The lights were dim and the stage was set. Fifty El Cajon residents sat inside council chambers waiting to address councilmembers and comment on what the city should do with the El Cajon Performing Arts Center.
The theatre was built for $2.4 million back in 1977 and seats 1145 people. In recent years the 35,000-square-foot building has fallen into disrepair. The roof is shot. The restrooms are inadequate. Capital improvement projects over the years have been a drain on city coffers. Since 1995, the center has cost the city an average of $403,000 a year to manage. As a result, in December 2009, city officials and the theater management contractor decided to drop the curtain on their management contract.
Looking for a solution, city officials hired a consultant to help them reassess the entire performing arts center production. The consultant came back with three alternatives: call the final act and demolish the building, close the center down but keep the building -- "mothball" it as some councilmembers have referred to it -- or successfully operate the center and provide "cultural benefit to the community," and "economic benefit to downtown."
Residents lined up behind the podium inside council chambers to share their feelings on what direction the city should take.
Most of the residents applauded the latter option and urged the city to take full ownership of the performing arts center. Many called it a "jewel of East County."
There were other speakers, however, that opposed pouring more money into the center. "As a taxpayer, to see you take our tax money and put it into the center and call it a 'risk worth taking'...well, that's not a good risk to take," said one local developer. Boos from the crowd followed the speaker's comments.
Once all speakers were heard, councilmembers Bob McClellan and Gary Kendrick commented on the center.
"Right now, until we get out of this economic slump, can we afford to subsidize it? Or, should we mothball it?" asked Kendrick.
McClellan, however, was optimistic that the city could use redevelopment funds to renovate the facility. "I look at this as an investment not a subsidy."
Applause filled the room and the meeting was adjourned.
The full city council will hear the issue at a future council meeting.