A laudable new lease

Dec. 09, 2013 @ 05:20 PM

The historic building at 120 Morris St. in downtown Durham has served a public purpose for over a century.

And while there was little doubt it would continue to do so well into the future, it was reassuring last week that the Durham City Council signaled its intent to continue leasing the building to the Durham Arts Council for at least another decade and probably longer. The agreement has renewal options that could extend it through 2034.

The lease and the city’s subsidy agreement with the council, as the two entities have negotiated it, continue a pattern of fiscal caution that has characterized City Manager Tom Bonfield’s approach to city dealings.  No longer is the city inclined to lock in predetermined increases in its subsidy payments.

The terms of the new lease call for the city to continue to subsidize the arts council for operating the building, but without the guaranteed annual 3 percent increase in that subsidy included in the 25-year lease just ending. “We’re going to get away from those guarantees,” Bonfield said – including with the Carolina Theatre, with which the city also is negotiating new lease terms.

Instead, the city has the right to either raise or lower its payments by up to 2.75 percent a year.  That means the city’s subsidy over the 10-year lease could range from $5.9 million to $7.5 million – probably, officials predict, near the midpoint of those numbers.

The city’s subsidy is a substantial part of the arts council’s overall operating budget, which according to the most recent tax filing available was $1.6 million in 2011-12. The rest comes from private fund-raising and charges the council assesses for some events and services.

The subsidy is a worthwhile use of tax dollars. Aside from enriching the cultural life of the community with its classes, events and signature productions such as CenterFest arts festival, the council has, as executive director Sherry DeVries said last week, helped nurture the “creative economy” in Durham.

The building itself, although heavily transformed by the renovations in 1926 and those in 1988 that transformed it into the arts council’s home, is a downtown landmark.  It was built in 1906 as Durham High School and in 1926, when a new high school opened on Duke Street (now the Durham School of the Arts), it became Durham’s city hall. City Hall, in turn, moved out in the 1970s when the current structure opened off North Mangum Street.

That history makes the arts council’s home “Durham’s oldest building in continuous public service,” DeVries said last week.

With such a distinguished past and with its contributions to the community’s attractiveness and downtown’s revival, it is good to see its future, with the new lease and a long-term maintenance plan, looking assured for another generation.