El Cajonís money pit / Arts center could drain $4.3 million more
Union Tribune (2010-03-08)
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By Union-Tribune Editorial Board
Monday, March 8, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.
El Cajon is considering pouring $4.3 million of redevelopment money into its now-shuttered performing arts center.
The city is asking for advice – 1:30 p.m. tomorrow in council chambers. We’ve got some: This is a bad idea.
El Cajon’s center has been a money-losing proposition since the beginning in 1977 and the building itself has substantial design flaws that make it a money pit. No organization wants to manage the facility.
Performing arts centers typically require subsidies, something El Cajon is reluctant and currently unable to do.
Escondido has a complex with two theaters, conference space and a museum. But it is about to see its $1.5 million annual subsidy cut by $350,000. Some $17 million in city reserves, once destined for a companion hotel and conference center, will be used just to keep city government operating.
Poway has a city/school district/foundation partnership that spreads the cost there. And finances are not as much of a challenge in that relatively affluent city. Some 170 events a year are put on in the 800-seat theater.
El Cajon’s center has not had a steady diet of professional performances since 2005 and neighboring Indian casinos outbid it for promising artists.
Against this backdrop, consultant Kurt Swanson is telling El Cajon it should spend $4.3 million just to repair the center. Some $800,000 to fix a roof with asbestos that has leaked from the beginning, $750,000 for drapes, $300,000 to cover up water damage, and so on. Some of his revenue assumptions also are questionable.
We’re troubled by the city’s lack of candor. Deputy City Manager Rob Turner refuses to discuss spending of $4.3 million of public money. Ditto for Councilmen Bill Wells and Bob McClellan
. The redevelopment agency director is out of the loop.
Worse, with any major capital commitment, the city would feel obligated to tap the general fund each year for operating subsidies. Experience contradicts Swanson’s rosy loss projections.
El Cajon should pursue a partnership with a hotel for a new and smaller facility elsewhere, one more attuned to today’s cultural scene, with adjacent conference space.
This in not a question of art or no art in the East County. This theater already is dark. The question is one of financial prudence – and making the arts sustainable. The East County Performing Arts Center is no architectural treasure. Rather, it is a dilapidated facility, a mausoleum for El Cajon’s shrinking treasury.