A VISION FOR THE FUTURE — Per Springville Center for the Arts Executive Director Seth Wochensky, the Art’s Cafe’s main and basement floors (pictured in their current states) will house the main cafe, rehearsal and workshop spaces, a gallery and a performance space. Photos by Jessie Owen.
SPRINGVILLE — The Springville Center for the Arts’ Indiegogo site is up and running, inviting community members to contribute toward the future of the center’s Art’s Cafe, at the currently distressed property located at 5 East Main St. in the village of Springville.
While the SCA is looking ahead toward the rehabilitation of the building, getting to this stage of the game took many months of effort and collaboration.
The building, nestled between two other structures on Main Street’s business district, crept into decay over the past several years. Although its owner was not paying his taxes, nor maintaining his property, the situation was not being ignored by the village of Springville. “About a year ago, the building became known to be an issue,” SCA Executive Director Seth Wochensky said. “It was discussed at almost every historic preservation committee and at village board meetings. We knew the building was leaking; even before the roof collapsed, we knew it was in rough shape.”
Building Inspector Michael Kaleta said that the building had been known to be in poor shape, even before he came on board 11 years ago. “Historic preservation had concerns with it and that’s how this whole thing started: trying to preserve a building that means something to our downtown,” he said. According to Village Mayor William Krebs, “We followed a course of code enforcement, which brought the property owner to court with ever-increasing fines.”
Over a period of several years, the building owner was found guilty of code violations and paid the fines. “He would pay them and then I would cite him and he’d go back to court again,” Kaleta said. “It was either I give up or he gives up and, with the pressure of this building, there was no way the village wanted me to give up, on our end.”
Eventually, the building’s roof collapsed. “It was a public safety issue,” Wochensky said. “The judge issued a warrant, allowing for a visual inspection of the interior and it was apparent that the building was just gone. Mike Kaleta saw the inside and was shocked. It was a disastrous situation.”
Kaleta said that, following his tour of the building’s interior, he alerted the local fire department to the structure’s condition. “It was just going to get worse,” he said. “I notified the fire department, ‘Do not enter to fight a fire. Exterior only. If there’s a fire to either of the other buildings, do not use this building to fight the fire.’ My opinion was that you did not want to be standing on that roof.”
Each year, taxes, interest and penalties piled up, until Erie County held approximately $65,000 in tax liens on the location. “It was structurally deficient,” Krebs said. “It wasn’t being kept up to New York state building codes and the historic preservation code for the facade and our local code. It was also financially upside-down, which means there was a tax lien on it that exceeded the value of the property.”
While village representatives were scratching their heads to figure out what to do with a structure Krebs called a “blight in any area,” the SCA was doing strategic planning to “begin social entrepreneurship,” according to Wochensky. “We wanted to broaden our mission,” he added. “How we impact the community and have a bigger impact.”
While Wochensky said that the idea of opening a business like the Art’s Cafe had entered his mind, “We had to dismiss it immediately. We had looked at the numbers and said, ‘This is insanity. It’s impossible.’”
But Arts Center Board Member Jay Biscup of Seneca Steel stepped up with an offer that Wochensky said presented a sliver of hope. “He said that, if the arts center could get a building, he would do the steel work for free,” Wochensky said. “That changed the conversation by 180 degrees.” Architect Jay Braymiller also offered to do pro-bono work on the building. “He appreciated the vision,” Wochensky said. “Village centers are important to him.”
Krebs said that potential buyers would have been dissuaded from purchasing 5 East Main St., due to the large amount of back taxes owed. “One way to remedy this is to enter into an agreement or partnership with a non-profit organization,” he said. “The SCA stepped forward and said they were interested in this property. They had decided that it fit into their mission, as a community arts center.”
Wochensky said that the village’s distressed properties task force and the village attorney met last fall to discuss the SCA’s taking ownership of the Main Street property, and the arts center sent Erie County a letter of intent, requesting that the back taxes be removed. “There was no other potential solution,” he said. In December, the SCA hired a lawyer to assist with the process. “We worked with Richard Berger, who we hired because he was a specialist in sticky historic buildings,” Wochensky said. “He is on the board of Tim Tielman’s Campaign for Greater Buffalo organization, so he had a history of working with difficult properties.”
An in-depth commercial appraisal was done on the building, setting its value at $1. “If they could have, they would have appraised it in the negative,” Wochensky said. “The cost of demoing out the interior will be far, far greater than the value of the land alone. This was not a freebie. It was a huge commitment.”
Erie County Legislator John Mills and Erie County Deputy Executive Richard Tobe were brought into the discussion and, per Wochensky, agreed that “a private for-profit could not return the building to a reusable state.”
“Erie County, through a series of legal agreements, agreed to forgive the tax liens and foreclose on the property, transfer to the village and have it given to the arts center,” Krebs said. “There was no a four-way negotiation between the property owner, arts center, Erie County and the village. Lawyers protected the interests of all the parties.”
Per Wochensky, the building will be owned by the SCA corporation. “We are complying with the art’s center’s mission,’ he said. “The community, in essence, will own it. It will be a subsidiary corporation owned by the arts center. It will be a standard for-profit corporation.”
Although the SCA now owns the building, Wochensky said there is a long way to go, financially. “This was not a handout,” he said. “We used the significant donations – the architecture and steel – to apply for grants.”
A developer’s agreement was put in place, setting a timeline for the SCA to convert the property to its intended use. “They have to get moving on it and if they don’t, it would revert back to the village,” Krebs said. “From the village’s point of view, the distressed property was remedied and has a cooperative landowner now.”
Kaleta said that the SCA will need to file for permits during each step of the process. “I will do sections and do certificates of occupancy as parts get done,” he said. “I will go in and do inspections; make sure each area is safe.”
“This is adoptive reuse,” Krebs said. “Taking properties that are no longer functioning and getting them into the hands of somebody that will readapt it, fix it up and make it useful to the local economy. There is very healthy communication going on now. This is a model for progress in our area ... that we will continue to use when appropriate.”
The Art’s Cafe will exist as a separate entity and contribute property and sales taxes to the local tax base. “The coffee will go to supporting the non-profit arts center,” he said. “This will be a positive development on Main Street.”
Programming at the existing Springville Center for the Arts will not be affected by ongoing work at the Art’s Cafe. The next phase of the work on the SCA’s main building on North Buffalo Street will begin in January, including south wing gallery renovation, masonry rehabilitation, elevator installation, second-story classroom addition and woodwork repair.
To contribute to the SCA’s Art’s Cafe Indiegogo fundraising campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/artscafespringville.