AVON PARK - The plan was to mold and shape it into a place for artists to seek out for exhibitions and their works to be on public display, but plans for a proposed art museum-cultural center have been blotted out for now.
The Highlands Cultural Alliance (HCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting art and culture in Highlands County, had planned to convert the 3,000-square-feet second floor gallery with kitchen of the Avon Park Community Center into a place for artists to have a temporary, and in some cases, permanent place for their works to be publicly shown.
But at the Avon Park City Council meeting Monday, after a motion by Councilman Parke Sutherland, the city council voted 3-2 against moving forward in a contract for agreement to create the cultural center, in essence shutting that HCA effort down.
Dec. 23, members of the Avon Park Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) toured the second floor of the center, 310 W. Main St., prior to its regular meeting. At that time, the agency voted unanimously to get estimate bids on the cost of what would amount to about $34,000 in restorations, upgrades and improvements that would have been tentatively called the "Peter Powell Roberts" museum and a cultural center.
At the Feb. 10 council meeting, HCA President Fred Leavitt listened and addressed the council prior to the vote. He told the council a "major promotions" campaign was underway to brand Highlands County as an agricultural community and it was important to act fast to include its arts, too.
"It is important that the facility meet the expectations of the cultural tourist. If it's (the art center) less than standard, we are going to essentially shoot ourselves in the foot," he said. "The alliance is very sensitive to take advantage of this opportunity. We'll be moving on one way or another. I can no longer guarantee participation."
Maria Sutherland, Avon Park director of administrative services, said a walk-through of the former bank building, with a contractor present, indicated it would cost about $15,000 to have the center's downstairs and $7,000 more for the kitchen to be "event ready." She said to make the second floor, also with a kitchen, to be "event ready," it would be about $34,000.
"It sounded to me they liked his idea, but finances and agreement with everyone needed to be thoroughly vetted before they could make a contract," she said Wednesday.
After Leavitt's talk and discussion among the council, a motion was made by Parke Sutherland to establish an agreement to work with the HCA, and City Attorney Gerald Buhr said that sounded like a "contract." A motion for an amendment to establish "intent" to work with the HCA until an agreement was made was made by Mayor Sharon Schuler, which passed 4-1 with Giles voting against.
The original motion to move forward with the HCA in a contract for agreement to create the cultural center failed 3-2, with council members Terry Heston, Brenda Giles and Schuler voting "no" and Garrett Anderson and Sutherland voting "yes."
Avon Park City Manager Julian Deleon said the proposal is a worthy project, but it comes down to available funding sources, saying the city already leases out a building at Donaldson Park to a civic organization and a building to the Church Service Center where volunteers daily feed needy residents.
"These existing city-owned buildings are in disrepair needing attention right now. The available funding, which helps support or advance the various civic based organizations, is currently limited," he said. "I think that before moving forward, we need to carefully consider the financial impacts of entering into these types of agreements. We support the museum and cultural center, but it would be best if it opened with donations or private sector investment."
Leavitt, an award-winning photographer and digital artist, said Wednesday it was a "relief" to have closure for now on the issue and he can move on with "a clear conscience." He said the HCA board meets tonight to discuss alternative spaces to pursue, one of which is a 4,500-square-feet indoor facility in Sebring. He declined to elaborate until a contract is signed.
In addition, Leavitt said the HCA is "negotiating" with a person in Atlanta who specializes in museum construction about future plans.
Although the HCA's proposal was voted down, he said it doesn't mean Avon Park would be left out of future HCA plans and activities. He said the goal is still to make the county's municipalities a collective of arts destinations.
"We do want Avon Park to be part of the whole cultural scene; that's what we're about," he said Wednesday. "There will be other opportunities and they'll be ready to take advantage of them."
At the December gathering in the center, a blueprint by Avon Park's Cool & Cobb Engineering Co., showed proposed new amenities would have included new carpeting, a vinyl cove base, new paint throughout, a new storage closet, dividing walls and acoustical ceiling tiles in the building the city has owned for about 10 years.