By Paul Kruze
November 20, 2017 (El Cajon) – Since the East County Perform Arts Center shut down in 2010, many East County residents have been frustrated with the slow pace of completing repairs and finding new management.
Finally, at last Tuesday’s El Cajon City Council hearing, residents heard the news they’ve long been waiting for. Mayor Bill Wells and City Manager Doug Williford announced that a preliminary five year management agreement for the theater has been reached with Live Nation, a Beverly Hills-based live-events company focused on producing worldwide concert and entertainment-show promotions.
Details of the final agreement are expected to be shared at the next meeting and approved by the City Council. The vote will mark the culmination of some one-and-a-half years of negotiation by Williford.
In August, the Council unanimously voted 5-0 to authorize City Manager Doug Wiliford to negotiate a management agreement with Live Nation to manage and operate the shuttered theater.
"This will be one of the most significant things to happen in the history of El Cajon," says Councilmember Gary Kendrick. "Having a world-wide promoter take over the management of the theater is big," adds.
When the announcement was made several months ago of the possibility of a management agreement with the concert promoter, one of the most ardent critics of the El Cajon City Council, activist Ray Lutz said during a public comment session, “This is like asking Starbucks to open a coffee shop in the community. You couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
The agreement reached with Live Nation, which also produces shows at other venues in San Diego County, is a victory for community activists.
Back in 2010, East County Magazine learned that the city was considering tearing down the 1,440-seat theater and selling the site for construction of a hotel. After our article ran, citizens turned out to protest that action, which the Council voted down. Council agreed to save the theater, which needed major roof repairs, upgrades to provide access for the disabled, and more.
The closure came after several years f a failed management relationship with the Christian Community Theater (known as "Artbeat Management") and later, with Arts Center Foundation, proving a financial drain on city revenues.
Williford has said that he based his negotiations with Live Nation with a similar operating agreement that Live Nation has with the City of Riverside. While Riverside's performing arts venues (a former Fox movie theater, a municipal auditiorium, and an outdoor amphitheater) are different, Williford has said that in a prior Council session that Riverside’s arrangement with Live Nation has literally "saved" and dramatically improved the viability of their performance venues.
Since it was built some 40 years ago, ECPAC has led a difficult life as a viable performing arts center. Built through a partnership with the Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District and the City of El Cajon, the theater -- originally known as "Theatre East" -- has been regularly recognized for its excellent audience sightlines and acoustics, yet it has been always fraught with financial problems. After Grossmont tried its hand at managing the theater, ECPAC was eventually "sold" back to the City of El Cajon in 1995 for one dollar with the provision that the facility be run for "civic purposes." The El Cajon-based Christian Community Theatre/Christian Youth Theater (CCT/CYT) was brought in to manage the theater to be replaced by The Arts Center Foundation in 1997.
At the time the Arts Center Foundation (ACF) took over the management of the theater, the city wanted to perform maintenance and renovate the facility, yet, allegedly, to avoid prevailing wage rules. The city loaned the money to the ACF so they could handle the renovations, with the understanding that the city would later forgive the loan. However, after a series of serious missteps and defaulting on a loan payment to the city, the ACF operating agreement was terminated in 2005 by the El Cajon City Council and turned back over to be managed once again by CCT/CYT for five years. This particular management arrangement ended in 2010 when it, too, faced major budgetary challenges which it blamed on the construction of the nearby El Cajon Police headquarters.
After it was shuttered in 2010, yet again, a group of citizens led by Ray Lutz and Ivars Bezdechi under the banner of The ECPAC Foundation tirelessly worked on its own management proposal to reopen ECPAC, yet its proposal was turned down. A local large Christian ministry, The Rock Church, had expressed its interest in the theater under a lease agreement, but several stumbling blocks mutually ended that management possibility.
In spite of all of its difficulties, ECPAC under its different names has hosted a wide variety of shows and concert events which have been successful, including singers Paul Williams (at its opening event in 1977), Tony Bennett, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, and performances by local groups as the Grossmont College Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, and the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra. It also was the theater of choice of many performances produced by the Grossmont Concert Association until it made a necessary move to the Joan Kroc Center in East San Diego. Higher ticket prices at the samller venue led to the musical group’s demise several years thereafter.
But the new lease on life agreement with Live Nation doesn't mean that ECPAC will be opening its doors to audiences anytime soon. Opening is projected by the end of 2018. Major capital improvements (with a price tag of some $3.5-$6.5 million dollars) including the replacement of the theater's decrepit heating and air conditoning system, compliance with current Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a refurbished and expanded concession area, new theater audio and stage lighting are on the road ahead.
Despite an editorial opinion by the San Diego Union-Tribune that considered the community theatre to be El Cajon's "white elephant," the theatre long considered the jewel of East County’s arts community appears posed to finally sparkle once again.