Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 4, 2013

After 'nice run,' NACC funds cut by council majority

By Justin Sondel
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — NIAGARA FALLS — City support for a local arts and cultural organization has officially come to an end, according to members of the city council’s three-man majority. 

Saying the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center — an organization that grew out of a community based drive several years ago to save the old Niagara Falls High School from the wrecking ball — has “had a nice run,” Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said this week he’ll support efforts to suspend city funding that has been enjoyed by the non-profit organization for years.  

Choolokian and Councilman Sam Fruscione both said they will move to end the allocation of city funds for the NACC because they think the time has come to stop what they view as the organization’s “frivolous” spending practices. 

The NACC has received more than $330,000 from the city during the last 11 years, but Choolokian said given the city’s current financial situation it cannot continue to carry the load this year.

“The NACC’s done,” Choolokian said. “We can’t continue to fund these things.”

Fruscione pointed to a document submitted by the nonprofit listing expenses for programming, saying the city should not be paying for the organization to throw parties, such as the Art of Beer fundraiser and the NACC’s 10th birthday party.

“We’re not going to support the NACC at all,” he said.

But Kathy Kudela, the executive director of the nonprofit, said there is some confusion over the document. The spending report that was submitted to the city council accounts only for spending on programming and does not list the more than $150,000 a year that the organization spends keeping the lights on, the sidewalks clear and the grass trimmed at the 180,000-square-foot former Niagara Falls High School building.

“What we really spend the money that the council gives us on is maintaining this building as a legacy for the city,” she said.

In 2011 the organization spent more than $400,000 in total, according to information supplied to the Niagara Gazette by Lou Townsend, the center’s director of finance.

The organization gets most of its money through renting space to artists and fees from events, but also uses the money from the city, private donations and grants to keep the building running and to provide programming to local residents and youth.

More than 70 artists have studio space in the building.

“The majority of our money comes from rentals,” Kudela said.

In addition to spending upwards of $200,000 on upkeep, the organization also employs a small staff. During the years in question, the art center’s payroll has gone from $125,000 to $106,000, according to financial figures provided by Townsend.

And maintaining those numbers has not been easy, said Townsend, who ran an auto parts store for more than 40 years before selling it in 1993.

“I think the NACC has been frugal beyond belief,” he said.

Both Kudela and Townsend are full-time volunteers, putting in full work weeks to run the not-for-profit without compensation.

Fruscione pointed to other expenditures — including $12,000 a year the organization has used to put on a jazz series in recent summers and a $500,000 gift from the city that was used in 2007 to match a state grant for the repair of the building’s roof — as other reasons to cut off city funding to the organization.

Fruscione, Councilman Charles Walker and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. were on the council when the decision was made to provide casino revenues to repair the roof and save the building. Their names appear on a plaque commemorating that decision in the second floor hallway of the building near the not-for-profit’s offices.

Fruscione said he is embarrassed that he voted to fund the new roof on the building and that the council should have let Benderson Development raze the building and turn the site into a plaza as the company had proposed.

“It should have been demolished,” Fruscione said.

The concert series will instead take place on Old Falls Street this year because Global Spectrum has agreed to put the series on for $2,200 less than the NACC, Fruscione said.

“We’ve been handing the NACC money hand over fist for years and they can’t step up at all,” he said.

Walker, who offered one of the two ‘yes’ votes to approve the appropriations agreement for the group, said the NACC provides summer programming that not only gives kids something to do, but teaches them the value of community.

“They provide these services and they do it by stretching their money thin,” he said.

Townsend, who will turn 80 next month, has been volunteering his time since 2003 and officially became the director of finance in 2005. He graduated from the high school where he now spends many hours every week working to make sure that the legacy of the building lives on.

Townsend said he contributes his time and money to the organization because as a citizen of Niagara Falls he realizes its value as “a bastion of safety.”

“There is no ego and no financial reward,” he said.

For Kudela, efforts to keep the 90-year-old building maintained and to save it from the wrecking ball when it was facing demolition in 2002, are “labors of love.”

“We’re not here for the greed or the glory, the money or the power,” she said. “We’re doing this for the city.”