AVON PARK – It took several attempts, but there’s no going back to the drawing board this time.
After repeated tries to get some financial backing from the City of Avon Park, the Heartland Cultural Alliance (HCA) is poised to sign its signature on its canvass of persistence in opening a museum of art and cultural center.
At the Avon Park City Council regular meeting Monday night, the council voted 5-0 to draft a contractual lease agreement for the HCA to begin work to convert the 3,000-square-foot second floor of the Avon Park Community Center into the “Peter Powell Roberts Museum of Art & Cultural Center.”
In an “it’s on, it’s off” again effort since December, the green light was officially lit giving the go-ahead for fundraising and eventual physical work to upgrade and modify the second floor of the community center, 310 W. Main St., into the museum.
With HCA President Fred Leavitt and about 10 members present, Pat Malone, chief executive officer of MDI Creative Inc. of Norcross, Ga., again touted the economic and cultural benefits the museum would bring to Avon Park and Highlands County. MDI Creative is a design and development company specializing in museum work in over 400 museums around the United States.
In his second trip to council chambers - the first June 23 in front of the Avon Park Community Redevelopment Agency Board - Malone said once open, the Roberts museum could be part of a county-wide cultural draw of as many as 50,000 tourists and 600 jobs to the area. He said two bus companies have already committed to adding the museum to its tours and anticipated if support and fundraising is sufficient, the museum could be open by the Christmas holidays.
When signed, the HCA lease would be for a dollar per year for five years, with the city contributing $35,000 of the approximately $188,000 it will take in improvements. The city already had $50,000 budgeted for community center improvements.
“We’re really not a low-bid company. We create projects that are going to attract people. To do that, we have to have flexibility,” he told the council.
Tuesday, Malone, who was traveling back to Norcross, said the city council did the “right thing” by allowing time for input from the community before taking a vote. At the June 23 the city council - whose members make up the CRA - voted 2-2 not to add at the last-minute the proposed museum item on the council agenda, temporarily shutting down the project.
During the June CRA meeting, board members deemed the effort a “city project” and chose to move the item to the city council agenda. However, once that meeting convened, council members voted against placing the item on the agenda - Councilmen Parke Sutherland and Terry Heston for and Mayor Sharon Schuler and Councilman Garrett Anderson against - at that time killing the effort. Deputy Mayor Brenda Giles was absent.
This time, with the contractual lease agreement to be drafted by Avon Park City Attorney Gerald Buhr, Malone said fundraising and partnership development could commence. He said the HCA has a target of eventually raising $250,000 and would like to have the Roberts museum open by the end of the 2014.
Additionally, Malone stressed the project is community-based and any and all help and contributions from all residents would be appreciated.
“We realize there will be a lot of nickels and dimes; it’s not a wealthy community, but we’re looking for support from all members,” he said.
Leavitt said he and fellow HCA members went to the Community Center and held a short, small celebration following the City Council decision. He said he and the HCA have been so adamant in getting the museum open because their projects are “county-wide” endeavors and while Lake Placid is known for its murals, Sebring for its Ridgewood Avenue arts district and the Highlands Art League, Avon Park doesn’t have a significant arts scene.
Tuesday, Leavitt said once the lease agreement is signed, the HCA would be using taking the $35,000 on a “draw basis” - used whenever a project is undertaken. He said fundraising would begin when the contract is formally signed, possibly with a direct-mail contribution effort, and the City Council’s timing was just right.
The Highlands County Commission unanimously approved $105,000 to promote arts and culture in the county Tuesday morning and Leavitt said he was there.
“This has been a very powerful two days for the benefit of arts and culture in the county,” he said. “The opportunity has been created, it’s our challenge now to put it all together now and make it work.”
Prior to the vote and during discussion, Councilman Parke Sutherland, a longtime proponent of the project, told the council the city had to invest in improving the Community Center, so any input from the HCA would help save city money. He moved to have the contractual lease drafted and Councilman Garrett Anderson seconded.
“I’m thrilled. This gives the HCA an opportunity to get the project off the ground. In the end, the HCA has a home for its (Roberts) museum and the city and businesses get shared improvements in the area,” he said.
Sutherland added that even if the Roberts museum ceases, the city would still retain the improvements done to the center.
In other action Monday, the City Council voted 4-1 to authorize a long-term contract with a mining company to allow them to perform analysis on the property. The land could be used for treated effluent ponds and other city uses.
The cost for the nearly 70 acres at 1500 S. Lake Blvd. and 325 Garrett Road bordering Lake Anoka is set at $1,120,000. The appraisal was posted and the City Council was given the contract for purchase and appraisal at a budget workshop July 10.
City Manager Julian Deleon said the city’s wastewater treatment plant is currently operating at 50 percent capacity, but treated water has been down-rated in capacity by the Department of Environmental Protection’s operating permit, so two new ponds were built.
After questions from Avon Park Ruth Street resident Manuel Cortazal regarding notification and appraisal public notification, Deleon said the appraisal wasn’t posted because City Attorney Gerald Buhr said it was exempt.
The approved contract has a due-diligence period through April 30, 2015. Between now and then, the city will conduct a site-suitability evaluation, including the rezoning of the property for public use, and the city can back out of the deal during this initial nine-month period.
Currently, the land has a productive orange grove at $16,000 per acre. The city will use Polston Engineering to perform hydraulic conductivity modeling, soil bores, permitting and an environmental impact study, said Deleon. The existing effluent ponds were down-rated from 1.5 million gallons a day to 800,000 gallons and currently, about 700,000 is being processed.
“This is not an easy undertaking, but we have nine months to ensure our plans can be executed,” said Deleon. “It would be inaccurate to state that this deal is sealed and done. If the due diligence reveals that the site is not feasible, we are able to back out from the purchase. It is an absolute necessity, where we need to do something to continue to sustain our fast growth.”