Well over 100 Visual Arts Center (VAC) supporters jammed the Newport City Council Chambers Monday night to tell the council, that under no conditions do they want the VAC sold – that the VAC is entirely too important to the community to be sold to help the city hobble through a difficult financial period.
Some members of the council raised the issue of a VAC sale a number of weeks ago as a band-aid to help the city meet some tough challenges ahead, including replacing the town’s decaying sewer and water pipe systems. However, the suggestion was framed within the context that the VAC would be considered along with a number of other city-owned properties that it no longer absolutely needs. There was never any talk of an imminent sale, according to Mayor Sandra Roumagoux and other councilors. It was just up for discussion.
However, well over an hour of public testimony drove home the point Monday night that the VAC is part of the heart and soul of Newport – that the town would not be the same without it, or the Performing Arts Center for that matter.
The VAC was built during the urban renewal days of the 1980’s when Nye Beach, then dubbed “poverty gulch,” was transformed into what it is today, a charming and human scale cluster of art shops, restaurants, wine bars, gift and book stores.
One by one VAC supporters showed the council their heartfelt love for the VAC for what it has done to improve their lives and to give their artistic talents a voice, but also for how it is very substantially plugged into and networked with the arts community, both local and regional. Others said the area has many commercial art galleries but that there remains the unmet need for young, and not so young, budding artists who deserve to have their arts displayed and appreciated – even sold, as so many accomplished artists have enjoyed over the years.
Others went wispy on the spectacularly beautiful setting that lies just beyond the windows of the VAC – the specter of the sea and its endless cloud-sculpted skies beyond; no better inspiration for artists. Others pointed out that the VAC is always busy with local art receptions, gallery shows, art classes and various local and regional arts organizations that come to Newport to show off the talents of their members and to enjoy the Oregon Coast in the process.
However, nothing is free – it costs money to operate and maintain the VAC, a point not lost on the council. City Community Development Director Derrick Tokos pointed out that the cost to the city to run the VAC have far exceeded income to offset utility and maintenance costs and that they’re likely to become more unbalanced at a time that the city is cash strapped with huge upcoming outlays to replace much of the town’s sewer and water lines – replacing the better part of a mile of pipe every year “from here on,” according to Public Works Director Tim Gross. Gross said his department needs over a million dollars a year to lay new pipe to keep water and wastewater flowing reliably. Gross has said it makes no sense to fix old pipe when it needs to be replaced. He has said many times, “It makes no financial sense to keep patching patches.”
So – rock and a hard place.
The discussion finally came down to what the council wants to do to make sure everyone’s oars are in the water and pulling together in one direction. The council said that the VAC is a very important component to the community but strongly hinted that the community should step forward and do more support it. No details were discussed about what that would look like, but Oregon Coast Council for the Arts Director Catherine Rickbone made it very clear that the arts community is “all in” to create a partnership with the city to find solutions. City Councilor David Allen released a trial balloon by saying that maybe it’s time for the city to increase its room tax rate to funnel more funds toward building maintenance at the PAC and VAC.
The council turned the public survey and options search over to the VAC, giving the staff some key questions:
1. What role should the city play in supporting the visual arts?
2. Is it in the “public interest” for the city to own and subsidize a Visual Arts Center, or might that need be better satisfied by private or private non-profit groups or at another facility?
3. If the city decides to sell the VAC, should limitations be placed on the sale to ensure that the resulting use of the property complements Nye Beach.
4. If it is in the public interest that the city continues to own the VAC, where will the funding come from to maintain the building?
The council said there could be a lot more questions than just these four which were created to simply get the discussion going in the community.
The council charged the VAC and OCCA staff with coordinating the surveys and questionnaires among the arts community as well as the public in general. The council said it wants a report back to them in two weeks as to the progress they’ve made at forming this large public outreach campaign and a preliminary sense of direction. Interim City Manager Ted Smith will also help with that coordination.
Those in the community who want to be a part of the outreach and pursuit of solutions can stop by the VAC and talk with staff about how that can be best accomplished. The city council said it would like a final report back to the council by early March of next year.
In the meantime some arts supporters challenged the council to rethink the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year the city spends on the airport and to justify that investment against measurable benefits to the city. Another said more aggressive code enforcement would generate more income to the city through fines.
Faces of just a few who are ardent VAC supporters: