Prism schism: Venue heads to Gordonsville

Nearly two years after the Prism Coffeehouse on Rugby Road made headlines for its artistic director's angry tirades and alleged abuse of power, the historic music venue has plans to move its operation out of the Rugby Road home it has occupied for 40 years. Its destination: the former O'Dell's restaurant space and adjacent theater on Main Street in Gordonsville.

The impending move is shocking– especially to the Prism's landlord, Westminster Presbyterian Church, which owns the property at 214 Rugby Road.

"They've made no mention of moving," says church administrator Wally Camp, who adds that Westminster has been attempting since October to negotiate a new lease agreement with the Prism through artistic director Fred Boyce and his partner, Kenyon Hunter.

That agreement, Camp explains, involves an increase in the "use payment" for the Prism's downstairs space, where concerts take place. Camp did not reveal the Prism's rent, saying only, "It's less than they'd pay for utilities anywhere else." Federal non-profit filings suggest the Prism has paid under $700/month for rent, utilities, and maintenance on the 4,500 square-foot building.

By contrast, a market-based rent in Charlottesville– which can top $15/square foot– might exceed $5,000 per month.

In addition, says Camp, the church wants greater access to the space when the Prism is not using it for concerts.

"We have this valuable piece of real estate and a venue that gets used about 65 days a year," Camp says. "We have needs, and there are community needs that could be fulfilled."

But despite Camp's efforts to negotiate with Boyce and Hunter "fully in good faith," he says he has been unable to reach them. He says he heard about their moving plans second-hand.

"They are not very communicative," Camp says. "They are defensive when the use payment is late or forgotten, and they act like they own the building, and they don't."

Boyce and Hunter did not return the Hook's calls or emails.

Camp is not the first person to be frustrated with Boyce and Hunter.

In 2004, a group of former Prism board members alleged that Boyce was operating the Prism outside its bylaws by nixing the annual board elections by volunteers in favor of appointing board members.

"It's analogous to a dictatorship," said disgusted ex-board member Jim Quarles in the Hook's April 1, 2004 cover story.

Quarles had received a particularly vitriolic phone message from Boyce after he resigned from the board in 2004.

"You're nothing but a f***ing poseur," Boyce screamed during a six-minute, curse-riddled tirade broken off twice by the answering machine's beep.

Other Prism volunteers recounted similar tirades, including Phyllis White, a WTJU DJ, who recalled Boyce striking her car window in the Prism parking lot in a fit of rage. She stopped volunteering at the Prism soon after.

"I didn't want to deal with his toxicity," she explained.

While critics pointed fingers at Boyce and blamed him for the poisonous atmosphere, others defended him and claimed the conflict about board elections had been blown out of proportion.

"Fred is unjustly treated a lot," said then-board chair Joe Ayers in 2004, adding that Boyce and Hunter "do all this work at the Prism. They make that thing happen."

By Hunter's accounting in the federal filing, Boyce puts in 50 hours a week as the head of the Prism; Hunter works 30 hours as a volunteer.

As for the complaint that Boyce had alienated volunteers and board members, Ayers said, "You get that kind of trade-off with a personality that strong...."

Ayers did not return the Hook's call, and board member Frank Grizzard declined to comment on the decision to move the Prism to Gordonsville.

While the federal records suggest that the Prism's income is rising, so is the local competition. In the past three years, three new music venues have opened: the Paramount Theater, the Charlottesville Pavilion, and the Gravity Lounge– the last of which specializes in acoustic music, the Prism's bread and butter.

If the northward move disappoints Charlottesville music fans who are accustomed to a quick jaunt over to Rugby Road to hear acts such as Dry Branch Fire Squad and Mike Seeger, the prospect of a famed music venue landing in their town's midst thrills residents of the tiny Orange County hamlet (pop. 7,200) that in recent years has seen a rebirth with the arrival of upscale restaurants and boutiques along Main Street.

"We're so excited," says Becky Lynch, former O'Dell's proprietor who is handling the sale of the building– originally listed for $800,000– for her mother and stepfather, who are both traveling out of the area.

Lynch says she has been negotiating the deal with Boyce and Hunter since December and that several Prism board members have ventured out to see the property, now under contract for an undisclosed sum. In addition to the concert hall, the Prism would open a restaurant in the space.

"Gordonsville is an incredible town, but it needs a draw," Lynch explains. "This is the type of positive venture that will do that for the town."

Camp, however, is sorry Westminster wasn't able to work things out with the Prism.

"The church has supported it all this time," he says. "We consider it part of our ministry, and we were trying to negotiate in good faith a new agreement."

The Prism building, seen here from Rugby Road, is owned by Westminster Presbyterian Church.