Ever since the city council broached the subject of selling off city-owned properties to address the financial strain it’s going through, and which will likely get clearer as the city adjusts to budget trends, the local arts community has been rallying its troops to help ensure that one option is not pursued – the loss of the Visual Arts Center (VAC) atop the Nye Beach turnaround.
Built with city redevelopment funds, a fancy term for local property taxes within a certain area, the VAC, along with the Performing Arts Center, have undeniably been the twin chambers of the heart and soul of the area’s artistic energy and creativity.
However, buildings get old and maintenance costs show no signs of abating on both buildings – the PAC just recently got a new roof. Costly repairs and upgrades are pending for the VAC. Meanwhile the elephant in the room, city sewer and water lines, after decades of neglect, are failing all over town, and are competing for more and more city funds during the worst recession in 85 years. Public Works Director Tim Gross has said clearly and often that the community, with barely 10,000 residents, must invest at least a million dollars a year in sewer and water line replacement if the systems are to continue functioning reliably.
In response, the city council has ordered Community Development Director Derrick Tokos to create a list of all city-owned properties for possible sale. The Visual Arts Center has a high profile because it is located in a high value area with panoramic beach views and easy public access – and could be liquidated quickly.
Over the past five years city councilors across the country have faced the perennial issue of how many programs should the city council extend to the community when they find themselves unable to fund and maintain basic services such as sewer and water. Or adequate police and fire services, for that matter. The national news media is rife with stories about libraries shutting down and recreation programs being parted out to local non-profits and/or local businesses.
It’s against this backdrop that the council will engage Visual Art Center supporters October 7th who will no doubt encourage, if not demand, that city councilors find a way to preserve the VAC. From what individual councilors have been saying over the past week, in response from an uproar from VAC backers, there are no “imminent” plans to dispose of any particular piece of city property but that each one will be carefully evaluated as to the advisability of liquidating any of them. But to be sure, the VAC has been mentioned by councilors as a high profile candidate in that its sale proceeds could fund two years worth of vital sewer and/or water line replacements that many Newport neighborhoods need and whose residents cannot afford proposed substantial increases in sewer and water rates. Of course there are many other scenarios that will be pursued over time including grant funding, municipal loans or property tax overrides. But as Public Works Director Tim Gross has said often, grants are getting harder to come by which puts pressure on the city to float bonds, take out loans both of which must be paid back, or increase property taxes which the voters cannot be relied upon to pass, to say the very least.
On the other side of the accountability line, it should be noted that the executive director of the Lincoln City Cultural Arts Center found the funding for a new roof for their rather large building (the old DeLake School), along with other upgrades by applying for grants from arts-supporting private foundations. The grants funded the entire job except for a small amount that the city council happily handed over to the director with their compliments – and the city still owns the building. In Newport, the recent re-roofing of the Performing Arts Center was funded entirely with city funds via its urban renewal program. The city is also helping to fund a much heralded sound system and acoustic treatment upgrade for the PAC which, when completed, will not be inexpensive either.
In short, there is never an end to philosophical discussions as to which services that cities and counties should provide; at what cost and who pays for them. The October 7th Newport City Council meeting will no doubt to be a lively one.
Note: Clarification in the 2nd to last paragraph. Performing Arts Center booster Mark McConnell has told News Lincoln County that although city funds have been used for the sound system upgrade, those funds are being used as a match, to work in tandem with other funding, that will go toward paying for the $150,000 system. He did not indicate what the total amount will be that the city will be paying into the system. He also indicates that no money has been spent ‘as yet’ for the acoustic upgrades.
In short, it is obvious that city taxpayers are still being requested to continue providing substantial funds for maintenance and upgrades to two very expensive buildings. Whether that is a good or even wise city-wide policy, in light of other major budget pressures and constraints, remains a very important topic of discussion.