Arts Center can stay if it pays, says mayor

Warwick Beacon ·

When Mayor Joseph Solomon learned the news media would be visiting the Warwick Center for the Arts Wednesday to follow up on the story he is considering using the space for municipal offices, he walked over to the Kentish Armory to clarify his position.

“No one is getting tossed out on the street,” Solomon told a handful of WCFA members and two reporters.

Last week, the mayor disclosed his proposal to move personnel and information technology offices into the armory that has been home for the WCFA for the past 42 years. The two departments, along with other municipal offices housed in the City Hall Annex, were relocated to the former Greene School on Draper Avenue more than a year ago. The annex was forced to close because of a burst water pipe and has not reopened since as the city wrangles over the insurance claim.

Meanwhile, Solomon is anxious to get city employees out of Greene and with renovations to the Buttonwoods Community Center, which was closed by former mayor Scott Avedisian, plans to locate the displaced municipal offices there with the exception of personnel and IT.

In a face-to-face discussion with WCFA board chair Stephany Hessler, the first since the center learned of the plan in January, Solomon said his obligation is to the taxpayer and he is prepared to have the center stay provided it pays rent comparable to housing personnel and IT in the area.

He noted with use of the armory the city would occupy space it owns and there would be no added costs to the taxpayers. The WCFA has been paying $1 a year for the armory. That lease expired last June and while the WCFA sought to have it renewed, the administration asked that talks be delayed until after the election.

During talks with the Planning Department this January when the mayor’s plan was discussed, Hessler brought up the possibility of increasing the rent.

In an email to the Beacon Tuesday she writes, “I said I was disappointed there hadn’t been an opportunity for a conversation about what we could contribute to the city [rent, the opportunity for city employees to utilize the space for meetings, the chance for city employees to exhibit their artwork at the center, etc.] to help remain in the space while providing a vibrant space for cultural and art programming for the residents of Warwick and Rhode Island.”

Asked Wednesday what he thought would be a fair rent, Solomon refrained from naming a number saying that should be determined by the area market and what the city would have to pay in rent to have the personnel and IT departments back in Apponaug. Later in the course of discussing the issue he mentioned $36,000, a number that Hessler said she had heard from George Shuster, who has talked with Solomon about keeping the WCFA in the armory and is the author of a letter published in today’s Beacon and co-signed by more than 60 people and organizations.

With an annual budget of $65,000, Hessler said a rent of $36,000 would be untenable.

“The cost of our paid programs helps underwrite the cost of our affordable art programs that we are able to offer to the seniors and communities and organizations in need. The past couple of years we have been spending the very minimal surplus we’ve had on making critical repairs to the center. So again, we welcome a discussion with the mayor and his staff to renegotiate a lease but realize that what they propose could still be out of our reach financially at this time,” she said.

There’s more at stake.

In November the Champlin Foundation announced the arts center is the recipient of a $145,000 grant that would be used to improve the steep entrance to the armory and enhance a small public park between it and the library. Use of the grant is contingent on a five-year lease with the city.

On Wednesday Solomon questioned as the landowner why the city was not privy to the terms of the grant or what the center planned to do with the money.

Hessler explained that the Champlin grant application is an extended process that started when Avedisian was mayor and that the center worked with the Planning Department in defining the grant application. Obviously, she said, if the center fails to meet the lease provision it would be handing the money back to Champlin and the improvements would not be made.

Hessler also pointed out that the center has applied for a Community Development Block Grant of $180,000 to remove the electrical lift now used to make the building handicapped accessible and replace it with a series of ramps. That grant, which is the prerogative of the city administration, is pending.