May 3, 2012 (El Cajon) – It's been two years since the East County Performing Arts Center went dark. But on Monday, a group of concerned citizens seeking to "Save ECPAC" took a behind-the-scenes tour last week to determine the extent of repairs needed to reopen the cherished community landmark.
Although challenges are steep, the good news is that the cost for critical repairs appears to be significantly less than the estimates provided by the city for a more ambitious renovation.
“How much money you need to renovate and open it up depends on what level you want,” Rob Turner , deputy city manager and director of public works, told those present.
The group included a diverse range of residents from the arts and business community as well as community activists, a local builder, and other interested parties. Raymond Lutz, founder of Citizens Oversight Projects, organized the tour.
The most serious issue in need of repair is a leaking metal roof with corrosion along standing seams. The leakage is visible along the side lobby areas, though not over the seating area. The roof is flat in the center with a mansard roof that slopes downward on the sides.
Since the theater closed, “We’ve just been chasing the leaks,” Turner noted. The most recent estimates ran about $150,000 for repairs and $600,000 to $700,000 for replacement of the roof, he said.
“So it’s a Band-aid vs. surgery,” Scott Alevy, president of the East County Chamber of Commerce noted. He suggested that grant funds for green roofing be explored and suggested that perhaps SDG&E might be willing to make a donation to help make the theater more energy efficient.
Alevy was quick to point out, however, that the city’s contention that the women’s restroom needs a major overhaul may be overstated. The restroom, while cramped in space, has 12 stalls, including one for the disabled. The city has indicated more are needed for the theater, which seats 1,142 people. But Alevy, who has some experience with the Cricket Ampitheater siting, noted that Humphrey’s on the Bay seats more people and has fewer restroom stalls.
Other needs include reinstalling rigging for lighting or otherwise addressing safety issues that currently don’t comply with OSHA standards, Turner said. He estimates that would cost another $100,000.
The theater itself has a large stage and excellent acoustics. The height for fly space is less than some modern road show products want, though whether that can be remedied remains in question. A lift below the orchestra pit may also need repairs.
Originally, the city had hoped to use redevelopment funds to complete an ambitious remodel totaling over $4 million. That plan included reorienting the entrance to open onto Main Street and additional “wish list” items that no longer appear achievable now that the state has eliminated redevelopment funding.
The City Council has entered into a 180 day exclusive contract with a developer to propose a plan for tearing down the theater and building a Marriott Hotel, though no deal has been reached.
"Our review of the theater enhancements proposed by Kurt Swanson ($4.3
million) revealed that most of these changes are not essential to getting the theater running again at comparative levels to places like Humphrey's, 4th & B, etc. Our estimate after seeing the theater was about $250K," Lutz said.
Those assembled for the tour hope to persuade the city to find a way to save the theater, not destroy it.
Ideas explored range from trying to form a partnership with the Grossmont Union High School District if bond monies may be used to fund theatrical events for students to creating a foundation that could engage in private fundraising. Allowing alcoholic beverages to be served could also boost revenues, along with changing the mix of programming and attracting major community sponsors.
In addition to repair costs, the theater will also need ongoing operating expenditures covered. But the world has changed in the two years since ECPAC closed. Social networking has shown the power of community organizing, fundraising and event promotion. So in El Cajon's centennial year, a growing coalition of community members remain hopeful that eventually, the show will go on.
View a video of the tour taken by Citizens Oversight Projects (COPs): http://www.copswiki.org/Common/M1256
Two different sites have been set up that are devoted to saving the theater. To get involved, visit www.saveecpac.org or http://www.copswiki.org/Common/SaveECPAC.