City Beat

Sites suggested for new downtown Sacramento performing arts center

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks to reporters during the formal launching of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council. The press event was held at the arena construction site, with the mayor and others local dignitaries.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks to reporters during the formal launching of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council. The press event was held at the arena construction site, with the mayor and others local dignitaries. rbenton@sacbee.com

A task force exploring the need for a new performing arts center in downtown Sacramento has identified four potential sites for a 2,200-seat theater, but needs up to six more months to figure out how to pay for what would likely be a $200 million project.

During a hearing with the City Council on Tuesday night, task force members said they had determined that replacing the aging Community Center Theater would help the city compete for the musical and performance acts that are beginning to be lured to more modern sites in Davis and Folsom.

Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City Council directed city staff to work with the task force over the next six months to develop financing options, investigate locations that are under consideration, put together design plans for the theater and begin the process of requesting proposals from groups to operate a new theater.

The Community Center Theater has stood at 13th and L streets in downtown for more than 40 years. It hosts performances by the Sacramento Philharmonic, Ballet and Opera, as well as a popular Broadway series. More than 250,000 patrons walk through the building’s doors every year.

City officials have debated renovating the theater for more than 15 years, and critics think it has become outdated. Those detractors say the theater’s acoustics are subpar and that it requires upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Three renovation plans released last year ranged from an $11 million upgrade to a much broader project costing around $50 million.

Nearby cities have built modern performing arts centers, worrying some in Sacramento that the Community Center Theater will fall behind in the market. The Mondavi Center at UC Davis and Folsom Lake College’s Harris Center for the Arts have become regional draws for patrons and touring acts.

Raising money to replace the Community Center Theater is the toughest hurdle the task force faces.

Garry Maisel, president and CEO of Western Health Advantage and chairman of the theater task force financing committee, said the project’s funding would likely be a “complicated puzzle” of public and private sources. He raised the possibility of a sales tax measure on the 2016 ballot to fund regional arts groups, as well as using state economic development loans or the city’s hotel tax to help cover the costs.

Private sources include naming-rights deals, corporate sponsorships and individual donations.

“If you put the pieces together correctly, it will work,” Maisel said.

Richard Rich, the theater task force project manager, said the committee debated three design options.

The preferred plan, Rich said, would be to build a 2,200-seat theater with a flexible layout that would allow for smaller seating configurations. That would create a better setting for groups such as the ballet and philharmonic that have difficulty filling the 2,400-seat Community Center Theater, Rich said. The flexible seating plan also would allow the theater to host conferences and banquets.

The price tag for that option was estimated at $205 million, with an annual gap between revenue and operating costs of $1.4 million. That gap is smaller than other options the task force explored.

Dave Pier, executive director of the Harris Center and a member of the theater task force, said the group looked at several factors when exploring sites for a new theater, including proximity to hotels and restaurants and access to public transit.

A task force report said two locations on 16th Street – one between J and K streets and one between I and J streets – “emerged as preferred” sites. But those sites would require the acquisition of many properties.

Another site with strong potential is Lot X, an empty plot of land near Crocker Park and Crocker Art Museum. That land is being acquired by the Sacramento Kings under the city’s financing agreement for a new downtown sports arena.

The Kings also were mentioned as a potential operator for the theater.

Kings president Chris Granger, a theater task force member, said the team is “very supportive of the cause” of building a new theater, but said it was too early to say what role, if any, the franchise would play in the theater development.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat.

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