Council agrees to renew lease with McGuffey Arts Center

For many years, the City of Charlottesville rented out properties throughout the city with no central way of knowing who was where, how much they were paying, and whether the public was receiving any benefit by subsidizing tenant rents. Last year, Council was briefed on efforts to get the issue under control. (read the story)

Now, the city is considering renewal of the lease with the McGuffey Arts Center which is housed in a former elementary school in downtown Charlottesville that has been used by artists, artisans, and artsy people for several decades.

“The McGuffey Arts Association has leased this building from the city since 1975,” said Brenda Kelley, redevelopment manager for the city City of Charlottesville.  

“We are an arts association that is run like a cooperative and run on committee and on sweat equity,’ said Amanda Liscouski is the Executive Council President for McGuffey’s current fiscal year. “We have 100 associate artists in our community who exhibit in our space and teach in our space as well as 50 renting members who have studio space.” 

A section from the 2022 annual report for the McGuffey Art Center (download the report)

This is one of the first leases to follow a new template set up by the current city administration, and it’s not without significant upgrades to the way the city will do business. 

“This is a new format that was prepared by the City Attorney’s office that more closely reflects a more standard commercial lease agreement,” Kelley said. 

The new agreement will also list what the fair market rent for the property would be as well as how much work the tenant will bring to the property. The latter can be classified as an in-kind donation. 

“In Article VII, we are now requiring a security deposit equal to two month’s rent upon execution of the lease agreement,” Kelley said.  

The Department of Public Works will also now outline terms of use for each property. 

This work was called for by Councilor Sena Magill, who has wanted to make sure the public’s values are represented in who gets to use public property at a discount. 

“Is an agreement that we started in the 70’s still reflective of the needs of the community?” Magill said. “It might very well be. But what’s happened is things have become rote and therefore never relooked at as to whether or not they are still meeting the needs of the city of Charlottesville.”

Magill had not yet announced her resignation and Kelley had not started reviewing the McGuffey Arts Center lease. Then she did.  The group currently pays $2,047 a month under the terms of a lapsed lease that ended on October 31, 2020.

“The proposed rate is $2,593 a month with an automatic annual increase of no more than three percent,” Kelley said. 

There would be a five-year term. The city would be responsible for maintaining the building as well as some landscaping services. That language was not present in the previous lease, which had not been updated in several years. Under the new terms, the McGuffey Arts Association would be responsible for mowing the land and removing ice and snow or at least pay the city to do the work at the McGuffey’s cost. 

The new lease structure will not apply to businesses who rent directly from the Charlottesville Office of Economic Development.  

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook said many endorsement deals contain morals clauses that allow cancellation if one of the parties does something reprehensible. He said the lease in front of the city seemed to not include such a provision. 

“I don’t know that we would have any authority if somebody was not behaving in an equitable manner, I don’t know if there’s anything in here to do anything about that,” Snook said. 

Kelley said she felt there were ways out for the city should that be the case with a tenant but she would double check to shore up the language. 

One speaker at the public hearing said the McGuffey Arts Center often serves as an incubator for other cultural programs in the city. 

“The Cville Sabroso festival started at the McGuffey Arts Center and because I am of Mexican descent and feel that we have a rich cultural heritage and when immigrant people come to our community here in Charlottesville from different parts of the world they bring with them so much from their cultures that are rich visual arts, performance arts, food, dance, values, traditions,” said Estela Knott. 

Knott said over 400 people came to the first event despite it being held on a rainy day. The festival has now grown to welcome up to 7,000 people. The last one was held at Washington Park. Knott said the city’s indirect investment by providing affordable rent allowed such a thing to occur. 

Snook said he felt the city could still be getting more from this deal and others like it. 

“The amount of rent that we would receive even with the increase would be roughly 40 percent of what the taxes would be if we have the property to you,” Snook said. “I don’t know that I’m necessarily inclined to say that at some point down the road we ought to be looking for everybody to pay at least  the amount of the taxes though that kind of makes a certain amount of sense to me that if we’re forgoing $50,000 a year in taxes, we ought to get at least $50,000 a year in rent.” 

Snook said he did not want to impose that amount now but that sort of a policy should be considered for all rentals within a certain amount of time. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said he was fine with subsidizing spaces for groups if they met a city need. 

“And I do think we should frame it outright as these leases are basically a subsidy and support for public spaces and nonprofits and to me the relevant public policy question is, ‘do we want to  support public spaces and nonprofits?’” 

Payne said McGuffey should be maintained as a non-corporate place. He said the alternative would be to create another place where attendance requires the public to buy something. 

“I’m glad we haven’t neo-liberalized the entire city but maybe we’ll get there someday,” Payne quipped. 

A sticking point was whether there was sufficient detail in the lease to assign the McGuffey Arts Center with the responsibility to pay the city for continued mowing and snow removal. The exact cost was not known. Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers said the city may not be able to keep that work up anyway. 

“I mean we’re having a hard time in some cases in filling positions in Public Works to maintain our facilities and I’m concerned about the strain that that places on the facilities that we occupy,” Rogers said. 

The information on that item will come up at the next meeting. A new public hearing may be held if the lease is significantly different enough to merit that public notice requirement. Otherwise it will be on the consent agenda. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the January 9, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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