City Council should move ahead on Community Center Theater, do more study on Sacramento Convention Center expansion

The Sacramento Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” at the Community Center Theater last December.
The Sacramento Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” at the Community Center Theater last December. Sacramento Bee file

After months of study and years of delay, there is finally a real plan to upgrade Sacramento’s most important performing-arts venue – a proposal that has support from the key players and that, most importantly, appears financially feasible.

The City Council on Tuesday should give the initial green light for design work to renovate Community Center Theater and refurbish Memorial Auditorium.

But the council should take more time with a plan to expand the Sacramento Convention Center, both to make sure it’s the right size and to give the community the chance for more input. That’s the strategy recommended by Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg, who takes office in December. He ought to get the benefit of the doubt.

On the council agenda is a three-piece plan, with all projects to be complete by spring 2021:

▪ First, construction at Memorial Auditorium would begin in fall 2017. This $16.2 million project would include temporary and permanent improvements, including seats, acoustics, lighting and other technical upgrades. California Musical Theatre, the Sacramento Ballet, and the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, which all support the plan, would hold performances there in 2019-20, instead of having to work around construction at Community Center Theater for at least four seasons.

▪ The long-delayed update of the four-decade-old theater would start in fall 2018 and cost an estimated $83.4 million. It includes 41,000 square feet of new construction and nearly 56,000 square feet of renovations. Besides finally making the theater fully comply with federal law on disabled access, the project would replace the seats, improve the acoustics, expand the lobby, and redo the box office and dressing rooms.

▪ The most expensive piece is $170 million at the convention center, which was last expanded 20 years ago. The project would build 108,000 square feet of new exhibit space, creating 196,000 square feet of contiguous space, and add meeting rooms and a new kitchen and other support space. Officials say the expansion would make the center more competitive with other convention centers in California. If more money is found, a second $121 million phase would add more meeting rooms and do more renovations.

Yet, given the national arms race for bigger convention centers, the current center’s operating expenses and studies questioning the economic benefits, council members have a lot to weigh in ensuring that this relatively modest expansion is a good investment. Steinberg believes the city should think bigger. With construction not scheduled to begin until summer 2018, there’s some time for more analysis.

Of the $270 million total cost, $230 million – either 30-year revenue bonds or possibly a loan from the state infrastructure bank – would be backed by the existing 12 percent hotel tax; $8 million a year in hotel tax revenue becomes available in 2020 after existing debt on the convention center is fully repaid.

Another $20 million is supposed to be raised from selling naming rights, plus private donations and sponsorships. The rest would be drawn from several city accounts.

This plan won’t satisfy those arts lovers and civic boosters who want a brand-new performing-arts center.

But unless and until they show us where the money would come from, their dream is as real as a unicorn.

The proposal before the City Council is far more concrete and would be a big step forward for Sacramento.