Plans for a possible cultural arts center in The Woodlands have been put on hold by the township and officials from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion after months of cancellations and financial uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Directors put the brakes on the planning Wednesday night during a meeting of the board of directors, taking no action and not renewing a 120-day memorandum of understanding to officially explore the specifics of plans and also the financial elements of the project.

Despite the cessation for now of planning, the idea will remain a goal of township leaders in the next few years.

Board Chairman Gordy Bunch said the township needed to respect the financial situation facing the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, which has seen the loss of concerts and events during the pandemic shutdowns that began in March. Much of the 2020 slate of entertainers and concerts have been canceled or shifted to new dates.

“It is in the best interests to defer with the Pavilion,” Bunch said of the project. “This is an awesome project. This is one of the unfinished items keeping me around (for re-election).”

The idea dates back to the initial visions of community founder George Mitchell, who wanted a vibrant arts and cultural events element for local residents to enjoy. Mitchell believed residents should be able to have access to anything they desired or needed in life without traveling outside the township, including music and visual arts activities.

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The most recent push for the center was in spring 2019 when officials revisited the idea with preliminary architectural renderings and ideas to be explored.

In December 2019, when the recently-ended MOU was approved by the board, Nick Wolda, communications director for the township and president of Visit The Woodlands, said the agreement allowed the township and officials from the Pavilion — which is also known as the Center for the Performing Arts at The Woodlands — to enter into more formal discussions about a potential new performing arts center, something that has been on local leaders’ minds for many years.

“What it means is the township and the (Pavilion) have entered into what is called a non-binding memorandum of understanding to create an indoor performing arts center that would have as its main feature a 1,500-seat theater,” Wolda said in December. “This has been something that has been discussed in our community for many, many years. It was initially part of George Mitchell’s vision back in the late 1990s.”

Grant process on hold

A proposal to alter the township’s cultural grants process and guidelines was tabled to a future meeting after several directors raised concerns and asked questions about the recommended changes.

Communications Director Nick Wolda told the board the fund, which has a balance of more than $779,000 as of the end of December 2019, is used to fund specifically defined expenses for facilities or cultural arts education. The fund receives money from an events admission tax in The Woodlands, a net of about $150,000 per year.

According to a staff report on changes recommended by the Ad Hoc Economic Development Committtee, the committee is in, “Phase III of a comprehensive Cultural Arts Study regarding the feasibility of performing arts center in The Woodlands in conjunction with the Center for Performing Arts at (the Pavilion).”

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“The Events Admission Tax can be used for this study and/or future development costs associated with this initiative. Currently, the (board) is reserving these funds for this purpose,” the report states. “The (board) has the responsibility of how to appropriate funding from the Events Admission Tax line item. It is within the board’s discretion whether or how any grants may be awarded.”

Wolda also said numerous groups in the township had requested grant funding under the program. The annual $150,000 in events admission tax revenue is not expected to be collected in 2020, he added, due to the cancellation and postponement of many of the events at the Pavilion. The fund’s rules currently allow expenses related to the cultural arts center planning stage.

The directors discussed which groups could receive funds under the township’s enabling legislation, especially related to nonprofit entities, but no agreement could be reached. Township attorney Robin Cross said there were legal issues to research in order to ensure what was allowed by law is followed in any changes.

“I want to think about it,” said Director Ann Snyder. “We need to be sure we are using these funds in a proper way.”

Director Bob Milner requested the item be tabled, saying he had “concerns” about the proposal. Milner recommended the committee revisit the document and bring back revised proposals with a focus on any grant being distributed being spent inside the township boundaries.

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