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  • RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Crocker Art Museum patrons enjoy works by Norman Rockwell in November. The City Council is willing to forgive up to $7.5 million in loans to the museum. To qualify, though, the museum must raise $2.5 million for its endowment.

  • Bee file

    The 39-year-old Community Center Theater is to get $8.5 million for renovations. That's less than one-fourth of its estimated needs.

Amid Kings actions, Sacramento makes commitments to the arts

Published: Monday, May. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, May. 13, 2013 - 9:57 am

Art or basketball?

The city of Sacramento says it can do both.

Reacting to concerns that subsidizing a new downtown sports arena could hurt funding for the arts, the City Council last week delivered a boost to some of the city's marquee cultural organizations and committed to helping others in coming months.

Council members had requested a discussion of how the city is supporting cultural amenities when they voted to approve a $258 million contribution to a proposed new Kings arena at the Downtown Plaza. Some council members privately have expressed concern that the city's plan to borrow huge sums against future parking revenue to pay for the arena could jeopardize plans for theaters and museums.

By a 7-1 vote Tuesday, the council set aside $8.5 million toward the renovation of the Community Center Theater, dedicated up to $5 million for a renovated facility for the Sacramento Ballet, Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and Sacramento Opera, and voted to forgive up to $7.5 million in loans to the Crocker Art Museum.

The council also directed staff members to continue working with the operators of the B Street Theatre on financing plans for a new performing arts center in midtown.

"This is not a zero-sum game," said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city. "We can do more than two things at once."

Representatives of several arts groups praised the council's action while also throwing their support behind the proposed arena.

"Thank you for proving that arts and sports can all live together," said Richard Lewis, executive producer of the California Musical Theatre.

The council vote was not unanimous. Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell abstained from voting and Councilman Darrell Fong voted against the arts-funding plan.

Fong, who also opposed the arena-financing package, said he supports the art projects and the Community Center Theater renovation. However, the Crocker debt refinancing was not proposed until Tuesday night, and Fong said he hadn't been adequately briefed on the details.

"I have concerns (about) how much debt this is going to create for the city," Fong said.

On Tuesday evening, the city offered to forgive $7.5 million of $10 million in loans it made to the Crocker to help the facility complete its $122 million expansion in 2010. To qualify for the loan forgiveness, the museum will need to raise $2.5 million for its endowment.

City officials said forgiving the debt won't affect the city's general fund or result in service cuts.

In return for the loan forgiveness, the city-owned museum also agreed to give up the fees from a parking lot across O Street from its main entrance. That lot produces $200,000 each year for the museum, money that will now be filtered into a city-run fund to support arts facilities.

The city has included that parking lot in the arena-financing plan. As a result, it would receive the parking fees only until the space is granted to the private investment team seeking to build the arena. Assuming that team's bid to keep the NBA's Kings in Sacramento is successful, the shift would happen next year, when the environmental review for the arena is completed, said Assistant City Manager John Dangberg.

Crocker officials lauded the new loan arrangement. Lial Jones, the museum's director, said the Crocker's budget is much smaller than other art museums in North America. As a result, she said the Crocker needs to raise between $3 million and $4 million a year just to run the museum, which hosts 250,000 visitors annually.

Steve Mills, president of the Crocker Art Museum Association board, said the city's effort to leverage private investment in the Crocker mirrors what Sacramento is trying to do on a grander scale with the arena.

"Just as that project (the arena) deserves support and recognition of the many benefits it will provide in creating a strong and dynamic downtown, the Crocker also needs further support," he said.

While the expanded Crocker has become the jewel of Sacramento's cultural scene, the city has yet to succeed in upgrading its 39-year-old Community Center Theater despite a decade of effort.

The theater sits prominently on L Street, next to the Sacramento Convention Center, and houses the city's four major performing arts groups: the California Musical Theatre, the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sacramento Ballet and the Sacramento Opera.

City officials say it needs $50 million worth of upgrades, including major renovations required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Construction documents for the project show a revamped 2,400-seat theater and large windows replacing the building's current concrete facade.

While the city has a renovation plan, it's still $15 million to $20 million short of the money needed to execute the plan, said Barbara Bonebrake, director of the city's Convention, Culture and Leisure Department. That gap narrowed last week, when the council dedicated $8.5 million from shuttered tax assessment districts to the project.

City officials said they hope a naming-rights deal and private donations would fill in the rest. They expect to bring a detailed financing plan for the project to the City Council in September. If approved, construction could begin by next summer, Bonebrake said.

The council also decided Tuesday to throw its support behind the Studios for the Performing Arts, which would house rehearsal space for the Sacramento Ballet and offices for it, the musical theater, orchestra and opera. Those organizations have abandoned a plan to construct a $26 million facility at 14th and H streets and instead want to renovate the Fremont School on N Street.

To help that cause, the city will transfer $2.5 million it receives for maintaining the Cal-EPA building next to City Hall – money that has been used for other capital improvements in the past. Another $2.5 million could go to the project from the repayment of remaining loans by the Crocker.

While no direct assistance was given to the new B Street Theatre, the council directed staff members to work with theater officials in developing a financing plan for the $24 million project at Capitol Avenue and 27th Street. Bill Blake, B Street's managing director, said the theater needs to raise another $6.8 million.

Blake said the council's vote Tuesday was about more than an arena or investing in arts programs.

"The council is sending a message that this opportunity in front of us is about the central city of Sacramento," he said. "We can make some really significant and important changes to our central city to improve it with arts and culture and entertainment.

"We're starting to paint a picture of what the next 20 years of this city are going to look like."

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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