Theater struggles to find the right fit
Union Tribune (2007-05-29) Liz Neely
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EL CAJON – Not that long ago, the East County Performing Arts Center was considered one of the best things – if not the only thing – downtown El Cajon had to offer.
K.C. ALFRED / Union-Tribune
The Starpower dance competition drew a small audience to the East County Performing Arts Center this month.
These days, the city-owned venue is as much a burden as a blessing.
It's too large to consistently draw sell-out crowds. It's too small to host conferences, seminars and other large gatherings. It has no meeting space and no break-out rooms.
“The size of this thing is not right,” City Manager Kathi Henry said.
Though the current manager has found some success, the theater is an albatross for El Cajon. The city pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into yearly upkeep and operations, and the demand is constant.
A new stage floor and carpeting are needed this year. A new roof isn't far off.
Renovating the 1,142-seat theater, or tearing it down and starting from scratch, has been talked about for years. This summer, the city will ask developers for proposals of what can be done there.
The city essentially wants a smaller version of Escondido's arts center, which includes a 1,523-seat concert hall, a conference center with meeting rooms and a banquet hall.
In the meantime, Indian casinos are drawing big names from performing arts centers, leaving the East County space with amateur theater and community rentals, with the occasional nationally known performer thrown in the mix. The shows rarely fill the seats.
K.C. ALFRED / Union-Tribune
Patrick Hadlock, the center's technical director, worked backstage during the show.
Last year, the theater hosted 17 nights of national acts that drew an average attendance of 783. Radio personality Laura Schlesinger, known as “Dr. Laura,” sold out two nights, while Chubby Checker drew an audience of 348.
“It's a throw of the dice every time,” said Paul Russell, executive director of Art Beat Management, the nonprofit that runs the theater.
The group has tried to build the 2007 season based on what sells, while offering new promotions like the Club 99 program, which includes tickets to six shows for $99.
“We're trying to build a whole new clientele of people that want a season, and that has been a challenge,” Russell said.
Russell is considering sectioning off parts of the audience for some shows so the theater feels less cavernous. The ideal theater would have 500 to 800 seats, he said.
A troubled history
The theater was built by the city and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District more than three decades ago. The college district took over management duties but was losing money. The district turned over ownership to El Cajon in 1995.
Art Beat, a division of Christian Community Theater, took over management in December 2005 after the previous manager was booted. CCT ran the venue from 1994 to 1997.
In 2006, Art Beat turned a small profit of about $42,000 but ran into its share of obstacles. The theater was built to host concerts, not plays and musicals, which are Christian Community Theater's focus. The venue does not have a fly loft so it misses out on national touring productions.
A brief history of the East County Performing Arts Center
July 1973: Groundbreaking occurs under a joint powers agreement between El Cajon and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. The city contributes land and the two agencies split $2.3 million in construction costs.
March 1977: The 1,142-seat venue opens. The college district spends as much as $500,000 a year running it as a rental facility.
January 1994: El Cajon-based Christian Community Theater contracts with the college district to run the theater.
September 1995: The college district board votes to turn over ownership of the theater to El Cajon.
March 1997: El Cajon hands management duties to the newly formed Arts Center Foundation, which works to establish a professionally run performing arts center.
March 2004: Creative Restaurants Group proposes a $14.4 million expansion that would include meeting space, restaurants and shops. A month later, the City Council votes to put out a formal request for proposals. It never goes out.
April 2005: The council ousts Arts Center Foundation after it falls behind on bills and builds a $2.3 million debt to the city. A settlement is reached a year later.
December 2005: Art Beat Management, a division of Christian Community Theater, takes over the theater.
SOURCE: UNION-TRIBUNE RESEARCH
“It was built as a concert hall and it's an awesome concert hall,” Russell said. “We're trying to make it something it's not.”
Despite the theater's superior acoustics and above-average sight lines, filling seats can be a chore. The only sure thing is Christian Community Theater's annual “Traditions of Christmas” musical.
Art Beat still depends on city subsidies, as do most managers of performing arts centers. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the group is asking the city for $340,000 for operations, plus about $81,000 for utilities and about $99,000 for improvements to the building.
The city's budget for next year is pegged at about $136 million.
Russell said Art Beat aims to be more self-sufficient and ask for less from the city every year. The group has to request money every budget cycle, though the city will always foot the bill for upkeep.
'Change with the times'
To free itself from the ongoing financial commitment, the city is planning to request proposals for the property later this year.
Details haven't been worked out, but most agree new development there should include a performance space that could accommodate meetings and seminars, as the Escondido center does. Offices, retail, a hotel and at least one restaurant could be part of the mix.
“To take this downtown to the next level and become the real center of East County, there needs to be an effort to bring a major revenue draw to downtown,” said David Cooksy, the city's director of housing and redevelopment.
There is no upscale hotel in East County and no large-scale meeting space, save the Indian casinos. That means proms, awards luncheons, seminars and other large events usually take place in San Diego.
Paired with a hotel, a new theater could bring more money, visitors and opportunity to East County's largest city, experts say.
“Everyone's got to change with the times,” said Randy Cohen, vice president of policy and research for Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that researches and promotes the arts.
Performance space is always in demand and people want cultural experiences, Cohen said.
Any new development is not without challenges. A storm drain runs underneath the city-owned land where the building sits, and moving it will cost millions.
One company made a pitch in 2004 to expand the venue, but plans fizzled amid concerns over parking and how much land would be needed.
Still, city officials and theater managers say the site could be profitable for investors with vision.
“It's a good opportunity for a developer to take a chance and make a lot of money,” Mayor Mark Lewis said.
Even though the real estate market isn't booming now, El Cajon is hoping to position itself for the next upturn.
“We have to look to the future,” Lewis said.