California Forum

Could it be curtains for new arts center?

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s decision to exit stage left most likely means curtains as well for a new performing arts center in Sacramento, at least anytime soon.

Johnson put the idea in the spotlight by appointing a task force last year to study it. But he’s told key people that since he isn’t seeking re-election next year, he won’t have the time or resources to push the project.

In an email, Johnson says he’s turning it over to city staff, which “will most likely not be recommending building a new performing arts theater.” Instead, City Hall is turning its attention, again, to renovating the Community Center Theater.

“I don’t want to say that it ends all possibility of a new arts center because I share the mayor’s dream,” City Manager John Shirey told me this week. But he says it’s on hold for the foreseeable future because the city doesn’t have the money, and there’s no sign of a sizable private donation.

The mayor, himself, is now focusing on a soccer stadium in the downtown railyard, should Sacramento Republic FC secure a spot in Major League Soccer. Tuesday night, he and the rest of the City Council unanimously gave their blessing to a preliminary deal for the privately financed stadium.

Pro sports can be thrilling, and at its best can help unite a city. But California’s capital city needs more refined culture, too. I’m a big sports fan, but I also have a fondness for musicals.

So the mayor’s shift has to be a bitter disappointment for arts groups that have been pining for a sparkling performing arts palace to host Broadway plays, the symphony, opera and ballet.

Supporters say a new $200 million center is a far better investment than spending as much as $50 million or more to fix up the 41-year-old Community Center Theater and make it fully accessible to disabled patrons. In May, the mayor’s task force presented a preferred design for a 2,200-seat theater and 300-seat rehearsal hall, and identified possible sites near Memorial Auditorium and the Crocker Art Museum.

But supporters haven’t come up with a plausible financing plan – and that failure means they may have missed their moment.

Richard Rich, the task force project manager and a big player in arts circles, wouldn’t discuss the mayor’s move, referring questions to Shirey.

The city manager says his direction is clear: He’s assembling a team to review work that has been done on renovating the Community Center Theater, as well as expanding the nearby Sacramento Convention Center. He told the City Council he will come up with updated plans and cost estimates and present recommendations in the first quarter of 2016.

This is the latest plot twist in a long-running drama over arts facilities in Sacramento. While arts groups are not applauding, a renovation of the existing theater suits others just fine.

They include Dennis Mangers, who was on the mayor’s task force. In July, he sent Johnson a long memo arguing that there’s no realistic financing plan for a new center and warning that the renovation keeps getting more expensive and less feasible as the city dawdles.

A much better idea, Mangers and others say, is a “transformation” of the theater, done in concert with the convention center expansion. He points to Phoenix Symphony Hall, like Sacramento’s theater also built during the early 1970s, a similar size and also home to the local ballet, opera and symphony. It was refurbished in 2004 in an $18.5 million project in conjunction with an expansion of that city’s nearby convention center.

Shirey says he plans to visit Phoenix in January to see if it might be a model for Sacramento. He’s particularly interested in how that renovation capitalized on technological advances in acoustics, a constant complaint about the Community Center Theater.

He wouldn’t speculate on when construction might begin if the council gives the go-ahead, saying that depends on the final proposal and the available money. If they can’t be done simultaneously, the priority is to do the theater renovation first, then the convention center expansion, he said.

In any case, Sacramento can’t afford to keep putting off this decision. Arts groups need to plan their performance seasons, and disabled people deserve full access. I’m amazed that the city hasn’t been sued yet.

While it would be better if the fate of the arts center was based on smart policy and not political circumstances, I guess that’s show business.

As for Johnson, he may not have an arts palace as part of his legacy, but hey, he’ll always have the Kings arena – and maybe a soccer stadium to boot.