The city of Sacramento is considering another hefty investment in a downtown destination.
Faced with an aging facility that is falling behind competitors in the region, city officials have drawn up a $36.5-million renovation of the Community Center Theater on L Street. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the plan at its meeting Thursday, less than a month before it is expected to approve contributing $258 million in public money to a new sports arena at Downtown Plaza.
The theater has remained in mostly the same state as it was the day it opened in 1976. It has small restrooms, a cramped lobby, poor stage systems and does not fully comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, according to a city staff report.
Fran Halbakken with the City Manager’s Office said the upgrades being recommended would keep the theater competitive and attractive to performing arts groups for at least eight to 10 years. But others, including Richard Lewis, the executive producer of the California Musical Theatre, said the upgrades would remain useful for much longer.
Still, Lewis and Councilman Steve Hansen are requesting a little more than what’s been recommended. Hansen said he wants the city to explore a naming rights deal for the theater that could help finance a $5 million to $6 million renovation of the L Street entrance and lobby – the portion of the theater that looks out onto Capitol Park.
“Going to the theater is supposed to be a warm, wonderful experience,” Lewis said.
Hansen said he also wants the city to begin discussing whether a new theater at a different location would make sense in the future. He also wants to explore bringing in a nonprofit organization to operate the facility, similar to models used at the Crocker Art Museum and Sacramento Zoo.
“The council should ask the city manager to inquire about operating models that give the theater more flexibility to bring in different kinds of shows so that it’s used more,” Hansen said.
Events at the theater are attended by more than 250,000 each year. It hosts performances of the Sacramento Ballet, Sacramento Opera, Sacramento Philharmonic and the California Musical Theatre.
City staff will provide the council with other renovation options as well. An $11 million plan would address only the theater’s ADA issues, and a $52.5 million “comprehensive” renovation option would include vast upgrades to the facility’s seating, lobby, sound system and lighting.
The plan recommended by city staff falls short of some of the wide upgrades sought by arts groups, but does include “some enhancements to both patron experience and theater operations,” according to the staff report. Those changes include an expanded lobby, an extra loading dock, more restrooms and refurbished seats.
City officials said they have $11.5 million available for the project, most of it from money left over when the City Council closed some special tax assessment districts around the city last year.
That leaves the city $25 million short of what it needs to fund the project beginning next year. An estimated $800,000 a year in debt payoff would come from an existing $3 per theater ticket surcharge, with the remaining funding coming from the city’s hotel tax and a “Convention Center Complex User Fee.” The Community Center Theater is adjacent to the Sacramento Convention Center.
Halbakken said city officials would likely take out a 15-year loan to cover the $25 million gap. However, roughly $8 million in annual hotel tax revenue is scheduled to become available in 2022 when bonds used to expand the Convention Center are paid off. That extra funding could help the city pay off the theater debt early, Halbakken said.
City Treasurer Russ Fehr is expected to report to the City Council at a future date with a more detailed financing plan.
City Manager John Shirey is asking for the council’s approval to complete the construction plans and to come up with a maximum project price for the renovation. If approved, construction would begin in the summer of 2016 and be completed by the end of 2018.
The City Council has considered renovating the theater for 14 years, according to a staff report, but never got beyond the point of seeking architects, accepting conceptual designs and developing price tags for the work. City officials said they are now concerned about losing business to the Mondavi Center in Davis and the Harris Center for the Arts at Folsom Lake College.
“Without renovation, the theater could be in jeopardy of losing the ability to provide a quality venue for long-standing performing arts groups and compete for market share with other performing arts venues in the Sacramento region,” the city staff report reads.