be shared with the community by keeping fees as low as possible for residents and providing free use to certain community groups, as the pool did.

In speaking before the Piedmont City Council on April 18, one Art Center Board member and founder confirmed:  “We want this to be used. Our pricing structure for using it is geared toward being always used.” Although this represents a strong commitment to maximizing use, the lease is missing any provisions to keep fees as low as possible, revenue-share with the City, or ensure ongoing reporting and oversight by the City Council of this newest public-private partnership in our town.

Undergrounding problems, the costs of the pool takeover, and the recent League of Women Task Force Report have made citizens more aware and attentive to the potential costs and risks presented from insufficient information and incomplete processes.  The City needs lease provisions which enable appropriate oversight of use, revenue-sharing, fees, and maintenance, while relying on this dedicated volunteer group of arts supporters to manage the facility at great cost savings to the community.

Detail:  Zone B (government zone) requirements per City Code: 17.6.1: Intent.  Zone B is established to regulate and control development of public facilities which are compatible with the character of existing and proposed surrounding uses. (Ord. No. 488 N.S., 10/87)  City Building, Veterans’ Building, or other public agency building, and accessory structures located on the same lot of parcel, for use by governmental entities or other nonprofit entities as allowed by the City.”  (Emphasis added.)

The Council is scheduled at the May 2 Council meeting to take final action on the ordinance approving a lease.

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