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  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Mary Conrad of Grass Valley works on a jigsaw puzzle at the Multipurpose Senior Center in Auburn, Calif., on Thursday, February 6, 2014. Costco is working with Placer County to bring a large warehouse to a 16-acre site that is currently the home of the historic DeWitt theater, a senior center and other businesses.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Edith Wenzel calls out BINGO numbers at the Multipurpose Senior Center in Auburn, Calif., on Thursday, February 6, 2014. Costco is working with Placer County to bring a large warehouse to a 16-acre site that is currently the home of the historic DeWitt theater, a senior center and other businesses.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Friends Carol Garcia, left, and Ruth Brown, both of Auburn, play a game of cards at the Multipurpose Senior Center in Auburn on Thursday, February 6, 2014. Costco is working with Placer County to bring a large warehouse to a 16-acre site that is currently the home of the historic DeWitt theater, a senior center and other businesses.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Georgia Cummings, of Meadow Vista, left, and Bette Johnson, of Auburn, participate in a painting class at the Multipurpose Senior Center in Auburn on Thursday, February 6, 2014. Costco is working with Placer County to bring a large warehouse to a 16-acre site that is currently the home of the historic DeWitt theater, a senior center and other businesses.

  • Sacramento

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

Proposed Costco in Auburn riles some community members

Published: Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 - 11:35 pm
Last Modified: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 - 9:58 am

A proposed Costco that would occupy 16 acres of the Placer County Government Administrative Center in north Auburn has riled some community members, who are upset that a World War II-era theater and a longstanding senior center could be bulldozed to make way for the warehouse retailer.

At DeWitt Theatre, children and adults dabble in the performing arts, honing their vocal cords and staging classic plays. Inside the cozy Auburn Senior Center next door, a graying crowd gathers for bingo and art lessons, but mostly for each other’s company.

“Costco wants 16 acres, and we’re right in the middle of it,” said Barbara Crowell, executive director of the senior center. “This is our place away from home since most seniors live alone.”

The entire 200-acre government center site dates back to 1943, when the U.S. Army built DeWitt General Hospital to treat war casualties and a theater to entertain troops. It was transferred to the state after the war and converted into a mental hospital. In 1972, the county gained control of the property when the hospital was shuttered.

Placer County hopes to net significant revenues from Costco through sales tax and rent. The Home Depot nearby, also on county land, pays nearly $200,000 annually in rent for the privilege, officials said. Tenants of the DeWitt Theatre, on the other hand, pay about $1,500 a month, while the senior center pays nothing.

With the buildings showing signs of age, county officials believe the time is ripe to explore new development.

“We spend a lot of money trying to maintain the buildings,” said Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents the area. “They’ve outlived their usefulness.”

The location, just off Highway 49, is considered ideal to draw shoppers from the Placer foothills and Nevada County. The closest Costco to Auburn now is in Roseville.

The theater, which has seen the likes of late actor/comedian Bob Hope, would be leveled to create parking spaces for the Costco lot, activists and county officials said. A small, but growing, grass-roots campaign is emerging, with organizers spreading the message by social media and word of mouth. They hope officials will consider preserving the theater as a working museum.

“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the building has history,” said Michael Coder, owner of Music & More Arts Academy, the theater’s tenant since 1998. “The people of Auburn have a choice: they can either bring their children to 42 parking spaces or a cultural center that showcases visual arts.”

The county confirmed the age of the theater but said it doesn’t have historical value. Mary Dietrich, facility services director, said both the federal and state governments determined the property did not qualify for historic status.

She called the Costco project “an opportunity to continue the revitalization of the government center.”

After 31 years at the same location, the nonprofit Auburn Senior Center may cease to exist because it can’t afford another facility, staff said. Its members pay annual dues of $20 a person to support operations. The senior center has assurances it can remain in its current location at least through the end of the year.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out what’s next,” said Eric Hill, board president for the senior center, adding that one option laid out by the county involves sharing facilities with other public agencies.

But Hill said the arrangement would relegate the senior center into a “room broker” and hamper efforts to serve low-income citizens. “We appeal to those who can’t go to Cancún,” he said.

The voice of the seniors has been unanimous – they want to see a solution that doesn’t divide the center into several rooms across town.

“This is my family,” said Marie Hidalgo, 84, a 15-year member of the organization. “We look out for each other.”

Dietrich noted that officials are working toward a solution for the senior center, which may include financial support from Costco, the county or both.

“It may not be exactly the same model. Granted, they have been in free facilities for 30 years because the buildings were surplus to the county’s needs,” she said.

Few details have emerged from the closed-door negotiations with Costco. Current plans include a 148,000-square-foot warehouse, 750 parking spaces, a gas station and a promise to create 165 jobs. Costco representatives declined comment, citing company policy.

The Board of Supervisors will have final authority to green-light the project. If approved, construction of the Costco would remain several years out because of the lengthy permitting process involved. Holmes said he is approaching the talks with “guarded skepticism,” seeking to drive a hard bargain for the county.

“Costco is used to getting their way,” he said. “But on government property, we need to make sure we’re not giving them a better deal than any other business. It’s a different animal for Costco.”


Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

Read more articles by Richard Chang



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