OCEAN CITY – Council chambers was packed to capacity on Tuesday afternoon when the Art League of Ocean City’s long battle with the city for a new cultural headquarters in the resort finally came to an end.
The Art League of Ocean City (ALOC) originated in the 1960’s and has been working out of the same building located on 94th Street for 27 years.
With 400 paid members, the ALOC mission is to promote the visual arts in Ocean City through education, exhibits, scholarship programs, and community art projects.
ALOC Board member Rina Thaler presented the Mayor and City Council with the many reasons why the new building should and needs to be approved.
Thaler pointed out that art compliments tourism, generates commerce for the business community, promotes education, draws homebuyers to the area, provides an outlet for every age group, adds to the list of free activities offered in town and provides visual pleasures for residents and visitors.
Thaler presented the council the work the ALOC provides for Ocean City, including art programs for children and adults, high school scholarships and nonprofit fundraising drives. Last year the ALOC generated 14,500 volunteer hours and Thaler said that is another way the members give back.
“We give back to Ocean City in so many ways,” she said. “Whether it’s working with the OCDC, the rec department, or the Chamber of Commerce, the art league has integrated art into every corner of this town.”
Once demonstrating to the council how much the ALOC is an asset to Ocean City Thaler presented the proposed art league building and how invaluable the extra space would be.
“Classes are held in the gallery, the office is in the kitchen, the art library is a closet and the staging area for exhibits is in the hallway,” Thaler said of the current building on 94th Street.
Thaler said the ALOC and the town deserve a beautiful professional art gallery with classrooms and valuable multipurpose space.
The proposed two-story building will consist of 7,500 square feet in an “L” shape configuration with a sculpture garden in the front yard accessible to the community. The bottom of the “L” will face the open bay for a view, and there will be dedicated classrooms, galleries, retail space, pottery space, artist studios, workshops, and a multipurpose meeting space. The meeting space will hold up to 65 people versus the maximum capacity of 75 of the current building.
Thaler said the ALOC is coming to the table with $200,000 that was raised by membership and is 25 percent of the estimated cost of construction. She added that ALOC will manage, maintain and operate the building, which will cost around $39,000 a year plus the cost for full-time staff is around $50,000 a year, totaling an annual cost of $89,000 that will fall on the ALOC. She asked the city to continue to maintain the exterior of the building as it does now.
“I am asking you all to think creatively and come up with a way to make this work,” Thaler asked the council.
ALOC President Margaret Spurlock said once the current ALOC building was revived ideas of expansion began almost immediately with thoughts of remodeling the existing building.
“We have done as much as we possibly can do with the space we have, we have maxed out,” she said.
Seacrets owner Leighton Moore voiced his support for the new building.
“Ocean City couldn’t be any more proud of what this art league has done with such limited amount of space,” he said. “To have that building look as it does and function as it does is a wonder, it’s a miracle.”
From a business perspective, Moore said he has noticed a decline in customers since the uprising of West Ocean City and Berlin in recent years.
“We need a reason not only to attract the tourists and their monies but to have the tourists and their monies stay in town,” he said. “Ocean City is losing people to Berlin because of the cultural arts that are there.”
Moore said the council’s decision is not easy because of the amount of city funding that would be dedicated but something still has to be done.
“We need something that we can enable our older people, people of talent, people of curiosity, and people with thirst of knowledge and ability to learn to have a facility that is large enough for what they need in this town,” he said. “It’s not just about money, it’s about education.”
Michelle Fager said she and her husband, John, of Fager’s Island have also noticed a decline in local businesses that operate year-round. She added the more year-round businesses the town has to offer, the more tax dollars that could be generated.
“The art league is a perfect venue for many of the retired homeowners to have a reason to come to Ocean City spend their dollars and enjoy the natural beauty of our beaches,” she said. “This new venue will encourage business and will bring in exactly the type of people who appreciate fine dining, upscale hotels, and shopping.”
Representative for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Sgt. Mark Paddack said he too is extremely supportive of the new ALOC building.
“There was a concern that some city employees, or the police, may be upset a little bit about the expenditure of this money,” he said. “This is a balance of a capital improvement project versus employee and we feel that this is a great thing for the town.”
Paddack added that the art league is not asking for anything for free and members are willing to give what they have.
“For that reason, our Ocean City officers and the FOP fully support the art league on their endeavor to improve the arts in the community for our children, for our neighbors and for our citizens,” he said.
Councilwoman Mary Knight immediately placed a motion to accept the ALOC’s portion of funding and for the city to fund the rest.
Council members Margaret Pillas and Brent Ashley didn’t find it so easy to jump on board. They felt because the city has turned down other funding, such as pay raises to city employees, it wouldn’t be fair to fund the new ALOC building and determined themselves as “no votes”.
Councilman Joe Hall did support the request but had some reservations on the contract to be settled between the ALOC and the town. He said the preliminary cost for the building is approximately $800,000.
“We start out with the original approval of a project that has a certain budget in mind and these things tend to grow over time,” he said. “I think we need to make sure we acknowledge that, and when or if these budgets start to grow there is an agreement that the town’s growth commitment has a seal.”
At that point, Knight amended her motion to include accepting the ALOC’s $200,000 with the balance funded by the city. The art league will continue to fund the operating budget, and the town will maintain the funding for exterior maintenance. City Solicitor Guy Ayres will prepare a Memorandum of Understanding between the ALOC and the city.
Thaler added that the Sandcastle Home Tour will continue to operate, and in the past it has proven raise between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. She said the ALOC will continue to seek grants as well as revenue sources, for example renting studio space in the new building.
“We have been coming here since 1991 … all we hear is we don’t have money at this time because of this project or that project,” she said. “It is never a good time for us to be here.”
Mayor Rick Meehan summed up the support within the room by saying, “On days like today I am particularly proud to be the mayor of Ocean City. I look out into the crowd … all with a consensus to move forward with this project and all with all of the right reasons. … Today is the art league’s day. They are prepared, they are vested in this, they have come to us as an organization, as a community, and they want to be vested in this.”
The council approved the funding support in a 5-2 vote, with Ashley and Pillas opposed.