SALINAS In a town that's always had an uneasy relationship with its most famous son, John Steinbeck, officials with the National Steinbeck Center find themselves in a dusty roadside scrap for survival.
Like the Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author, the center has never has been fully embraced here in the capital of the so-called Salad Bowl of the World.
At one point, local lore has it, a group of Steinbeck's lesser "fans" even made a bonfire of his books in the middle of Main Street, not far from where the center now stands.
"Before John died in 1968, he made a trip to Salinas, but came into town in the back seat of a car with a blanket over his head," said Colleen Bailey, the center's executive director. "I think it's fair to say he had a complicated relationship with the town and many of its leaders and residents."
To be sure, the author of "The Grapes of Wrath," "East of Eden" and "Of Mice and Men" didn't hold back when it came to describing inequities, especially between those who owned the fields and those who actually picked its crops.
Bruised by the frosty relationship and then battered by the more recent economic downturn, the center is now fighting to renew itself, according to Bailey and her staff members. One of the few museums in the United States dedicated to a single author, it's gearing up for a multiphase, multimillion-dollar remake, the first since it opened in 1998.
Central to its metamorphosis will be storytelling, but this time, not just Stein-beck's.
"We want to be the place where the people of the Salinas Valley and of California can tell their stories," said Bailey. "We want to be a place where local residents will visit more than once every few years. This is not only important for our financial survival, but also for our core mission to preserve John's legacy."
To that end, Bailey said, the museum will become a repository of stories from all local races, ethnicities and cultures populating the Salinas Valley over the years Asians, Mexicans and Pacific Islanders included.
"The idea is to demonstrate how many of the things John Steinbeck wrote apply to our present-day lives. We want to take those concepts and share them in new ways," Bailey said of the center's plan, called Vision 2.0.
Helping to lead the makeover is commercial project development designer Tomas Ancona, the Portland-based designer who helped Nike create its "Niketown" retail shops. His firm, Ancona + Associates, wrote the Vision 2.0 plan.
"Steinbeck is such a rich treasure," Ancona said. "It's not often that you see a space devoted entirely to the stories and ideas of one man. We have a great opportunity here."
As a template for future exhibits, and as a way to encourage community storytelling, Ancona said, the museum will focus on the main "thematic clusters" found in the Steinbeck canon. Among the themes are coming of age, Mexicans in the Salinas Valley and travels in Mexico.
Not only does the center plan to embrace Salinas Valley, it's also looking to extend its reach to Monterey's Cannery Row. The plan calls for construction of a satellite reception center there. Construction is scheduled to begin before the end of the year, Bailey said.
Although the museum operated a tiny space in Monterey in the past, the new site would be designed to be a first stop that would end with a visit to the Salinas museum some 17 miles away.
"We think it makes sense," Bailey said. "By establishing a facility there, we connect with historical friendship between Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed 'Doc' Ricketts," referring to the scientist fictionalized in several of Steinbeck's novels.
"The satellite will also allow us to better reach out to residents on the Monterey peninsula," she added.
It would seem the satellite center will make savvy business sense, too. Monterey proper is California's third most visited tourist destination, with about 4 million visitors a year. The new Cannery Row facility would include a retail area, a wine bar, a movie theater and a marine ecology interpretative center in addition to the Salinas embarkation area.
To make the Vision 2.0 plan a reality, officials say the center needs to raise $3 million to $6 million. That's where Chris Steinbruner, chairman of the center's board of directors, comes in. Together with Matt Pressey, a new board member and the city of Salinas' finance director, the board is looking at retiring or refinancing the center's debts as well as bringing in new fundraising dollars and grant money.
"To do that we need to make the center relevant to all aspects of our community," Steinbruner said, acknowledging that the center has had trouble meeting all of its financial obligations in recent years.
"I'm confident that under Colleen's direction, we will be able to do just that. I believe that not only are we seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we're about to enter into a renaissance period."
NATIONAL STEINBECK CENTER AT A GLANCE
The National Steinbeck Center is located at 1 Main St., Salinas, CA Phone: (831) 775-4721.