Perkins Center Under Contract to Buy Arts Building from Collingswood


The deal gives the arts organization control over its permanent home, while adding nearly a half-million dollars to the borough coffers, which officials say will help pay for a new fire apparatus.

By Matt Skoufalos | May 24, 2023

Perkins Center for the Arts celebrates locally produced art in 2017. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

In the 20 years since Perkins Center for the Arts expanded from its Moorestown home into a second location in downtown Collingswood, the organization has become a fixture of arts and culture in Camden County.

In all that time, however, its headquarters at 30 Irvin Avenue has operated on a nominal lease — $1 annually — from the Collingswood borough government, which purchased the property from Carolfi Studios for $215,000 in June 2002.

Now the nonprofit is under contract to buy the building from Collingswood for $456,147, in a sale expected to be completed next month.

Perkins Center Executive Director Kahra Buss said the deal is the product of a 18-month, top-down organizational review that was begun in March 2020. Buss described its primary consideration — “What is the community looking for, and how can we serve that?” — as “listening and absorbing and reacting to requests that the community put forward.

“We really want to be a foundation for the community, and that was where the discussions about the building started,” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the community.”

The considerable work of arranging and consummating a commercial real estate purchase notwithstanding, acquiring the Irvin Avenue facility will support Perkins’ growth and goals for the foreseeable future, most of all because it will give the organization control over its timetable for improvements there.

“Our very first goal in our strategic plan is to increase access to the arts, and access comes in a lot of different ways — geographic, financial, emotional,” Buss said. “Now, the prospect of owning this building really gives us the opportunity to address accessibility.”

Among the work the facility has needed for some time are repairs to its HVAC system, roof, and accessibility upgrades to bring it into compliance with the American with Disabilities (ADA) Act.

Those fixes have been low-priority for the borough government in comparison with other infrastructure needs across Collingswood, but Perkins should be able to develop a realistic timetable for their achievement once it controls the property, Buss said.

Wooden fish from carver Mark Bair of Tuckerton at Perkins Center in 2016. Credit: Perkins Center for the Arts.

“There is definitely a list of items that need to be addressed for us to really, truly be great stewards of the building and great community partners,” she said.

“Without addressing those things, we can’t serve our communities adequately.”

Provided the deal is finalized next month, Perkins Center for the Arts will enter “a period of assessment,” Buss said, that will include a review of its facilities in both Collingswood and Moorestown.

By late June or early July, she said the nonprofit hopes to begin moving on facilities improvements as soon as possible.

“Everything depends on funding and support, whether that’s grants or community support,” Buss said.

In sum, however, she said Perkins staff and supporters are enthusiastic about the chance “to really invest in the property, and make the property a truly accessible engagement area,” which includes leveraging its prime location in the heart of downtown Collingswood.

“We’re close to Haddon Avenue; we’re right there in the farmers market,” Buss said. “We have a steady stream of traffic, right as everybody’s coming home from work.

“Having an arts center in your community is such a wonderful asset for everyone,” she said. “Whether you’re walking through the building, or actively pursuing a class or a continuum of classes, it’s a good thing all around.”

Perkins Center Board of Trustees Secretary Bruce Smith credited Buss with marshaling the resources and vision necessary for the organization to acquire its Collingswood home.

“How she’s been able to grow Perkins and its programming as an institution in the last few years has put it in a position to buy prime real estate in Collingswood,” Smith said.

“The borough also has been very accommodating and fair,” he added. “If we weren’t in a position to purchase it, it could have easily flipped to a ratable.”

To Smith, Perkins buying the building is as much about the organization making an investment in Collingswood as controlling its own environment there.

“It’s one of the things that takes a nonprofit like this to a whole other level,” he said. “What Perkins can be is everything that it’s been, but bigger.”

Quilter Carla Ezell’s works were featured at the Perkins Center Quilt Show in 2021. Credit: Carla Ezell.

In addition to offering a safe place for arts programming, owning the Collingswood facility allows the Perkins Center to realize its position as an anchor for “the communities that we’re in, and the communities that expand past where we are,” Smith said.

“Perkins is not a center that just takes local artists, it’s a nationally renowned center that is here,” he said.

“The idea is to be that beacon.

“Owning the building gives you the ability to pivot in multiple ways for growth,” he said; “not owning the building doesn’t give you that opportunity.”

Collingswood Borough Administrator Cassandra Duffey said the arrangement that helped Perkins to embed itself within the community has been a fruitful one for both the organization and the municipality.

“The idea was, when the [Carolfi]  studio was available, and Collingswood was looking for opportunities to develop and grow, Perkins would be a boon to the community, especially with arts and culture,” Duffey said.

“They’ve developed in a way that us being their landlord doesn’t serve their needs, and them being a tenant doesn’t help them to grow,” she said. “They get to stay here, with us, and they have someone in the building full-time.

“They have great relationships with not just folks in Collingswood, but the region,” Duffey said. “Their board is very engaged. It really adds to the fabric of Collingswood.”

“We’re happy they’re making the permanent commitment,” Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said. “When we acquired it, the hope was that they would make it their home.”

While retaining one of its signature arts and culture entities, the property sale will also provide Collingswood with an influx of cash that Maley said it will dedicate to the purchase of new fire apparatus.

The Collingswood FD engine bay reflects the challenges of maintaining apparatus. A seldom-used ladder truck (right) is seen next to a loaner from Westmont Fire Company while the Collingswood pumper is out of service (March 2023). Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Collingswood Fire Chief Geoff Joyce said that the borough fire department has had three meetings with Spartan Fire and Emergency Apparatus of Roebuck, South Carolina, a manufacturer of modular fire apparatus.

“We’re looking to buy another fire engine that’s very similar to the one we have, with firefighting, rescue, and medical capabilities,” Joyce said.

“It’ll be a twin of our current engine, a pumper.”

Joyce said the deal will be leveraged through Sourcewell of Staples, Minnesota; a solicitor of cooperative purchasing contracts for government and nonprofit agencies. Although that arrangement should dial in a competitive price, wait times for new fire apparatus are historically long.

“In general, any manufacturer you can purchase from is two years,” the chief said. “Even ambulances are up to 32 months.”

Collingswood hopes to cut that time — and the purchase price — to eight to 10 months by creating a modular pumper engine through Spartan.

“Philadelphia uses this manufacturer heavily,” he said; “if it works for them, it’ll work for us.”

The Collingswood Fire Department is still waiting for replacement parts to fix the exhaust system on its engine that has been sidelined for nearly half a year. Those materials were ordered in January and are finally expected to ship from Wisconsin to Mount Laurel this week, Joyce said. In the meantime, the department has operated with a loaner vehicle from Westmont Fire Company.

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