EL CAJON — What was built to be East County’s premier performing arts venue remains mothballed and in need of repairs, but a campaign is underway to bring the downtown El Cajon theater back to music-thumping, foot-tapping life.
A citizens group has crafted a road map for the revival of the 35-year-old East County Performing Arts Center, the city-owned complex at 210 E. Main St.
Among the organization’s suggestions: A new dance pit to draw younger audiences and acts. The installation of a projection system to screen films. The sale of beer and wine at the concession stand. Cup holders at each seat.
Add these and more and the 1,142-seat building could finally deliver on its promise of being the cultural jewel of the region, say many theater backers. “ECPAC is very important and reopening it is very feasible,” said Mary Wells, a member of the recently formed citizens group, the ECPAC Foundation.
The organization plans to host a workshop at 6 p.m. Monday to discuss its proposals and seek community feedback. It will be held at The Palms banquet hall at 143 E. Main St. in El Cajon.
City officials agree the theater should be reopened and refurbished, but say money remains the biggest question mark. The building was shuttered two years ago due to a leaky roof and other problems.
While some with the foundation suggest the theater could be run without an annual public subsidy, Councilman Gary Kendrick and others at city hall say that’s unrealistic given the history of municipal theaters.
“There’s no performing arts center that we are aware of that operates without a subsidy,” Kendrick said.
He said the city should hold off on any decisions regarding ECPAC until after the November election, when California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 30, a statewide tax initiative.
If the Gov. Brown-backed measure fails, Kendrick worries the state will raid local government coffers for additional funds, making it even harder for his city to steer money to the theater. He said the city had previously subsidized the venue to the tune of about $300,000 a year.
At the same time, he likes many of the ideas being forwarded by the citizens group, including adding alcohol to the concession menu. “Selling beer and wine would be a good move because there would be a high markup and it would help subsidize the theater,” he said.
Ray Lutz, a longtime political and arts activist in East County, and others with the foundation believe the venue can operate in the black, partly by seeking mainstream musical acts that appeal to 20- to 30-year-olds. The installation of a dance pit at the foot of the stage would further broaden its appeal, they say.
Kendrick said the city is not obligated to follow the foundation’s suggestions, noting that city staff is also researching the issue. He said the council will have the final say on the reopening and management of the facility.
City officials have estimated the building needs more than $4 million in repairs, including improvements to make it fully wheelchair-accessible. Foundation members who have surveyed the structure say it could be reopened with as little as $400,000.
The City Council recently backed away from a proposal to raze the theater to make way for a four-story Marriott Courtyard hotel. The council encouraged the would-be developer to consider another site downtown.
The theater has been on financially shaky ground since it opened in 1977. The city has worked with several management outfits over the decades in a failed attempt to keep it in the black.
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