News and Tribune

October 14, 2012

Pilot House drifting listlessly

Project to convert old Jeffersonville High School cafeteria into arts site on-hold


JEFFERSONVILLE — The concept was to create a center for public art in downtown Jeffersonville. The project had to clear a few hurdles to become reality, but an arts group leading the effort and the city of Jeffersonville agreed to move forward with the plan.

But since it was conceptualized, the plan to turn a former Greater Clark County Schools building into a community arts center and museum has endured a host of changes in who was making the decisions, definitive plans for the space have not been cemented, no one seems to know if the project will move forward and it has effectively stopped.

Pilot House beginnings

Near the end of 2011, the Greater Clark County Schools Board of Trustees and the city of Jeffersonville approved an interlocal agreement to purchase the old Jeffersonville High School cafeteria, known as Franklin Square.

Jeffersonville’s Redevelopment Commission agreed to purchase the building — near the corner of Court and Meigs avenues — for $45,000, to be paid in three installments, and turn it into a home for the arts and for the Clark County History Museum.

The purchase of the building, which became known as the Pilot House, included several contingencies. Among them was a six-month timeline to get the project off the ground, and if a plan had not moved forward, the city could sell the land back to the school corporation.

That six-month timeline has passed.

However, Jeffersonville City Attorney Les Merkley said at a recent redevelopment commission meeting that even though the six-month run time began the date the interlocal agreement was signed, it would still be up to the city whether or not they would want to return the building to the school corporation. He added that he does not believe the city owns the building until the final payment is made.

Becca Christensen, member of the board of directors for the Pilot House and Greater Clark board member, disagreed and said the school corporation and the Pilot House were operating as if the redevelopment commission owned the building, citing that the city has an insurance policy on the structure.

“I think that’s where we have a breakdown in communication,” she said.

Another unresolved issue is whether or not a financial plan has been submitted to the city by the Pilot House.

Christensen said a business plan has been put together.

Dawn Struck, a Jeffersonville High School art teacher who is a leader of the arts organization, said the group has a business plan and the nonprofit paperwork ready to go, but they felt they could not move forward without additional commitments from the city.

According to the interlocal agreement, the Pilot House board of directors was required to formulate a business plan, establish or make significant progress to establish a 501(c)3, create a conceptual design for the building and execute a lease or working agreement between the redevelopment commission and the Pilot House organization.

However, concerns were raised by the redevelopment commission about the estimated renovation costs for the building, which have been placed at about $2.7 million. A portion of the renovation costs — not to exceed $145,000 —- are set to go toward roof repairs, which were approved on the contingencies that the redevelopment commission see a business plan and received the nonprofit paperwork.

“That was part of the deal ... come up with a business plan, come up with the 501(c)3 paperwork, which we did, but we couldn’t submit because there is a key component that asks you for monies .... we had to know how much they [the city] were going to contribute to this building so we could appropriately put that cost in,” Struck said. “We just haven’t gotten that answer.”

Redevelopment Director Rob Waiz said the city has still not received that business plan and has also not moved forward on replacing a roof on the building.

“That was part of the agreement, is to have a business plan,” he said. “Nothing has changed in the agreement.”

Another setback?

At the redevelopment commission’s September meeting, the Pilot House project was dealt another blow when Clark County Museum President Jeanne Burke was granted the option to pursue another property at 721 Michigan Ave. — and its adjacent pole barn that was formerly a sign company.

Burke said the Clark County Museum has been looking to move into a more visible location.

“It’s easier for us to get attention and money if we’re in a highly visible spot,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know we exist.”

The museum is currently located on the fourth floor of the Clark County Government Building at 501 Court Ave.

Burke asked the redevelopment commission if it would be willing to donate the Michigan Avenue property — which was acquired by the city under the previous administration to complete its plan to develop a canal — so the museum could move into that location. She added that most of the renovation work would be done by museum volunteers and the two entities would need an ownership or rental agreement for property in order for the museum to secure grants to fund the renovations.

But the shift to the Michigan Avenue location would mean that the museum was pulling out of the Pilot House it was supposed to share with arts groups.

“There may be some confusion about the Pilot House program, and the museum, and what all happened to that, I don’t know,” Burke said.

She said the museum’s decision to move on was, in part, due to questions about whether the city supported the effort and that the arts organization was not moving forward at the Pilot House.

“Once they left, we couldn’t be in that building alone with all that space,” Burke said. “So we kind of gave up on the Pilot House program and that’s where we stand today.”

With the request, the redevelopment commission agreed to begin the request-for-proposal process for a lease-purchase for the museum at the Michigan Avenue site.

Uncertain future

Christensen said she was confused by the redevelopment commission’s approval to issue a request-for-proposal to have the Clark County Museum move into the Michigan Avenue location.

“Someone needs to use the building,” Christensen said of the Pilot House. “We were ready to go. We were told that we would all work together for something for the Franklin Commons Neighborhood Association in downtown Jeffersonville. In the meantime, that building needs a roof and it is owned by the redevelopment commission.”

Even without the Clark County Museum as a part of the Pilot House project, organizers said they would like to move forward.

“I believe in my heart the arts component of this would fill the building,” Christensen said. “I still believe there is undoubtedly enough support for this from the community. We just need the green flag to move forward with this and I believe we will raise the money.”

But the Pilot House is still waiting on a go-ahead from the city so it can begin seeking donations.

“Originally, it was something that we were going to fundraise for,” Struck said. “The city wasn’t going to pay for the whole thing. I think there’s enough support for it locally, and I think people are really excited about it still and would love to see it happen. I just don’t know how it could at this point. I’m still very passionate about what that building can be.”  

Waiz agreed that having passed the timeline, and not yet having a business plan in place does not mean the deal has been negated.

“If they get something viable put in front of us, we’ll move forward,” he said.