Local News

Woodstock Council leaning toward city-run arts center for revamped Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House

Mayor is ready to get behind proposal, but cautions that it must stay in the black financially to remain

Woodstock City Council members are moving past reservations they had previously expressed about a plan to use several rooms within the soon-to-be renovated Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House as a city-run arts and cultural center.

While Mayor Mike Turner feels revisions to the pitch by Woodstock Library Director Nick Weber improved its assessment, the mayor said he is is still not fully convinced the city should be the entity to manage the arts, creative writing and musical programming.

But he is willing to take the risk on the idea, giving it a couple years to generate a financial return to the city, and asked Weber to put together a request for how much money the venture might need from the city as an initial investment to get off the ground.

Turner has wondered whether the city should issue a request for proposals from the private sector for operating the space, potentially as an arts or entertainment venue, and said he would pull the plug on the city-run arts facility idea if it fails to draw the crowds and revenue Weber and the council expect.

But Councilman Bob Seegers remains unsure about dedicating much of the space within the refurbished building to the arts, and has worried that such a facility may not appeal to all of Woodstock’s residents while also stating he feels it may not lead to the best return on the city’s investment.

Upgrading the Old Courthouse is set to end up costing the city about $12 million, officials said this year, with much of the construction costs being financed by state and federal tax credits the city obtained through a competitive process and sold to an investor that will be a partner in the city-owned commercial real estate project as it gets off the ground.

“In your executive summary that these art experiences can only be found or will only be found in Woodstock, the reason is the ability to hold these things is limited in every community by the cost of their operation,” Seegers told Weber.

The councilman said he’s received words of support from residents for his concerns he aired last month about Weber’s original proposal, which Seegers was skeptical of due to what he felt were overly optimistic costs of labor, and perhaps overstated abilities to generate revenue.

But Weber in his latest proposal last week said switching around spaces that would be occupied by the arts center, which is being called Creative Woodstock for now, with the spots within the building the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce planned to rent would reduce Creative Woodstock’s footprint in the building a little bit and save it some costs in rent it will pay to the city and its tax credit investor for the use of the space.

The Chamber has agreed to such a flip-flop, Weber said, and Creative Woodstock and the business group may actually have a more optimal space for their respective needs with the updated floor plan, he said.

Weber also increased the assumed rental rate of the space for Creative Woodstock from $12 per square foot to $14 after Seegers suggested the space within the renovated building should be the most expensive to lease on the Square.

Weber also adjusted the costs of labor upward since his last presentation, but not by much because he plans on Creative Woodstock employing a manager for the arts center who will cost around $80,000 for a full year of salary and benefits. The manager would organize volunteers as well as bring on independent contractors who would teach the venue’s classes in various artistic or literary disciplines.

He also brought the average cost of classroom fees from $25 per person per class and 15 people per class, to $20 per person, and is still projecting Creative Woodstock could start generating small annual returns by 2024, noting that he is being conservative in his estimates of revenue and believes they could be easily exceeded.

He said some of the classes will cost much more than $20, and entry fees for other classes as well as black tie and formal events that may be held on Friday and Saturday evenings, where alcohol would be on sale, according to Creative Woodstock’s planning, could be $100, $150 or more.

But other classes at the facility, such as those for seniors or others, would be much cheaper, and perhaps free in some cases, so Weber used $20 as an average.

Council member Lisa Lohmeyer urged Weber to consider preparing to have more events at the higher end of the cost scale ready to go when the center first opens.

“I don’t want to be so timid out of the gates on this thing. I think sometimes when you charge a little bit more that creates some of that buzz,” Lohmeyer said.

The anticipated opening date for the refurbished historic building downtown is May 1, 2023, Weber’s presentation said, and he feels the arts center would be extremely competitive as an applicant for grants from various sources that support the arts that could provide another source of revenue and reduce operating costs.

Council member Wendy Piersall, a consistent proponent of a city-run arts center, said she has found in her conversations with city staff that the entire Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House venture once renovated is projected to provide a return on the city’s substantial investment, with or without the city-run arts center, by its 15th year post-construction.

Right now, Wisconsin-based Mob Craft brewery is planning on starting a new taproom and brewing its own beer in a portion of the space, the Public House restaurant will remain a tenant and Ethereal Confections is set to run an event space that could host weddings, banquets and other gatherings on the structure’s upper floor.

“This is not going to be a drain on the city’s finances no matter,” Piersall said. “The people who fronted that money [for renovation] in this community want to be able to use that building as part of the reason they fronted the money in the first place.”

Multiple residents, including Dawn Zehr, a founding director of the Woodstock-based nonprofit Atrocious Poets writing and arts group, spoke to the council in favor of moving forward with an arts center, and were keen on Weber’s proposal.

“I, personally, as well as the Atrocious Poets, would really value an arts resource on the Square. It would be an incredible asset to our ability to connect with our community,” Zehr said. “I’m excited about this idea. I think it’s going to be fantastic. And I feel like a well-supported, thriving arts community is one of the most continually underestimated resources.”