The Washington Post

Torpedo Factory’s request to Alexandria council for rent waiver fails


The Alexandria, Va., waterfront with the artist's cooperative, the Torpedo Factory, in the rear. (Jeffrey MacMillan/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Alexandria City Council took a pass Tuesday on a request from the Torpedo Factory Arts Center to waive $137,000 in rent and utility fees for a year in order to add programs and renovate the nearly century-old facility.

The council was sympathetic to the art center’s appeal, but noted that it has just passed the city budget, and granting the request would mean something else has to be cut. The council let the proposal die without taking action but several members said it could come back in the fall.

Eric Wallner, the chief executive of the arts center, did not want to discuss the issue Wednesday, but Tuesday night when he was before the council, he noted that the nonprofit agency that runs the center pays $397,000 annually to the city, which owns the building.

“The Torpedo Factory defines the creative heart of our community and we can’t let it decay,” he said.

Giving the center a break on the rent would allow it to spend $18,000 on new signs, $25,000 on marketing and advertising, $55,000 on staff, $15,000 on programs and $25,000 for an architectural consultation on a renovation, the first since 1983.

The money is needed, Wallner told the council, because the bathrooms are often in bad repair and the building “is in decline.” He offered to take the elected officials on a tour to show them why the renovation is necessary.

The center draws 500,000 visitors a year, 83 percent of them from out of town, to its studios where working artists create and display their work. It has the only public bathrooms on a heavily used portion of Alexandria’s waterfront.

The organization is pursuing corporate partnerships and is fundraising, he said. It has also considered imposing an admission fee for the first time and raising rents for the 165 artists who use the property.

“I want to be supportive,” said council member Paul Smedberg (D), “but given the large amount of money you’re asking for,” making a deal right now would leave the city $137,000 short before the budget year even begins July 1.

“My concern was one of process,” Smedberg said later. “I want something like this debated within the context of other budget considerations.”

Mayor Bill Euille (D) suggested that the matter be tabled at least until the council returns from its two-month summer recess in September.

“We’re not ready to go down this path just yet,” he said.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.

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