Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.
EAST COUNTY — “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
– Motto of El Cajon Councilwoman Jillian Hanson-Cox
Second of two editorials
It’s time to dream, and dream big, again.
The East County Performing Arts Center was supposed to be a cultural dream when it opened in the mid-1970s. Instead, it has been a nightmare.
Huge subsidies, more than $100,000 a year, were necessary even in the ‘80s. The Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District eventually bailed out as part owner. Other East County cities decided they wanted no part of this venue.
So El Cajon is stuck with a money-losing and dysfunctional performance hall, one it cannot afford to subsidize and that no one wants to operate.
Some in El Cajon officialdom are in denial. Last Fourth of July, the theater’s manager said a $173,000 city subsidy was necessary or the center would have to close. “The theater’s not going anywhere,” Mayor Mark Lewis said then. “It’s not going to go dark.”
Labor Day had hardly passed when the city announced the center would close for two years “for renovations.”
Now, Lewis seems intent on sinking $1 million or more in redevelopment money into repairing a dysfunctional theater even as it languishes in darkness.
There’s a better way, in the view of Council Member Jillian Hanson-Cox. She has staged events at the theater and examined its finances. She’s also the marketing dynamo who came to the rescue of the city’s Mother Goose Parade.
Hanson-Cox would like to see the city start over and find a private partner to build a hotel and smaller theater complete with adjacent meeting space. Say, 700 to 800 theater seats, with ample bathrooms, dressing rooms and flyloft for standard-size scenery. One with underground parking or a parking structure.
The city could make do with the current location, but it is hemmed in above ground by buildings and roadways and below ground by drainage culverts. Other sites, within walking distance of downtown, could offer as many benefits without the engineering impossibilities.
A hotel owner would have a marketing system and an incentive to bring in business. What’s more, the transient occupancy tax on guests and events would provide a steady revenue stream for a new theater.
A new hotel now, when some in the region are going into bankruptcy? This storm, too, will pass and two years of darkness provides ample time for the economy to recover and to put a deal together.
El Cajon does not need a five-star palace. But it does need accommodations for business travelers and more community meeting space.
With creative thinking, a minority private partner may be just up the freeway. Viejas does not have a hotel of its own to house casino guests. Would part ownership and shuttles from an El Cajon hotel fill an interim need?
One never hears “No” if one doesn’t ask. Robert Scheid, a Viejas spokesman, points out “the tribe has a history of thinking outside the box.”
A hotel/theater can be done and can be done right. Hanson-Cox cites examples in other cities where atriums, meeting spaces and performance venue blend seamlessly.
And, if a hotel/theater cannot be done? A fallback, Hanson-Cox says, is using redevelopment money for major – and costly – alterations. But almost everything about the East County Performing Arts Center is either inadequate or outdated. Sinking more money into it is clearly a second choice.
Dreaming big starts with a real theater architect. Dreaming big starts with lining up a potential real theater manager – the Old Globe, perhaps? Dreaming big starts with enlisting some in the cultural crowd who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves, either to conceive a better venue or to do some arm-twisting on the hotelier circuit.
How do those Gene Kelly
I’m happy again!
I’m singin’ and dancin’ in the rain!