I wasn't able to get to the council meeting last week, and everyone I talked to who was there gave me a different story. Like eyewitnesses at a murder scene, everyone remembered it differently. So I'm going to tell you what I learned. You can draw your own conclusions.
The topic was development at 201 Dekalb Street, which is the building at Dekalb and Lafayette with the mural. First, let me give you a history of the mural. (I apologize that this makes the blog long--if you want to skip the history, start below at the red star.)
In the fall of 2011, the Norristown Mural Project was formed. The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program received a grant from Senator Daylin Leach's office to create a mural in our town. 201 Dekalb was chosen because it was the gateway to Arts Hill as you enter Norristown from Bridgeport. The owners of the building were willing to sign a contract allowing the mural to be put on their building. A call for artists' proposals went out in December.
On February 1st, there was a public forum about the project at Municipal Hall. According to Norristown Patch, "Norristown has looked to the arts in recent years to help with revitalization efforts in the municipality, so it's no surprise that many members of Norristown Municipal Council were on hand to support the project." Bill Caldwell was quoted as saying ""This is truly a community taking hold of its self [sic] and saying 'We're not going to wait for anybody to do these things... we're going to make this happen on our own.' When you do that you get people like Senator Leach who start take notice."
More public meetings were held, and the artist, Matthew Bush, was announced in March. On June 16, Norristown residents began painting sections of the mural in the Montgomery County Cultural Arts Center (Centre Theater building). The Times Herald quoted Philip Schettone, owner of 201 Dekalb, as saying "I knew what the town was like years ago. I saw how it deteriorated. The Norristown Arts Hill project and the Lafayette Corridor project, that may be a good start for everybody. That is why Marylou and I decided to go along with it.” His granddaughters helped to paint the mural sections.
In late June, the mural sections were installed on the wall at 201 Dekalb, and the final painting began. On July 25th, the completed mural was dedicated. The council president at the time, Richard Rogers, Jr., and Councilman Caldwell gave speeches. You can watch videos of the ceremony on YouTube.
*So the mural was paid for with taxpayer money, and actually painted by Norristown residents. It's OUR MURAL. It's also only 15 months old. At the council meeting last Tuesday, about half the attendees believed that council might give the new owner, Henry Ortiz of Malvern, permission to remove the mural. The other half of the attendees and the 2 councilpeople who gave me a statement said it was barely discussed. They all agreed that most of the discussion revolved around the number of apartments the new owner wanted to put in the building, and whether or not the billboard could be removed (which all of Norristown would applaud).
When asked this week, Councilman Simpson stated "Based on what I know, the new owners have not made any requests or statement about removing the mural. Also, they would be well within their rights to do so unless some form of signed contract exists between the previous owner, the Arts Council and Sen. Daylin Leach's office." Councilwoman Christian stated, "The new owners may or may not want the Mural (it was not really discussed)". What was missing from their statements was any personal opinion or support of the mural itself, or of the Norristonians who painted it, or of the taxpayers who paid for it. A simple "I understand how important the mural is to Norristown and will do what I can to preserve it," would have been nice to hear.
The fact that there wasn't much discussion at the meeting is more telling. The first thing I would have asked, given the building owner's plans, was "Will this damage the mural?" Apparently no councilperson asked that. The recommendation from planning was to "improve the exterior aspect." I agree that the front of the building needs serious improving, but will that recommendation be used to allow the owner to remove the mural? From the statements I received, or failed to receive, from council, no one seems to care, even though council seemed all gung-ho about the mural only 2 years ago.
In similar cases, the organization granting funds for such mural projects will often ask for their money back if the mural is painted over while it's still new. If that happens, will the taxpayers of Norristown have to foot that bill as well? I think we need to demand, if it comes down to it, that the new owner pay for it, or that the money come out of Council's own pockets.
But honestly, that mural is too valuable to lose. Studies show that murals cut down on graffiti. It's the artistic boundary that marks the entry into Arts Hill. We need to build that district, for the economic good of the town. One building owner putting in apartments and retail will help the revitalization a tiny bit (assuming he takes care of his building and isn't an absentee landlord). The Arts Hill District could help revitalization A LOT, assuming that we can elect council people who'll actually spend some time supporting and building the district, instead of catering to every person wanting to make money off of N-town housing . We don't need more housing as much as we need economic development in our downtown.
Moreover, removing the mural pretty much means we'd never see another mural in town again. No one is going to fund such a project if Council lets it be destroyed practically before the paint is dry.
Council tabled the discussion while they explore the feasibility of removing the billboard. They'll vote at the next meeting, on Wednesday, November 6th at 7:30 pm. Not Tuesday, because that's election day--which might be our chance to send a message. In the meantime, come to Centre Theater this Thursday at 7 pm, and ask your candidates if they support the arts in Norristown.