With Brooks Institute finally shuttered, as of Oct. 31, questions still linger among residents as well as Brooks alumni, students and staff over the failed move to Downtown Ventura. After years of ownership and leadership changes as well as declining enrollment at the renowned photography school, the future of an urban campus seemed promising. The most recent owner, GP Homestay/Green Planet, which bought the school in 2015, announced that renovations would be halted in August and then, shortly after, that the school would be closed permanently. The move involved leases and construction contracts with private entities as well as with the city, which, in particular, left locals wondering who was responsible for financial obligations.
Leigh A. Eisen, economic development manager of the city of Ventura, was among the city staff and City Council members who helped pave the way for Brooks to move downtown. She responded this week about where the city is now with the unsuccessful experiment.
Why did the city get involved in this venture with Brooks?
The city saw this as an economic development initiative to support a long-standing local creative institution comprising 350 students, as well as a business retention opportunity to retain more than 100 local jobs with a payroll of more than $5 million per year by facilitating Brooks’ move to Downtown Ventura.
The city was approached last year with an idea by downtown property owners, represented by the Downtown Ventura Partners (DVP), to facilitate the relocation of Brooks Institute to the Downtown area. In order for Brooks to find and occupy other permanent facilities downtown, it needed a temporary location to assist in its transition. With the Trade Desk just having vacated a portion of a city-owned building downtown and that lease expiring in February, the city had the ability to make short-term space available to Brooks. (The Trade Desk vacated in November, but the lease and rent payments continued through February). Subsequently, the city entered into a short-term lease with Brooks through December 2016, with the option of four one-year extensions to help facilitate their move.
How much money did the city have to pay for the improvements at City Hall?
None. The city did not contribute any funds to Brooks’ improvements.
During its brief lease, Brooks Institute made improvements to the 60-year-old building that will contribute to the value and marketability of the property going forward.
Public property, unlike private property, cannot be liened. Additionally, since lien rights cannot be filed on public property, the city is not liable for the improvements that were made, and the contractor cannot successfully file a lien against public property.
How much did Brooks end up paying to the city?
Brooks never moved in and never paid rent.
How many tenants did the city lose at City Hall to make room for Brooks?
None. To make more efficient use of rentable space in the building, the city consolidated the nonprofit tenants with other tenants; no tenants were evicted.
There were 10 nonprofit tenants located on the fourth floor; alternative space in the building was provided for all tenants, and every attempt was made to offer comparable space. For example: Ventura Botanical Gardens previously occupied 216 square feet of space and now has 350 square feet; Ventura County Ballet Company previously occupied 110-square-feet of space and now resides in 96 square feet; Focus on the Masters previously occupied a 2,000-square-foot space delineated by cubicle partitions; it now occupies a 1,760-square-foot suite with permanent walls and private, secure entryways.
All nonprofit tenants are subsidized, paying $1 per year in rent, plus costs for basic utilities. Two non-profit tenants elected to leave during the Brooks transition. One new incubator tenant — paying market rate rent — moved into an office suite during this time.
Has the city filed any lawsuits against Brooks Institute owner Green Planet/GP Homestay?
No. The city is in the process of working cooperatively with the other injured parties.
What are the next steps for the city to recover losses due to Brooks?
In addition to working cooperatively with other injured parties, the city will eventually tenant the space with a new user(s) and has already received multiple inquiries from interested parties regarding lease of the vacant space.
How much was the total loss?
The space was not occupied previously, no tenants were displaced and no improvements were subsidized. The city may have experienced a lost opportunity cost — i.e., another tenant may have occupied the space during the time it was controlled by Brooks — but the city did not expend any funds toward this project. Brooks, however, never paid the city the deposit and rent owed under the terms of its contract with the city.
The city empathizes with all who have been affected by the decision of GPHomestay to close Brooks Institute. It is disappointing for students, the faculty who have lost their jobs and for the local contractors who were left unpaid.
In our 150-year-old city, it can be a challenge to maintain aging infrastructure, generate jobs and support our economy while preserving the character of Ventura. Securing Brooks Institute as a tenant was an opportunity to leverage private financing to upgrade an outdated building and make it commercially viable for future tenants. Brooks should have been a good tenant to fill available downtown city-owned office space that was not otherwise yielding meaningful income to the city or taxpayers.
The abrupt closure of Brooks has resulted in review of the city’s policies and procedures regarding its property, and the city is developing a better administrative process to ensure additional precautions in the future. The city takes this issue seriously and we strive to promote transparency at the highest level. To that end, the office space lease agreement with Brooks was discussed during a public City Council meeting on Sept. 12. The Council directed the city manager to return to Council with a recommendation on how best to handle real property leases, property acquisitions and disposals. Additionally, a study session will be held to determine the best use of the 505 Poli building in the future.
Students, faculty and alumni talk about life after Brooks
Now that two months have passed since all classes at Brooks Institute were canceled, former faculty and students shared their personal stories about the photography school and where they are now.
“I am 21 years old from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and moved out to Ventura in August 2013 to attend Brooks Institute for the professional photography program. How I found this school was simply Google. It was the No. 1 photography school in the nation and I had always wanted to live in California, so I went for it. I moved out there when I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, knew no one there, had no family there, and had never even visited the state before in my life. It was an exciting change! After my finishing my fifth semester (out of eight) I broke both my ankles in a hiking accident in Ojai and had no choice but to return home (Michigan) for my family to take care of me and go through surgeries. I had to take off two semesters at Brooks to heal. Then, January 2016 I returned to Brooks full time as I was determined to finish my degree at this amazing school where my passion sparked. It was very difficult; I was still healing and could no longer even bend my knees enough to get a low angle to shoot at for my fashion work. I also held part-time restaurant jobs my whole time at school, so when I returned I did the same and got a job outside of school, which caused me more pain. This impacted my photography a lot. I changed my style from light and airy to moody and dark. I got more into fine art also to express the pain I was in. But what kept me going was the amazing community there. The staff, especially Dean DePhillipo, reminded me of the great courage and drive it took me to come back to school after this tragic life event. The students told me how strong I was, especially Torrey Thomas, as she was the one who called 911 the day of the accident. Brooks healed me, made me push harder each day and reminded me why I wanted to pursue art to begin with.
“When Brooks closed I knew there was no way I would be able to afford to live in SoCal any longer without the help of my financial aid. I had no choice but to move back home to Michigan. I had one more semester left, literally six classes until I earned my degree. I was mad more than disappointed and sad. I was frustrated that I put my all into this school that I came back and fought through the pain, just for it to shut down 12 credits before I would be graduating. I knew if I had never broken my ankles I would have already graduated and this wouldn’t be affecting me nearly as much. But I stayed positive and just kept thinking, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
“Today, I am living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, finishing my degree online with the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. All of my credits transferred and this school costs the same as Brooks. I like it; many other Brooks students are in my classes. But it is going to take me an extra semester to finish due to online schooling being harder, so I broke up my classes to three per semester. I am working at a restaurant once again to make fast cash. I am also doing my freelance work as extra income such as family shoots, senior portraits, baby photos and weddings. This is a temporary fix. After I earn my degree I plan on moving to New York City or somewhere in Europe to continue my fashion photography dreams of shooting for a major magazine like Elle, W or Vogue. Brooks’ closure was just another bump in the road and it is not going to stop me from achieving my goals. The best part is, we still have each other through social media. Brooks is not dead, we are all still a part of a great community to always help each other out, and that was the best part of that school. I still talk to my friends and the staff often through facebook or email. We are #Brookiesforlife. Ask any one of us.”
— Kelsey Becker, former student
“I have so many complex feelings over the closing of Brooks Institute. If I had to sum up my feelings in one word it would be grief — with all its varied emotions. My association with Brooks runs deep. I mourn for the loss of a great institution. I am an alumna (BA 1993 and honorary master’s degree 2003), former faculty (2006-2012) and worked with Brooks as a community partner through a nonprofit I founded called Focus on the Masters. Brooks partnered with FOTM providing a venue to hold our monthly Artist Spotlight interviews and loaned us the equipment needed to document the artists. In addition, FOTM provided jobs to numerous students as paid interns through the Federal Work-Study Program for the past 13 years. I am heartbroken for the faculty, students and staff whose lives are changed forever and for our community that lost one of its greatest assets.
“It is more than just the closing of a school. Brooks Institute was a world-renowned institution known for one of the best educations in photography.
“All of that aside, FOTM was required to move our library to make way for Brooks to take over our former office space. It was a very difficult move — very disruptive, expensive and exhausting.
“I know it may sound trite but with every challenge comes opportunity. I firmly believe that when faced with such challenges it is important to focus on the solutions instead of the problem; otherwise you get mired in the muck. We knew a new chapter in the history of FOTM was about to unfold, we just were not sure what form it would take. Today, we are working with Ventura College to present our Artist Spotlights, revising our membership opportunities and focusing on engaging the community in a more intimate experience with our creative community. We will be a better organization in the end.
“What remains is an incredible education that gave me and so many others an opportunity to pursue their passion in the arts. I am thankful to my professors and to my students. We share a bond that only fellow Brookies will understand. Excellence through perseverance will always carry us through.”
— Donna Granata, alumna, faculty (founder/executive director of Focus on the Masters)
“As for me, a part-time adjunct instructor in graphic design with “only” a decade of experience teaching at Brooks, I am past the anger of the whole thing blowing up. I am disappointed, most of all. The small class sizes, the close-knit staff, the engaged and engaging students, the cool campus will all be hard to duplicate at another school. The Brooks formula seemed to work well enough to last for 70 years. Hard to believe Green Planet let it get away in barely a year of ownership.
“When is a job, not a job? When you enjoy going to work each day, enjoy the people you are around and a paycheck seems like a bonus. That was Brooks for me.
— Matt Moody, adjunct instructor
“I was in the Pro Photo program at Brooks Institute for two years, including summers, when it was closed down. I was three semesters away from graduating, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. All of the students and instructors were left in the lurch, and to make matters worse, articles were bashing the name “Brooks” instead of the name of the company who closed it down, “GPHomestay.” Now, I am still living in my hometown of Thousand Oaks and continuing my education through Mount Saint Mary’s in Hollywood because they are doing a Teach Out Program. They hired Brooks instructors and it will be a Brooks degree, so I thought that was the best option for me.
— Madeleine (Maddie) Wilson, former student