EL CAJON PROPOSES RAZING VENUE, BUILDING HOTEL ON SITE: City approves talks with developer to replace shuttered arts showcase
Union Tribune (2012-03-23) Steve Schmidt
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It may be curtains for the theater that aimed to be East County’s cultural jewel.
Shuttered and in need of major renovation, the East County Performing Arts Center would be razed and replaced with a business-class hotel under a proposal working its way through El Cajon City Hall.
“We’ve had some fantastic performances there, but it’s always been a challenge,” Mayor Mark Lewis said of the city-owned venue at 210 E. Main Street. “We had our heyday. Those days are gone.”
In a move that upset arts boosters, the City Council last week voted to enter into exclusive talks with developer Neal Arthur to build a four-story, four-star hotel on the theater site. A downtown hotel has long been on the city wish list.
Lewis and others have reservations about the fledgling proposal, but say the 35-year-old arts complex has long been a burden to taxpayers and has failed to consistently deliver on its promise.
When the 1,142-seat facility opened in 1977, backers said it would serve as an oasis of high culture in a part of the county better known then for staging rodeos, Oktoberfests and stock car races.
It got off to a rough start. The debut program, showcasing Academy Award-winning singer-composer Paul Williams, failed to sell out. Nearly one out of three seats were empty.
Ticket sales often lagged below projections, and the city over the years has worked with a string of managers — each vowing to turn things around — in a failed bid to keep the operation in the black.
A few years ago, then-artistic director Paul Russell was quoted as saying he wanted the venue to “put East County on the map, like La Jolla Playhouse did for UCSD and the Old Globe did for Balboa Park.”
Theater experts and others, however, said the facility was undermined by the management turnover and a lack of clear direction from the city, which made it tough to develop a loyal audience.
“It kept morphing into some different mission,” said Don Telford, president and CEO of San Diego Theatres Inc., the nonprofit that runs the San Diego Civic and Balboa theaters. “It’s sad and disappointing. … Theaters are special places. People had a lot of hopes and dreams and passions when that one opened.”
Those familiar with the facility said it has great acoustics, but that it’s too small to host conferences and seminars and too large to attract sellout audiences.
Officials closed it two years ago for renovations. They say it needs more than $4 million worth of work, including a new roof and improvements to make it fully wheelchair-accessible.
City Hall had hoped to use redevelopment dollars to help pay for the improvements, but it lost that option with the recent, court-backed end of urban renewal programs in cities statewide.
The collapse of redevelopment funding also dashed plans to help Arthur build a hotel — possibly a Marriott or Hilton brand — at North Magnolia and Rea avenues, west of the theater.
That spurred Arthur to propose that a 107-room hotel be placed on the performing arts site, on land already owned by the city. The Lakeside developer said he is in talks with Marriott about a possible Courtyard hotel on the property.
A recent city-commissioned study suggested there’s a demand for four-star lodgings in the region and that it would serve as an additional catalyst for downtown improvements. City officials, however, are concerned about the scope of the development and how it would be financed.
Councilman Gary Kendrick supports the concept of a hotel, but estimates it would require the city to float at least $18 million in bonds — money that would have to be secured through the city’s general fund.
“And it will cost $2 million to tear down the performing arts center,” he said. “The developer needs to have some skin in the game. They have to hurt if it doesn’t work out.”
Arthur said the proposal is evolving. “There’s still more to be done,” he said. “We heard the council clearly. We’ll go back to the drawing board. We’ve got to redesign.”
He said the hotel would have a multipurpose room that could be used to stage performances. But Kendrick and Lewis want it to include a theater with several hundred seats if the city decides to tear down the performing arts center.
City staffers and the developer plan to present a more concrete hotel proposal by the end of the year.
Ray Lutz, an East County community activist and arts booster, is among those who believe the existing theater could still succeed with the right management and improvements. He said it would be ideal for up-and-coming country-western singers and other roadhouse-style acts.
Lutz is the former president of the Grossmont Community Concert Association, which helped develop the center in the 1970s. The association was forced two years ago to relocate its shows to the Joan Kroc Center in San Diego because of the shuttering of the theater.
Among the well-received groups and performers that have appeared at the performing arts center over the decades: California Ballet, the Dixie Chicks, Rosemary Clooney and Merle Haggard.
Kendrick said he’s reluctant to extend taxpayer subsidies to the theater if it means trimming city services. “I’ll put cops on the street before I’ll put Glen Campbell on the stage,” he said.
Staff writer Karen Pearlman contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org