Volunteers frustrated by mixed-messages from city leaders

rpulley@lsjournal.comFebruary 21, 2014 

The Lee’s Summit City Council’s handling of proposals for Arnold Hall has volunteers who’ve worked on recommendations for city arts facilities frustrated or angry.

Members of the Lee’s Summit Arts Council met Feb. 18 with City Manager Steve Arbo, getting an explanation of the situation and discussing its next move.

After the city decided last fall to switch the location of a proposed outdoor stage and festival space to 123 Third St. utilizing a parking lot next to the vacant Arnold Hall, some saw an opportunity to use the vacant building and create festival space with an outdoor stage.

Council members. led by Allan Gray, asked the volunteers to work on a design for the outdoor space but then last week announced it was taking offers to sell Arnold Hall. The city plans to keep vacant land for the outdoor stage.

“Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of local government,” Arbo said. He added it could be challenging but also rewarding.

He said that whenever someone approaches city staff seeking to buy city property, in this case, reportedly, a restaurant group, staff takes the request to the full council. The council decided to put Arnold Hall on the market.

Mayor Randy Rhoads also had ruled that an earlier request from council members that the arts council would advise it on the design for the plaza at 123 Third St. didn’t include using Arnold Hall. The arts council was seeking clarity on that question.

Rhoads put that issue on the council’s agenda for Feb. 20, (after the Journal’s deadline) and also proposed, if council members approved, that the arts council work on a proposal for Arnold Hall concurrently with the city taking bids for its sale.

Brad Cox, an arts council member, said that is tantamount to asking the arts council to make its own counter-proposal to those bidding on the building.

Cox, Ben Martin, who is president of Summit Theatre Group, and other arts council members, questioned whether their recommendation would be a waste of time.

They noted given past actions of the city council only partly followed recommendations brought forward by a council-appointed Cultural Arts Facility Task Force.

Arbo said Rhoads’ proposal would let the council compare the community value of the council’s proposal against the sales price and purpose of any bids it gets for Arnold Hall.

Arts council member Beth Lindquist said the possible sale of Arnold Hall to a private interest would “add to the complexity” of designing a public plaza on that site. Still, she said the council’s position on Arnold Hall should be, “We’re saying no, don’t sell the building, we want a public use for the space.”

Lindquist said she’s feeling cynical about the city council’s actions because it was well aware the arts council has interest in seeing Arnold Hall used for public space, before it put it up for sale.

Cox said that many volunteer hours went into the cultural plan (written by a consultant with their input) and a recommendation by the Cultural Arts Facility Task Force.

“Do you want to hear them, or do you not want to hear it,” Cox asked rhetorically. “If none of this five years (of work) has mattered, what the hell do you want?”

Members Melanie Allen and Hollie Couch said the arts council wouldn’t be able to do effective planning for Arnold Hall without a budget for that purpose or a consultant’s assistance because arts council members don’t have that expertise. Mike Ekey said that having Arnold Hall for sale automatically puts the arts council at a disadvantage in forming its recommendation.

Martin said he thinks the council should continue to be an advocate for the arts plan that includes Arnold Hall.

“I’d caution against playing the victim,” Martin said. “If they decide they don’t like the activist council and disband it, so be it.”

He asked, “Will it be helpful for one of our group to lambast or scold the council?”

He said the volunteer citizens are “feeling pretty used.”

The arts council members were trying to decide if that would be productive when Councilmember Rob Binney, liaison with the group, reminded them public comments are for issues not on the agenda and it wasn’t clear the city council planned to have the arts council be part of the discussion at its meeting. City staff promised to look into whether the arts council would have a chance to address the city leaders.

The arts council decided to stay engaged in the process, even given the vexation.

Syrtiller Kabat, arts council chair, said she personally didn’t feel upset because it is the council’s responsibility to make the decisions.

“The council perhaps needs to hear both,” Kabat said. “The council does its thing, it can be frustrating, but they do their thing.”

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