Building donation a go; Council OKs giving AACA office space, but Jeff Austin questions site donation
Published 10:51 am Wednesday, January 18, 2017
After the Austin City Council passed a motion to donate the Parks and Rec office space to the Austin Area Commission for the Arts to expand the Historic Paramount Theatre, supporters and board members in the crowd broke into applause to thank the city.
“We’re gonna make you proud,” AACA board member Gretchen Ramlo told the council.
The council voted 5-1 — with Jeff Austin voting no and Laura Helle, the AACA’s executive director, abstaining to give the property — to the AACA and the Paramount Theatre, 125 Fourth Ave. NE, to provide needed space for a larger theatre entrance and wings, main floor restrooms, dressing rooms, practice and a multipurpose area.
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For AACA board member Belita Schindler, the handicapped accessible bathrooms will fill a need. She told the council a story of going to the Paramount Theatre for an event after having hip-replacement surgery and realizing she couldn’t go to the bathroom at the Paramount, which doesn’t currently have handicapped accessible bathrooms.
“I realized, ‘I can’t go to the bathroom at the Paramount, so this is personal for me,” she said, drawing a laugh from the council and crowd.
The Parks and Rec office is immediately west of the Paramount, but the city no longer needs the building as Parks and Rec is slated to move into City Hall once a remodel is complete.
While the entire council spoke in favor of the AACA acquiring the property, Austin questioned the AACA receiving it as a donation. He argued the city shouldn’t give away the downtown property and said he’d like to see the AACA have “some skin in the game” if it bought the property.
“I am not against their plan and what they want to do,” he said. “My issue is with providing them the building for no cost.”
Austin argued past city donations are given to projects that will spur economic development and create jobs, and this expansion likely wouldn’t create jobs.
“I think it’s a great facility; I’m happy that the city of Austin has this,” he said. “I have no problem with selling them this building. I guess I just have an issue with giving them the building”
But Council member Janet Anderson argued donating the building for the theater expansion will generate business and activity downtown.
“Even though it’s a donation of the property, it’s going to come back in a variety of ways,” she said.
Council member Steve King agreed with Anderson, saying the positives outweigh the negative for the potential for the Paramount expansion.
“While I respect Mr. Austin’s positions on this, I certainly see it differently,” King said. “In the big tea chart of life, I think we’ve got to weigh the positives and the negatives and I think this one is great on the positive side.”
King pointed out that when discussions first came up, the city council discussed donating a parcel of land to the east, and the city would have moved some utility work at that site for an estimated cost of $100,000 — more than the estimated $82,000 value of the building being donated now.
Council member Dave Hagen also voiced support for the donation, saying the AACA’s plans create a potential that far outweighs the potential of an empty building with no plans.
The city would be on the hook to pay expenses for the empty building, should the Park and Rec office remain empty.
“I think by giving it to the Paramount Theatre, that takes a burden off the city and puts it on them to make it happen,” Hagen said.
Even though Mayor Tom Stiehm only votes if there’s a tie, he also voiced support for donating the property, referencing “other players” involved in the process making donations that are looking to the city to set an example.
AACA board member Randy Kramer told the council that obtaining the Park and Rec property is just one piece of the puzzle for the expansion.
“The expansion project is going to be a lot more than just that section,” Kramer said. “The amount of money that Paramount Theatre and the Austin Area Commission for the Arts is prepared to inject into this project is considerably higher than what the cost of that or what the value of that building is.”
Austin praised the AACA for its successes and growth in recent years, and noted it’s done so with very little support coming from tax dollars. But he questioned giving away the property while getting nothing in return.
Kramer argued the city will get much in return. He said the Paramount and its programming gives people one more reason to live in Austin, as it provides a venue for people to utilize.
“It gives people one more reason to live here,” he said.
He also pointed out the theater brings people downtown, where they then support Austin businesses.
“I think the city would get a lot in return from this project,” he said.
Stiehm argued quality of life and economic development are difficult to separate, and he thinks the expansion will do both.
Schindler had a few words of encouragement for the board just before its vote.
“All you have to do is give it to us, and we’ll take it from there,” Schindler said.
Despite disagreement among the council members, there were no hard feelings. Council members shared a brief, friendly conversation about the vote at the end of Monday’s work session, which followed the regular meeting.
Helle, who remained silent during the discussions and vote during the regular meeting, praised Austin for how he expressed his difference of opinion.
“I think Mr. Austin showed some class in speaking up the way he did,” she said.