Cultural Council reacts to lease questions

During Monday night’s regular meeting of the St Augustine Beach city commission, Dr. David P. Rice, senior pastor for Ancient City Baptist Church, did not rise to the podium to offer an invocation to those attending; he rose, instead, in defense of the St Johns Cultural Council where he serves as president — the beleaguered arts agency in the cross-hairs for their poor evaluations with St Johns County.

Previously published on the public agenda was a presentation scheduled by City Attorney Doug Burnett, of the St Johns Law Group, questioning whether or not the Cultural Council was in default of its lease of the historical Arts Center in St Augustine Beach that, at one time, served as City Hall.

Burnett was not able to make the presentation, former St Augustine and St Johns County attorney, James Whitehouse, also with the firm, stood in during Burnett’s absence. Even though it was not possible to make the presentation as planned, Whitehouse told Historic City News Tuesday that at least having the item on the agenda got the Cultural Council to attend a meeting.

Whitehouse says the City will welcome an opportunity to hear what the Cultural Council has to say about their performance under the lease for the oceanfront building. The City is expected to announce a commission workshop to discuss a number of issues related to that 25-year lease.

The Cultural Council promised the City, in October 2001, that if they didn’t have to pay rent, not later than September 1, 2004, they would make needed repairs to the aging building, and build an “Arts Center” for the beachside community and its visitors.

Four years after making that commitment, they came back to the commission and admitted that they weren’t able to live up to that obligation; and so, on October 10, 2005, the Cultural Council was given an extension of time to bring the property into compliance with the lease terms.

They were granted one more year to open the art center and provide the program of educational activities required by the lease. According to the lease, the Art Center “shall be open not less than five (5) days a week, and not less than five (5) hours a day”.

That has some beach residents complaining to their mayor.

Complainants say that, since the Cultural Council moved out of St Augustine Beach, into their current location on Mission Avenue, the only thing they are doing is making thousands of dollars monthly from third-party tenants who sublet. The Dance Company, for example, pays the Cultural Council $2,356.00 every month — and they have paid rent since June 1, 2002. None of that money went to the City, who owns the building.

Burnett listed the following observations and questions:

Less than 50% of the property has been opened to the public.
Less than 50% of the property has been maintained in good repair and condition.
The small building was removed from the Lease so it could be saved by the City.
The small building was never opened to the public.
The small building on the lot was not maintained in good repair and condition.
Cultural Council has not repaired the building(s).
Cultural Council has not fully opened the building(s) to the public.
Has the City previously provided notice of default and the Cultural Council responded?

Questions remain unanswered about exactly how well the Cultural Council is living up to its contractual obligations to the people of St Augustine Beach. The fact remains that all the representations which formed a fundamental basis for the City granting the Lease have not materialized, according to Burnett’s presentation material.

So now, taxpayers are asking questions of their elected city officials — questions like, “Has the Cultural Council maintained the structure?”, and, “Has the Cultural Council operated the structure as an Art Center?”

Burnett was also prepared to ask the commission if the Cultural Council’s Art Center was open to the public? Has the Cultural Council opened the property as an Art Center yet, and have they provided facilities for encouragement of the Arts? And, Burnett wonders, has the Cultural Council kept the property free from liens? Has the Cultural Council maintained the structures in good repair and condition?

One source of continued disappointment is the building’s second floor which remains unfinished, vacant, and unusable. Burnett agrees that the repairs needed will be expensive; however, the cultural council approached the City, not the other way around, and, the Cultural Council inspected the property. The city made no representations.

When a date and time are scheduled for the workshop, it will be published and covered by Historic City News.

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