Officials seeking to trim arts center costs

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 23, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Despite soaring construction costs, the long-awaited renovation of the former Suffolk High School into a cultural arts center is set to begin in September.

On Wednesday, the Suffolk City Council formally transferred the historic school over to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts L.P. The limited partnership – made up of volunteers of the foundation that ultimately will operate the center – will oversee the $15.5 million renovation.

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&uot;We can’t start work on a building we don’t own,&uot; said Betsy Brothers, the center’s executive director, during an interview Tuesday. &uot;We can really get moving once the building has been transferred over to us. Once that happens, we can finalize and sign off on the construction contract.&uot;

Bids for the renovation came at around $16 million, &uot;considerably over&uot; the original $12.5 million estimate, said Gerry Jones, the city’s director of capital projects.

Three sources are coming together to fund the arts center, touted by many to be a cornerstone in the city’s downtown revitalization efforts.

The city will be financing 32 percent – around $6 million – of the project, Jones said. Contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations will pay for 22 percent while the sale of state and federal historic tax credits will account for the remaining 46 percent.

Tax credits will contribute about $8 million to the project, Jones said.

Meanwhile, the foundation has adjusted its fund-raising goals accordingly, said Brothers.

The new capital fund-raising goal is $4.5 million, up $700,000 from its initial $3.8 million target.

&uot;Foundation members continue their work to raise the additional money needed for the capital campaign,&uot; said Brothers. &uot;We’ve already surpassed our original goal and we’re six months ahead of schedule.&uot;

In recent weeks, Jones and foundation members have been meeting to carve extra expenses out of the contracts.

&uot;We’re making some changes and doing some things in different ways so that they aren’t as costly,&uot; Jones said. &uot;We’re having to make some compromises to get the costs down.&uot;

The compromises are not going to effect the quality or cultural center’s myriad of offerings, Brothers stressed.

&uot;Nothing major is being deleted. Most changes are things the public won’t even notice,&uot; she said. &uot;We are not going to jeopardize the quality of the center.&uot;

For example, the orchestra pit will have a manual – rather than the planned hydraulic – lift, said Jones. That change alone will net a savings of about $80,000.

Plans to build extensive storage space in the basement – the school’s former gymnasium – are being sacrificed because of costly structural underpinning that would have been needed, he said. Architects have been able to replace the lost storage space by eliminating a few seats in several multi-purpose rooms and cutting about 60 of the planned 350 seats from the ballroom.

Besides reenergizing its fund-raising efforts, the foundation has been able to save money by removing some of the &uot;extras&uot; from the builder’s contracts, Brothers said.

Recently, several people have volunteered in-kind services to handle some of the work or purchases initially included in the contracts.

Brothers and Jones are both looking forward to work finally getting under way on the project.

&uot;It’s finally up and running, after six or seven years ago,&uot; Jones said. &uot;People don’t realize the complexity of the project. It’s great to see it happening.&uot;