Freeman Stage makes presentation to county council


Patti Grimes, executive director of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, gave Sussex County Council members an update on the Freeman Stage at Bayside earlier this week. Grimes said “the arts are alive” in Sussex County while sharing the progress the foundation has made.

According to its website, the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, “aims to create opportunities to elevate the human spirit through the arts, for residents of Sussex County and the surrounding area, by partnering to present memorable performances and provide inspired arts education for all.”

“We are a foundation on a mission,” she told the council. “Our mission has been consistent with partnering to present memorable performances and inspire arts education for all… Those last two words are very important to us: ’for all.’

“Having access for everyone in Sussex County, including guests that are coming into the county to enjoy high-quality arts experiences.”

Going into its eighth year, Grimes said the stage has had 205,000 patrons, with 50,000 being children and students, or under-served groups who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see high-quality arts performances.

“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” she added, noting that the Freeman Stage has approximately 100 volunteers logging 14,000 volunteer hours. “That is $300,000 that saves us that we can put into our programmatic activities.”

Grimes said the stage has had ticket-buyers from 30 states and has contributed an estimated $6 million dollars to the local economy just from performance nights alone.

In 2014, the Freeman Foundation received the Governor’s Award for the Arts.

“We were the only presenting organization in the state of Delaware to receive that, and the governor usually gives the awards out every four years,” said Grimes. “So we were very proud to represent Sussex and to receive that award on behalf of the State of Delaware.”

The foundation held a total of 87 events in 2014, including hosting 10 national recording artists. Grimes said that more than 51,000 patrons attended the year’s events. More than 14,000 students were able to enjoy the arts through the foundation’s efforts in 2014 alone.

“That was a record-breaking year for us… With your efforts and success, we’ve been able to continue this great program for children to come and see the arts,” said Grimes. “We actually received a letter from a teacher who said that the experience brought her to tears because, when they boarded the buses, there were children who said they had never been not only to an arts performance, they had never been to a movie or the boardwalk.”

Some of the outreach activities directed to Sussex County school children include Shakespeare plays and the Washington National Opera.

“We were the only Delaware organization last year to receive a NEA Challenge America grant, which is a federal-funded program, so that we could collaborate in Frankford, so the elementary students there were able to work with Julien Benichou, the maestro for the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. They had a choral program where they were on our stage for opening night last year.”

As for 2015, Grimes said the foundation announced its season line up in March, which includes 54 events just at the stage, including 16 national recording artists. Currently, four outreach programs are planned for the season.

“There’ll be a few other surprises that come in,” she added.

The Freeman Stage can accommodate 2,400 people when hosting a national recording artist.

“But the fact of the matter is we’re bursting at our seams,” said Grimes. “Right now, our board is leading us through a due-diligence process. We’re getting feedback and doing all kinds of work to see if the community will financially support a larger outdoor center.”

Grimes said the foundation can’t and won’t do it alone.

“We are excited about what that future may hold, and next year I hope to be back in council chambers talking to you about what that might look like.”

Councilwoman Joan Deaver asked Grimes if the foundation had considered a covered venue.

“In our initial feedback from what we’ve done, what we’ve heard from our patrons is they actually love being outside,” she said. “Our plans do have a covered roof area for probably about a thousand seats.”

Deaver also asked how involved Michelle Freeman is in the foundation. (Michelle DiFebo Freeman is Josh Freeman’s widow and has long ties to the local community.)

“She is our president and chair,” said Grimes. “She has taken an idea out of grief and just has created a wonderful vision and opportunity in Sussex County.”

Councilman Sam Wilson asked if children could attend any of the foundation’s events.

“All of our performances, except for those 16 [national recording artists’ performances] are free for any child 18 and under.”

Councilman George Cole said that many counties have an arts program, which requires a department and staff. He suggested that the next time the foundation presents to the council they provide an estimate as to how much money is saved from the public sector funding arts programs.

“You may in the future want to impress upon us… tell us how much money the council is possibly saving by your arts program, the impact of savings to the taxpayers by providing this through volunteers. It would just be an interesting number for us to see.”

Grimes said in her presentation that next year’s presentation will include that number. She added that the foundation has a multimillion-dollar budget and has its financial statements available online, as it is a nonprofit organization.

“I think exposure to the arts is an important thing, and we thank you guys for all you’re doing,” said Councilman Rob Arlett, noting he is sometimes able to enjoy the musical performances from his home, depending on the wind.

For more information about the Freeman Foundation, community members may visit www.freemanstage.org.

Council introduces revised ordinance on vendor stands

Also at the April 14 meeting, the council unanimously voted to introduce an ordinance to amend County Code relating to temporary removable vendor stands.

County Administrator Todd Lawson said the draft was changed per council direction to include the B-1 Neighborhood Business District as property where such temporary vendors may be located.

The proposed ordinance language specifies that the property must be zoned C-1, CR-1 or B-1 only; the structure must be temporary and removable (including food trucks, selling food, food-related or agricultural products only); must be in operation for six months or less; have only one stand per parcel, at a maximum size of 8.5 feet wide by 45 feet long; the activity must be approved, in writing, by the property owner; a drawing showing the stand location be submitted to the County; and a valid State of Delaware business license must be provided to the County.

Additionally, if Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank feels it is necessary, he may do a “kick-out” of the process and require the applicant to seek Board of Adjustment approval.

“The intent of this ordinance is to streamline the efforts so that a temporary removable vendor, which includes food trucks and similar trailers, located on premise no more of six months for only the sale of food, agriculture products and other food-related goods” can be permitted, said Lawson, “allowing them to go through a simple permitting process in lieu of what is currently required, which is a conditional-use process.”

The proposed amendment will have to go through two levels of public hearings before the Planning & Zoning Commission before returning to County Council.