Showdown at Coventry: PEACE Campus in jeopardy
Deanna Bremer Fisher–head of the board of the Coventry PEACE Campus in Cleveland Heights, and also executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization for the city, Future Heights–hopes to temper, perhaps even resolve, a dispute between that arts-and-culture organization and Heights Libraries, the system that continues to serve as landlord to CPC, perhaps against its will.
Bremer Fisher will make a statement affirming the value of CPC to the Heights libraries board in a Zoom meeting Monday night. Heights Libraries has owned the former Coventry Elementary School building, an adjacent park and a parking lot, since March 29, 2018, when the city turned the property over for a dollar.
The CPC, which was formed more than two years ago to represent tenants of the the former Coventry Elementary School building, is facing a cash crunch: It has to come up with a $25,000 reserve fund for Heights Libraries by Aug. 1. Also due that date: a letter of intent for a one-year lease with an option to extend provided CPC comes up with a fundraising plan and demonstrates financial solvency.
“I do intend to speak at Monday’s meeting,” Bremer Fisher said Friday. “While I haven’t yet figured out my approach, my goal will be to remind the library about what we were both trying to achieve with this project and the value the arts and culture nonprofits in the building bring to the community. I will let them know what I think is at stake and what the community will lose if we cannot sit down and come to an agreement. I will ask them to sit down with us to talk about the situation and work with us on a solution.”
In a July 9 news release, Heights Libraries suggested that while it has lived up to its agreement with the CPC, the CPC hasn’t. And while it will retain ownership of the property and plans to “continue to enhance the park space” and its parking lot, if the tenants don’t come through, “we may demolish the building and enlarge the park.”
Heights Libraries Director Nancy Levin noted in the release that the tenants have “only placed about $12,000 in the Reserve Account over the past two years.” The two-year leases expired June 30. The library system wants one-year leases, while the CPC ultimately wants a long-term ground lease.
“The leases for all the tenants made it very clear that payment to a reserve fund, and repayment to the library of the funds the library spent, and continues to spend, on repairs, upkeep, etc., is an expectation,” Sheryl Banks, Heights Libraries communications manager, said by email. “It was made clear from the very beginning (over two years ago), in the language of the leases and in multiple conversations, that the expectation was and is for the tenants to pay the library back and take over the financial responsibilities for running and taking care of the building. That has never changed.”
“We will hopefully…work out some of the issues,” said Bremer Fisher, who also is executive director of Future Heights, a long-time tenant that would seek another office in Cleveland Heights if an agreement can’t be reached. “July 1, 2020 was the goal for the library to have some sort of agreement with us,” she noted.
In February, following a facilities feasibility study by IFS (the former Illinois Finance Fund), a “mission-driven lender and real estate consultant,” CPC presented a preliminary plan for operating the building to the libraries board, according to Bremer Fisher. The following month, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down Ohio—and the CPC. Ensemble Theatre, its largest tenant, remains closed under state mandate.
“We really don’t know when things are going to get back to normal, to the other end of this pandemic,” said Bremer Fisher, “and we really need more time before we can assume the risks of managing and operating this building.”
Each tenant has to think about a Plan B, and if no deal is reached, “some organizations may look outside the city of Cleveland Heights,” Bremer Fisher said.
Neal Martin, owner of NJM Ceramic Arts Studios, moved into the building in early 2018 from Cleveland Clayworks in the basement of the Coventry Library. “My understanding was that Coventry PEACE was going for a long-term lease,” he said. “The artists are never asked to do anything other than just be artists. The artists are purely tenants of Artful. The library is not my landlord, if you will. I pay my checks to Artful.” Artful writes rental checks to Heights Libraries.
”I knew secondhand that the nonprofits in the building were trying to lease the building long-term so they could have the stability to really utilize the space,” said Martin, who is known for his Mee Bähs, whimsical, three-legged ceramic creatures. “It seems like those negotiations disappeared … I thought those negotiations were ongoing and this came out of the blue. I expected them to sign a long-term lease.”
“The key for me is I invested a great deal of money into the space and for me, it was a dream come true to have my own studio, with the ability not only to give other people working space to do ceramics but also to offer classes and workshops to the community.”
If this impasse isn’t resolved, “not only will my dreams be shattered, but my investment, which I only now am beginning to recoup, would be largely for naught. I feel like the rug is being pulled out from under me,” Martin said.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from South Euclid.
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