Film festival woes rekindle arts venue plans

Talks planned to identify site, funding for cultural center
May 23, 2014

Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival's recent loss of its home at the Movies at Midway has rekindled discussion of the need for a performing arts and culture venue in Sussex County.

For 17 years, the film society screened films at Midway, said Sue Early, society executive director. This year the society will use two venues – the movie theater for the last time and Cape Henlopen High School. The society continues to search for venues to host the 2015 event, said Early, but the long-term goal is to build a venue where the county’s arts community can share resources and provide the public with great experiences.

“The artists deserve a professional presentation,” she said. “The recent developments have certainly put some urgency into the discussion.”

Early said preliminary discussions are being held to identify possible sites and venue designs with many members of the Cape Region's art community.

The idea of building a cultural center to serve as an arts hub in Sussex County isn’t new, said Barbara Vaughn, a long-time Lewes resident and former Lewes city councilwoman.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said.

In the early 2000s, said Vaughn, discussions were held with two architects and developers, but the untimely death of one, a change in vision from another and then the economic recession put plans for the center on the back burner.

“There wasn’t a great hue and cry for its development,” said Vaughn.

Vaughn said she hates to see the film festival lose its Midway home, but it brings the issue back to the forefront. The population has increased dramatically in the past decade, she said, with many people coming from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or other areas with a rich cultural environment.

Vaughn said experience in other parts of the state and country shows that in addition to a building, an endowment must be established to help pay future costs.

Vaughn said the estimated cost of the decade-old design was close to $20 million, but that included a $10 million endowment and donation of the land the facility will be built on.

Sheila Bravo, Rehoboth Art League executive director, agrees with Vaughn a renewed demand exists for a local arts venue.

“I see tremendous growth potential,” she said.

The art league has for decades had a home in Henlopen Acres, and it isn’t thinking about moving from that location, Bravo said. Still, a new center would allow the league to expand its education services and reach more people, she said.

Wesley Paulson, Clear Space Theatre Company executive director, said the need for educational and performance space has never been greater. The company is entering its fourth summer, renting space on Baltimore Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, he said.

There are only 15 to 20 days all year when the space isn’t being used for something, he said. “We’re pretty maxed here.”

Paulson said the theater company has seen a continuous increase in attendance over the years. The spring shows this year, he said, are seeing summer attendance levels. “There is a demand,” he said.

An example in Delaware

Early pointed to the Community Services Building in Wilmington as an example of a successful arts center. The building houses 77 nonprofit entities in a downtown Wilmington building that was bought by developers, who then renovated the property at no cost to future tenants. It is the largest multitenant nonprofit center in the country.

Jerry Bilton, center executive director, said a project like the one in Wilmington and the one proposed in Sussex County works best if the money is there from the beginning, and the rent paid by tenants isn't going towards paying for the land. That enables rents to stay low, a huge benefit for the tenants, he said.

The program in Wilmington charges nonprofits $10 a square foot for rent, when other downtown commercial space is going for twice as much, said Bilton. Tenants are charged only the costs to operate the building, plus $2 per square foot for the capital reserve, he said.

He suggested as discussions move forward it would be wise to consider several kinds of nonprofit organizations who have a need for office, conference and auditorium space.

“It's helpful to diversify a bit,” he said.

Bilton said an often overlooked issue is parking. The tenants in Wilmington have free parking because the developers built a parking garage, which is payed for by filling unused parking with paying tenants.

“The parking garage pays for itself. The public pays to cover all the operating expenses,” he said.

He said the developers thought this model would work better thanwhat he called the annual song and dance most nonprofits go through when asking for grants and donations.

“They thought there was a better way to fund the nonprofits,” he said. “They thought if they just bought a big building and somebody managed that building in a professional manner, the organizations would be relieved of finding space, and they could focus on their missions.”

It took a while to fill out the building, but it's been about 17 years and it's working so far, he said.