The ARTS/West building. File art.

Arts/WEST has been closed since March, and community members anxiously await its reopening.

The city’s arts building was a topic of in-depth discussion during the Sept. 28 virtual meeting of Athens City Council. Terri Moore, the director of Athens Arts, Parks and Recreation, did not virtually attend the Sept. 28 meeting. Relaying information about Arts/WEST was Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, who noted the director didn’t have any “firm, concrete updates” about the building.

Mayor Patterson did state, however, that the city is looking into the use of CARES Act funding to improve broadband services at the Arts/WEST building. In addition, the mayor noted the city’s government channel is working to see what equipment is necessary to stream content from Arts/WEST.

City officials previously announced the temporary closure of the ARTS/West building earlier this year, then pinpointing a tentative reopening date of Jan. 4. At the Sept. 28 council meeting, Councilmember Peter Kotses inquired about the possibility of adjusting the timeline for plans for the building.

“I don’t want this getting kicked to January,” he said.

The Athens Municipal Arts Commission (AMAC) met via Zoom in August to discuss the art building’s closure. ARTS/West is a part of the city’s Arts, Parks and Recreation department. Athens mayor Steve Patterson then explained earlier this year, due to coronavirus-related financial strains, department heads in the city were tasked with describing the state of their budgets and if their employees had enough work to fulfill a 40-hour workweek.

After analyzing annual and monthly reports, Patterson said, it “became clear” that a couple of city positions did not have a sufficient workload because of the pandemic.

The remaining employee of the arts building, the ARTS/West program specialist, was temporarily laid-off as a result. The mayor also then noted that this decision was difficult, but it likely won’t be the end of difficult decision making in terms of city employment, The Athens NEWS previously reported.

Moore previously said that her department had weekly meetings with the Athens City-County Health Department to be advised about best practices during the pandemic and receive approval for planning. When total cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) first began rising in the county, the health department took a “hard position” against activities that could encourage gatherings, Moore said. This included park shelters and the ARTS/West building. In addition, the cost for staffing exceeded what the department could afford.

City Auditor Kathy Hecht echoed the budgetary strains the city is facing, and noted she and Moore have had several conversations about the department’s budget. She stated she’s always been a supporter of the arts building, and she was auditor when the Nazarene church that is now Arts/WEST was purchased. Although people are “working hard to bring things back,” much goes into running a building, and expenses move far past gas and electricity, Hecht said.

“As the auditor, it’s my duty to remind everybody that the bottom line is cost,” she said during the Sept. 28 council meeting. The city auditor stated that a majority of a department’s budget goes toward personnel, and a city pays much more than just the salary of an employee from this financial pool: benefits and taxes also key into cost.

A few panelists joined the discussion to speak in support of Arts/WEST during the Sept. 28 meeting. For example, Emily Prince voiced worry over waiting until January to reopen the building, and pointed out many programming grants have deadlines that would coincide with a January reopening.

In addition, Brandon Thompson of the Arts, Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee noted that the time to look at art in a different way, and thus find different ways to fund its creation, is now.

“It just seems like art is at the very, very bottom and doesn’t have the support,” Thompson said. Thompson was the coordinator of Geek Week, a video series hosted at Arts/WEST in 2018.

Chelsea Morahan told council that art is not an item that should be cut from budgets.

“It’s so important to everyday life,” she, a member of AMAC, said. She echoed the idea of forming a non-profit related to the art building, a “Friends of Arts/WEST” group, which was also a point raised by Councilmember Kotses. Many grants are not eligible to government entities, but non-profit organizations can apply for funding.

Thompson noted that a group of this kind is in the works through the Athens Recreation Advisory Council. Councilperson Beth Clodfelter agreed with this, stating she wanted to communicate with Director Moore in order to allow community members to collaborate with the Athens Recreation Advisory Board, on which Clodfelter serves as the representative for city council.

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