Millsboro, downtown art league at odds over building rent

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MILLSBORO — Town officials are examining their partnership with the Greater Millsboro Art League, a downtown fixture for more than three decades that has encountered financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the art league several months behind in rent for the town-owned Main Street property that serves as its gallery and instructional hub, next month’s Town Council meeting will serve as the time to resolve the issue.

At Monday’s Town Council meeting, Town Manager Sheldon Hudson asked Mayor Michelle Truitt to contact the GMAL and request its attendance — in person or virtually — at the May 3 council session.

“Let them know they need to be here next month,” Mr. Hudson said. “If council is OK with that, I think that needs to be their last chance. I’m just being blunt.”

Discussion of the GMAL this week was precipitated by the league’s request for a long-term lease.

Contacted Tuesday, GMAL President Debra Doucette said, “Because I don’t have a long-term lease, other than month-to-month, I can’t go for grant money through the government programs.”

Through an October 2019 agreement, the town has been footing the bill for the league’s utilities — a trade-off to the GMAL’s request for significant rent reduction or canceling of rent for the 203 Main St. property, an aging structure.

GMAL’s monthly $550 rent for February and March was past due as of this week’s council meeting. In addition, the rent has been flat for several years with no inflationary adjustment, Mr. Hudson noted.

“Personally, I think they should look for another place that fits their size,” said Millsboro Councilman Larry Gum.

In the 18½ months since the trade-off, the town has paid nearly $4,000 in utilities — $1,911.98 for electric and $2,021.64 for propane, Millsboro Director of Finance/Technology Matt Hall said.

Since COVID-19 hit in March 2020, GMAL’s doors have not opened.

“It’s been basically closed,” Ms. Doucette said. “The only thing we’ve survived on is the fact that we had our quarter auction the week before everything shut down last year. If we hadn’t had that, we wouldn’t have had any money to keep the bills paid up until this point.

“I can’t have classes because of COVID,” she continued. “I’m not going to instruct a group of people (who) I don’t know whether they have been vaccinated. And I can’t (get) anybody else to do that. And that is generally our source of income.”

Town staff and council want information from the GMAL pertaining to the grant sources and amount requested, the number of clients it currently serves and more specifics on its request for a “long-term” lease.

“We’ve had up to 200 members at one point. It is just hard now to ask people for membership when I don’t have anything to offer,” said Ms. Doucette. “It’s one of those real Catch-22s. I can’t go for grant money because I don’t have a lease. I can’t ask for membership because I can’t offer classes. I can’t offer membership if I don’t have a lease and don’t know if the rug is going to be pulled or not. Basically, what I need is the town to let me know what they intend.”

Mayor Truitt polled the three council members in attendance — Councilman Gum, Jim Kells and Ron O’Neal — asking that if the league gets its back rent paid, would council be willing to entertain a long-term lease.

“It would be interesting to hear their take on what type of grants would be available and what type of funding would be available in order to keep that long-term lease,” said Councilman O’Neal. “Because if you’re basing it on grants that may or may not be there, … you can run into trouble.”

Councilman Gum added, “Why would they ask for a long-term lease when they haven’t paid their rent for the last (several) months? That is, to me, termination. I would say, if you’re considering a long-term lease, you should also have in that lease: ‘If you don’t pay the rent, the lease is null and void.’

“I will acknowledge, they were thriving at one time. It’s no longer.”

As Millsboro’s downtown undergoes a major face-lift, with new infrastructure, sidewalks and decorative pavers, property value will likely increase, as will demand, Mr. Hudson said.

“I’ll be the bad guy to go on the record as stating, certainly from the town’s perspective, that property has some economic-development benefit. We’ve certainly had a number of people mention, for example, a cafe downtown,” Mr. Hudson added. “If we were to lease that building to some concept like that, I think it would really help the pedestrian traffic downtown — as we do the pavers and sidewalks. Not to say the arts don’t have value, but there are payment issues and some other challenges that we face.”

Councilman Kells asked about the popularity of the building.

“Have there been inquiries regarding that building as far as a buyer or potential occupants?” he said.

Mr. Hudson replied, “Not that I can think of recently. But then again, we haven’t put out feelers or anything of that sort or put a sign on the building.

“My sense is that you’re going to see a lot of increased interest in the downtown with the pavers going in. I think you’ll see property values rising and more owner-occupied property. There is an opportunity here.”

A staple in downtown Millsboro since 1988, the GMAL has catered to aspiring artists young, old and in between. Its mission statement “is to promote interest in, stimulate knowledge of, and create passion for the creative arts by encouraging involvement, sharing expertise, and lending support to aspiring and established artists.”

“It’s hard,” said Ms. Doucette. “I believe in the art league. But I can’t fund it myself.”