Victoria College could soon own Welder Center

Jan. 31, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 31, 2012 at 8:01 p.m.

The Leo Welder Center for the Performing Arts casts a cool glow from the new neon lighting that outlines the bulding.

The Leo Welder Center for the Performing Arts casts a cool glow from the new neon lighting that outlines the bulding.

Victoria College could soon own the downtown Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

If negotiations go through, the college could own the estimated $4.5 million property for essentially $65,000, or the amount of debt its current owner holds.

The board of the Victoria Performing Arts Center Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns the Welder Center, voted Monday night to enter into a 90-day agreement with the college, during which time the college can explore the property and negotiate a deal with VPAC's president, Robert Hewitt Jr.

Though no specifics have been agreed upon, Hewitt said, the deal would transfer the building's title to the college, while VPAC's outstanding debt would "be extinguished, and we turn over the keys."

"It's a matter of really custody for the future of what our board, and I think Victoria College, sees is a very important asset to the community," said Hewitt, who has been a part of the Welder Center project since its inception in 1992.

"Twenty years is a generation," he added. "We've reached a point where we need to start thinking about ... who would be the best entity to take this - what is really a gift to Victoria - and carry it into the future."

Long time coming

VPAC was created in 1994 and charged with planning and funding an arts center in downtown Victoria. Ten years and $3.5 million later, the Leo J. Welder Center was opened.

Since then, Theatre Victoria has operated the building, taking care of scheduling, paying utility bills and acting as the resident company. By now, Theatre Victoria's core of about 150 volunteers fills some 10,000 seats a year at the Welder Center, according to its website.

Meanwhile, VPAC's yearly operating expenses hover around $80,000, Hewitt said, most of which are related to insurance and major repairs.

Catcher's mitt

Forms filed with the IRS show VPAC has spent more money than it's earned in the past four years.

"In the end, the catcher's mitt - financially speaking - has been the O'Connor Hewitt Foundation," said Hewitt, who's the vice-president of that foundation. "Is it fair, you know, for that to be the end-all of end-all for all time? And my answer ... is to say no because those monies can be used to feed people, clothe people and other humanitarian things."

In 2010, the O'Connor Hewitt Foundation gave more than $1 million to organizations mostly in Victoria.

IRS records show the foundation has supplied more than half - and, in 2010, 89 percent - of the gifts, grants and contributions VPAC receives each year.

Bright nights

Hewitt said the impetus behind VPAC's and the countless other investors' decades of dedication to the Welder Center has been to create a cornerstone in Victoria's downtown that will lead to revitalization.

The time is ripe, he said.

Many nights, the 200 block of North Main Street is dark, the Welder Center's neon lights nothing but shadows.

"That's quite a shame," Hewitt said, adding that he thinks VC will be able to come up with ideas to use the center on a more consistent basis.

He wants to increase foot traffic by generating activity within the Welder Center, which in turn will help all the businesses downtown that are attracted to the revitalization project.

Shared mission

It seems everyone involved with the negotiations to transfer the Welder Center over to the college has the same vision for the building's potential: promoting both the arts and Victoria's downtown.

Victoria College President Tom Butler said the college has been searching for a way to get a hand in the downtown revitalization when just a couple months ago the deal with VPAC began to surface.

"It's part of our mission that we bring culture to the community ... so this is kind of a natural fit - what the college is doing and the long and rich history of the Welder Center," Butler said. "We're really honored that they would think of us as good future stewards of this really important building."

Butler, calling Theatre Victoria the heart of the Welder Center, said the college's newly formed feasibility team will talk with the theater about how to best meet the community's needs in the future.

Both Theatre Victoria's executive artistic director and the president of its board said they received VPAC's resolution Tuesday morning. They said they look forward to working with VC in the coming months.

"It looks great for all parties involved - VPAC, Victoria College and the theater. I think it's going to be a win-win-win," board president Omar Rachid said. "VC has always supported the arts, and it's going to be something really very exciting."

Staci Robbins, executive artistic director, shared the same enthusiasm.

"We are excited to explore the whole idea of building a relationship with the college and working together to have things here, particularly since the Welder Center is ... something that is building the downtown area, and everything we do here is bringing more people to restaurants and bars and businesses downtown."

It remains unclear, though, how the Cultural Council of Victoria will fare in the deal, as the nonprofit organization is housed in the Welder Center. Joe Baugh, the council's executive director, declined to comment until he knew more of the details of an agreement with VC.

The future

If VPAC and VC strike a deal at the end of the 90-day resolution, no one quite knows when VC would take over ownership of the Welder Center. Butler mentioned the theater is in the middle of its season.

Plus, the Victoria, TX Independent Film Fest is set to debut in the Welder Center in March.

On that matter, Butler said he would love for the college to contribute.

The impact on the tax roll would remain the same, as neither nonprofit organizations nor Victoria College pays property taxes.

And VPAC won't go away just yet.

Hewitt said he expects the organization to do some soul-searching and act as a support system for whatever comes next for the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

"Even though in a sense, after 20 years, I'm sort of ending my position as president, I still have a lot of pride in that building. The board still has a lot of pride as well," Hewitt said. "They're going to want to see it prosper and succeed."



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