By Miriam Raftery; Bill Crotty also contributed to this report
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with that theater. It could be cleaned up and opened tomorrow.” – Paul Russell, former manager of the theater and founder of Christian Youth Theater
March 15, 2012 (El Cajon ) – Leaders of East County arts groups reacted with shock and condemnation to news that the El Cajon Council, by a 4-0 vote, agreed to enter into an exclusive negotiation with developer E. Neal Arthur for plans to tear down the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC) and build a Marriott hotel in its place.
Under Arthur’s plan, the hotel would have a “portable stage to accommodate limited performing arts.”
But arts experts say that’s woefully inadequate –and leveled sharp criticism at the council. Some also contend that the Council failed to provide adequate notice the community before taking action.
The agenda listed only an intent to approve an exclusive negotiation for property located at 210 East Main Street. Why did the city fail to state on its agenda that this property is the East County Performing Arts Center, a cherished community treasure that citizens have repeatedly fought to save? Or that the plan is to demolish it entirely? While attachments to the agenda did include the plan, the average individual scanning the agenda would never have realized that a proposal to tear down the East County Performing Arts Center was being considered at the meeting.
ECM has submitted a request to the City Attorney to rescind the vote and hold a new vote after properly noticing the item on the agenda. Whether or not the agendized item passes Brown Act muster or not it is clear that the intent was to obscure from public scrutiny action to move forward on destroying the theater—a cherished community facility that has generated widespread support through the years and in past public hearings, overwhelming community support to save the performing arts center.
Another contentious issue is that the city has claimed that millions of dollars in remodeling are necessary and has kept the theater closed for nearly two years, while failing to proceed on the renovations. Now that the state has cancelled redevelopment funds slated for use on the project, the Mayor contends selling the building is financially necessary.
Now Paul Russell, founder of Christian Youth Theater, is speaking out—and contradicting the city’s claims.
“It’s a sad day,” he said when informed by the council’s action by ECM. “I did hear rumors but didn’t know that they were that far along….I ran the facility for four years.”
Then he stated bluntly, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with that theater. It could be cleaned up and opened tomorrow.” Although the roof does leak, Russell said, “We don’t have enough rain to make it matter and we have contractors willing to make some very good bids.”
The remodeling plan called for a new roof as well as upgrades for disabled access and reorienting the entrance to open onto Main Street, which mean demolishing and moving a duck pond.
The duck pond remodel is the only aspect of the project that has been conducted.
While staffing costs would remain a challenge, Russell noted, “At its height during the 2007-08 season the theatre was being used over 200 nights a year with over 95,000 filling the seats.” He notes that two retired city managers are each getting “in the ballpart of $250,000 a year for being retired—that’s more than the President of the United States and each of them only put in six or seven years….So they don’t keep a public facility open for 95,000 people to use, but they can fund the city’s managers’ pensions? It makes no sense. It’s an atrocity.”
He praised the acoustics at ECPAC as “magnificent” adding that “the sight lines are among the best in the city; it [the theater] has been deemed by many theater experts as among the best in Southern California.”
The theater had lost money for the city through the years, despite several management changes. But Council repeatedly refused to hire on top-flight professional management and refused to have the former manager of the profitable Civic Theater in San Diego sit on a blue ribbon commission looking at ways to save the theater several years ago. The city has also drawn criticism for failing to adequately publicize events at the venue; most performances at ECPAC were never even listed on the theater’s website, nor were press releases sent to media for most performances.
Some believe that with proper management, the theater can prosper.
“It has value,” Russell pointed out, adding that it cost nearly $15 million to build the 600-seat Joan Kroc Theater a few years ago. “This is 1,100 seats. There is not one other facility in East County this size.” The theater was used by school groups and community colleges, as well as theatrical and arts organizations, he recalled.
Russell also blasted the idea that a portable stage could take the place of the community theater. “anyone who wants to use a theater will not use a banuet hall that can sit a bunch of of people for a prom or a birthday party or a corporate event,” he said. “It doesn’t serve the purpose of a theater.”
In recent interviews, numerous business owners on Main Street have repeatedly stated a wish to see the theater reopen. Some were enticed to open up in downtown on the promise of a theater to draw business downtown evenings and weekends, only to see business plummet after the theater shut down.
Ray Lutz, president of the Grossmont Community Concerts Association and founder of the Citizens Oversight Panels government watchdog group, also sharply criticized the council for its action.
“It looks like you can’t go by what you say,” Lutz accused Mayor Mark Lewis, noting that the Mayor has repeatedly pledged support for keeping the theater open in the past. “You decided to close the theater. Mark Lewis didn’t keep his promise.”
Indeed, back in October 2009, ECM asked Mayor Lewis about rumors that council was looking into tearing down the theater to build a hotel. Lewis flatly denied it. “We’ve heard those rumors before. They weren’t true then and they aren’t true now,” he said.
At this week’s Council meeting, Lutz asked that the theater be reopened for use during the 180-day negotiation period. The Mayor asked staff what that would cost.
“The answer was $25,000,” Lutz told ECM. “Why didn’t they do that to begin with? This city could have spent $25,000 and put that theater back into operation and could have been operating the whole time, and kept people coming to El Cajon. Instead they shut it down.”
The developer, E. Neal Arthur, indicated at the council hearing that he is willing to work with the community and council on any requests that would facilitate locking in a deal to move forward on building the hotel.
Not every councilmember is enthralled with the project.
“What they have right now, I’m not satisfied with,” Councilman Gary Kendrick said in a phone interview with ECM after the vote. “I would need to see a performing arts center that has stadium-style seating where everyone can see the stage.”
Asked about acoustics, he replied, “I’m not an expert, but it has to have good acoustic quality—not a multi-purpose room.”
Kendrick said that an earlier proposal called for the hotel to be built on a different area of the civic center property, leaving the theater intact. He added that Jillian Hanson-Cox had been handling the project proposal, until she abruptly resigned earlier this month. “The first I saw of this was before the meeting, Kendrick told ECM.
Next up, the developer has 180 days to prepare a proposal and get response within the exclusive contract. The project will most likely next be heard before the Planning Commission, unless Council agrees to rescind its action and take a new vote.
At Tuesday's meeting, El Cajon resident John Martes issued a stern rebuke to the Council over its actions on the theater.
"I would like to warn you, this is a hot potato. You have better be careful. I never saw communitys support like I did with that building," concluded Martes, who suggested that a recall effort may soon take center stage if the Council ignores the will of the people and acts to destroy East County's finest theater.