Gateway Center for the Arts leadership

BRIGHT FORECAST AHEAD FOR NONPROFIT — With the prospect of assistance from the City of DeBary, the Gateway Center for the Arts is experiencing a renewed interest in its cultural programs. Mary Ann Ruggles, a volunteer, at lett, stands with Terri Hoag, executive director of the GCA. The coming of spring and summer means more activity for the group, especially for families enrolling their children in art and theater classes and camps.

Come fall, a nonprofit cultural organization’s property may be absorbed into DeBary’s municipal government.

“I’m hopeful to make this a win-win situation,” City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said, as he listed possible advantages of making the Gateway Center for the Arts a city-owned building.

The Gateway Center is in “survival mode,” the manager said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of virtually all public gathering places, events and activities, Gateway’s donations and memberships had plummeted, and volunteers became fewer, both Rosamonda and Gateway Center Executive Director Terri Hoag said. 

While financial, moral and volunteer support went steadily downward, Hoag said, the nonprofit organization that owns the building has survived without running a deficit.

“We’ve been able to stay afloat,” she noted.

Discussion about the future of Gateway Center for the Arts has created a bit of irony: As word of the problem has gotten out, people have rallied to support the arts center.

“People are now more educated about the work we do, and now more have volunteered,” Hoag told The Beacon. “People are already starting to sign up for the summer camps. We have nine weeks of camps, in arts and theater.”

The reduction in expenses and personnel left Gateway with only one paid employee, and that is Hoag.

Weighing good signs and real costs

While the GCA’s outlook has brightened within the past few days, it remains to be seen whether the upward trends will continue. 

The turnaround stems from the DeBary City Council’s March 10 informal discussion about whether the city should become responsible for the Gateway Center’s ownership and expenses, effective Oct. 1, and subject to an agreement between the city and the nonprofit group. 

The decreases in financial and moral support for the organization, along with the sudden spike in public interest, come as the 12-year-old building, at 880 N. U.S. Highway 17-92, is aging and will soon be in need of a new roof. 

“I believe the health of the building is at risk,” Rosamonda said. 

The estimated cost of replacing the roof is $75,000, DeBary Public Information Officer Shari Simmans wrote in response to a query from The Beacon.

In addition, Hoag said, the building’s HVAC systems are aging and may soon need replacement.

“We understand the building is 12 years old. As our standard practice, we will evaluate the mechanical systems in the building and make the proper business decision on the best maintenance plan,” Simmans also replied in an email.

One bright spot is that the GCA building, valued at $2.6 million, has no debt. It sits on almost nine acres the city leases from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The lease expires in 2068.

Older Southwest Volusia residents may recall the state-owned property was once the location of a fire tower.

As DeBary’s leaders ponder Rosamonda’s proposal to bring the Gateway Center building into the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Mayor Karen Chasez says the issue may be controversial.

“The expenditure of taxpayers’ money is a subject that can raise emotions on one side or the other,” she said.

A look into the future?

If the city ultimately does take ownership of the building and operate it as a cultural center, Rosamonda said DeBary would continue to allow business, civic and religious groups to rent space there for their activities. In fact, the bookings would offset part of the center’s annual operating costs. He estimated those overhead expenses would total approximately $44,750.

Hoag said the Gateway Center has more than 18,000 square feet of enclosed area, with rooms large and small suited for various types of meetings or exhibits.

The Gateway Center for the Arts operation would remain in the facility and continue — or even expand — the arts programs it offers, if the city takes responsibility for the building. The relationship between the city and the organization would be subject to annual reviews by DeBary officials.

As an added incentive, Rosamonda promised the city’s takeover of the building “will not affect our tax rate.”

Thanks largely to two electric-power plants, DeBary has the lowest ad valorem property-tax rate of any local government in Volusia County. That levy is 2.9427 mills, or about $2.94 per $1,000 of taxable property value.

Decisions, decisions

Rosamonda told the City Council there are other choices, namely:

— No action by the city, and let the Gateway Center survive on its own or close down

— Let DeBary take over the Gateway Center building and its arts program, with a publicly funded full replacement cost of some $284,000 per year, including staffing — an amount far greater than the $44,750 in annual expenses Rosamonda estimates if the nonprofit now operating the arts center continues its work 

If DeBary does assume control, the city may also have a better chance of securing grants for improvements of its facilities. The grants may come from federal or state agencies, or even from Volusia County’s newly reauthorized ECHO program. 

ECHO is an acronym for environmental, cultural, historic and outdoor recreational, referring to the county’s voter-approved effort to acquire, preserve, maintain or improve properties deemed valuable for the quality of life and accessible to the public. Volusia ECHO is funded by an add-on property tax of one-fifth of a mill, or 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. 

A part of DeBary’s legacy

Hoag said Gateway has become a part of the lives of many families.

“We have theater and art going on at the same time in the building,” she added. “we have pottery classes that are sold out.”

Before the pandemic put normal life on hold, Hoag said, the Gateway Center served 32,233 people in 2019, hosting 88 events, exhibits and productions during the year.

“The whole point is to bring the community and the arts together,” Hoag said.

Many of the people who attended the March 10 meeting at DeBary City Hall agreed.

“I love children. I love music, and I would love to start a children’s choir,” Marilyn Anderson said. “The place is always clean and comfortable ... it’s a great place to practice and for the performance.”

“It is such a help for parents to take their kids there in the summer,” Mary Renna said. “They learn things.”

“Everything in the community doesn’t help everybody in the same way,” former DeBary City Council Member Danny Allen said. “All children deserve the chance to broaden their horizons.”

The grassroots sentiments resonated with the City Council.

“It is clear that Gateway has touched many lives. If we did nothing, the city will inherit all costs,” freshman Council Member William Sell said. “One of the promises I made while campaigning was to improve the quality of life in DeBary.”

“I strongly support the arts,” Chasez said. “I’m very committed to Gateway Center for the Arts.”

The next step is for representatives of the city and the GCA to meet and work out an agreement on the future of the center under the city’s ownership.

Not least, besides using the GCA as an arts-and-crafts place and a venue for business meetings and community events, the center may, according to Rosamonda, may also fill DeBary’s need for an emergency-operations headquarters. 

The building could also become the center of DeBary’s city government, “in case City Hall should be damaged by a fire,” he said.