Millsboro Art League gets reprieve from council

Organization to remain in town-owned facility, must report finances

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MILLSBORO — A downtown staple for more than three decades, the Greater Millsboro Art League now has a new lease on life.

Show-of-hands support and commitment from those in the audience were enough for Millsboro Town Councilman and Vice Mayor Tim Hodges to motion for a one-year lease agreement with three months’ rent forgiveness for the art league’s Main Street studio — property owned by the town.

“How many of you by hand will support that idea and support the art league for the next year?” Vice Mayor Hodges asked the crowd at Town Council’s Monday meeting.

After a large showing of hands, he said, “Great! Thank you to all of you who raised your hand.”

Applause rang out from GMAL supporters following council’s 7-0 approval of the agreement spelled out by the vice mayor.

“We will now be able to charge the dues because we needed a year’s lease (to do so),” said Heidi Kuchta, the art league’s treasurer. “We were in a vicious cycle. We couldn’t ask for dues when they were only giving us a month-to-month lease. It was very simple: a lease and three months to get our feet back on the ground from the pandemic.”

As part of Vice Mayor Hodges’ motion, the art league will report monthly to the town on its financial and membership status.

“We will be there monthly. I will send them a financial report,” Ms. Kuchta said. “We will also look into grants.”

Like many nonprofits and for-profit businesses, GMAL encountered restrictions and financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. For much of that time, doors have been closed. Presently, there is a quilters’ guild that meets there each week.

With membership on hold amid public health concerns, GMAL had fallen behind several months on its $550 monthly rent. However, the art league has caught up on several months’ back rent through donations.

“There was two months where we had to go out and try to get money,” said volunteer Skip Claiborne.

At this point, there also remains a question about a February rent check that is unaccounted for and is being looked into.

Since an agreement reached in fall 2019, the town has been footing the bill for utilities — a trade-off for significant or complete rent reduction for the aging 203 Main St. base.

That averages out to just over $205 per month over those 2½ years, Millsboro Director of Finance/Technology Mat Hall said.

GMAL President Debra Doucette, a nonpaid instructor with the art league, said she and Mr. Claiborne are assembling a team of artists and community members to come up with a plan to keep the art league viable.

Classes are tentatively scheduled to start in June. Two summer camps are also being planned.

“My instructors, for the most part, have all had their COVID vaccines. All of our board has had our COVID vaccines. So we are now able to meet again,” Ms. Doucette said.

Under current COVID-19 regulations, the league’s hub can accommodate 24 people, 50% of the designated capacity, Ms. Doucette said.

In discussion prior to the lease agreement proposal, the GMAL had sought a moratorium on rent until January 2022.

Town Councilman Larry Gum, who joined his council colleagues in the approval, although with reservations, questioned the art league’s viability.

“I have seen the vibrant part of it. I don’t see it anymore. I see a vacant building with nobody in it, day in and day out. I have grandkids that take karate twice a week and are in gymnastics. The schools are open four out of five days a week. A lot of things are open,” said Councilman Gum, noting that several audience members who spoke in support of the art league were not from Millsboro.

“People come here and talk about how great it is. Most of what I heard are not residents of Millsboro,” he added. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect for the residents of the town of Millsboro to pay the whole thing. We’ve already picked up electric and propane. And now, we’re wanting to skip the rent and (have the league) pay nothing for a year. Somehow, this organization has to show they are viable and they have the funding. If you don’t have the funding, you can’t expect someone else to pay for it.”

Town Manager Sheldon Hudson also expressed his concern.

“There have been some payment issues in the past. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty. This has been an ongoing challenge, and I think that is my concern: What is the endgame?” said Mr. Hudson. “But the concern is, you don’t want to effectively treat other organizations unfairly by being too generous with one organization. That is one of the concerns I have.”

Lana Powell, a member of the Ocean Waves Quilters Guild, which recently joined the GMAL, asked for the town’s understanding during very difficult times.

“I am dismayed to hear the dialogue that is going on tonight. COVID hit this country. Come on, people, give us a break,” said Ms. Powell. “One of the most pleasant things I have driving through Millsboro in the past 11 years is riding by the Millsboro Art League. It puts a smile on my face. Picasso said, ‘Art washes away (from the soul) the dust of everyday life.’ Come on, people, help out the art league. Sure, they have had payment issues. They are a nonprofit. Do you know how hard it (is) as a nonprofit to scrape by during COVID?”

Ms. Kuchta also pleaded the league’s case.

“Give us three months to get our feet back on the ground,” Ms. Kuchta said. “If we have a one-year lease, we can get the membership. In those three months, we can then have our classes and fill that empty building that you say is there.”

Councilman Gum said he hopes for the best.

“We were told to step up. We have. Now, it’s time for your organization to step up on your side.”