City likely to help fund arts center

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2005

The long-awaited unveiling of the newest downtown masterpiece – the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts – is just months away.

With the $20 million renovation to the former Suffolk High School moving into the final phases, plans for a spring 2006 grand opening celebration are still on target, said Michael Bollinger, the center’s executive director.

The 63,000-square-foot arts center, long touted by city leaders as key to the ongoing downtown revitalization, will offer a myriad of cultural resources: a 550-seat theater, two art galleries, a banquet hall, dance studios, a pottery studio, photography and computer labs, and rental space for art classes.

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The center will also have an upscale 60-seat restaurant on the first floor.

Almost half of the renovation is being funded through tax credits. The city is investing $6.5 million in the center, with the remainder – $4.5 million – coming from private sources, Bollinger said.

&uot;Anyone with a history at Suffolk High School is going to be blown away,&uot; he said. &uot;It is going to be impressive. I think the community is going to be pleased.&uot;

With construction well under way, Bollinger is spending the next few months working on specifics of the center’s programs, classes and personnel.

The cultural arts center’s annual operating budget is expected to be about $1 million, Bollinger said. Thus far, the center’s board of directors hasn’t approached the city for help footing the bill.

But like most museums and cultural nonprofits around the country, the center will probably need the city’s help at first, Bollinger said.

&uot;Most nonprofit (museums) around the country and in Hampton Roads depend on a combination of earned income and unearned revenue,&uot; Bollinger said. &uot;Few can make it on earned income alone.&uot;

Typically, earned income – money made off ticket sales, space rental, class tuition and the like – accounts for about 65 percent of the operating budgets of facilities similar to the Suffolk center, Bollinger said. The rest comes from grants, local government contributions and various other sources.

Mayor Bobby L. Ralph said he is expects the city will assist with the center’s initial operating expenses.

&uot;It’s not unusual for localities to help subsidize museums and arts centers,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;I think it has been understood all along that the city is a partner to the cultural arts center.

&uot;I expect they will come to us and ask for help, particularly for the first couple of years,&uot; he said. &uot;I would consider that a justifiable expense.&uot;

Although the goal is for the center to become self-supporting, Ralph said he would support investing between $200,000 and $300,000 annually for the cultural arts center’s operating budget next year.

Councilman Joseph Barlow agreed the city should probably count on helping with operating expenses.

&uot;I think we are going to have to help at first,&uot; he said. &uot;I think the project is important enough for us to be sure it gets off the ground right.&uot;

Because they haven’t been approached for help, several Suffolk City Council members in recent weeks have declined to discuss the possibility of contributing to the center’s operating budget.

City Manager R. Steven Herbert said the city is committed to the success of the cultural arts center.

&uot;No one has asked about it,&uot; he said, adding that he has been advised the art center has the resources to cover its first year of operation.

&uot;We will be contributing to the operating budget in the form of lease payments and in-kind services.&uot;

Several city offices, including the Suffolk Parks and Recreation administrative offices, the Suffolk Senior Center and Childhood Development office, will be housed in the new facility.