Decaying arts center closed as city weighs repair costs
Union Tribune (2007-08-14) Liz Neely
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By Liz Neely
August 14, 2007
EL CAJON – The East County Performing Arts Center has been temporarily shuttered after chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling, renewing concerns from city officials about the troubled venue's future.
No one was injured when the pieces fell last month. El Cajon officials conducted a floor-to-ceiling inspection afterward and determined that more than $2.8 million worth of work is needed. Some repairs are so urgent that the city-owned theater has been closed and shows have been rescheduled.
El Cajon City Council meeting
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: City Hall, 200 E. Main St.
Online: View the agenda and staff reports at www.ci.el-cajon.ca.us
Today, the City Council will consider spending $230,000 to fix the most pressing problems, including $60,000 for interim ceiling repairs and $95,000 for stage-rigging equipment.
The expense comes a month after El Cajon slashed its subsidy to Art Beat Management, the nonprofit group running the theater, because the city is facing a $3.8 million structural deficit. The council approved $100,000 for theater operations but doesn't yet know where the money will come from.
City Manager Kathi Henry said the theater has become “a money pit.” Mayor Mark Lewis acknowledged the problems.
“We cannot keep dumping money into a facility that is going to increase the costs to us year in and year out,” he said.
The city budget is still tight, but Henry and others say they're expecting about $300,000 from the theater's former manager, the Arts Center Foundation. That money could go toward the emergency repairs and operations, but the dollars aren't guaranteed.
City officials and an attorney for the foundation say the money has been in a foundation account but will be turned over to the city. It's mostly ticket revenue taken in as the foundation turned over control of the theater to the city.
Art Beat Management, a division of Christian Community Theater, took over the center in December 2005.
The 1,142-seat venue has a long and difficult history. It's more than 30 years old and showing its age. It's too small to host conferences and seminars and too big to sell out most performances, the bulk of which are staged by community organizations.
Even city officials acknowledge the needs seem never-ending. El Cajon has spent about $130,000 on capital improvements since Art Beat took over, but that doesn't include subsidies for operations or utilities – or the money the city spent in other years.
“We need to make a decision at this point,” Henry said yesterday. “Does the city continue spending on the venue at the expense of other city services?”
During its meeting today, the council also is to decide whether to put out a “request for qualifications” to redevelop the site. The city is hoping a developer will come forward with ideas.
Lewis wants a hotel, a restaurant and other activity on the property.
As for the falling plaster, Henry said annual inspections of the building didn't include a look at the ceiling. The pieces came from five panels fastened to the ceiling and covered with plaster. In some spots, the ceiling is more than 30 feet from the ground.
“We were fortunate that it happened between performances,” Henry said.
The biggest chunk – about 3 feet in diameter – fell July 11, said Melissa Hill, Art Beat's director of operations. The city inspected the center July 30 and it was closed the next day. The venue had been slated to close for regular maintenance between Aug. 20 and Sept. 7.
Paul Russell, Art Beat's executive director, said all but one group rescheduled their performances, resulting in a loss of about $15,000 in rental revenue.
Liz Neely: (619) 593-4961; firstname.lastname@example.org