Sacramento arts center boosters must show us the money

Supporters of a new performing arts center in Sacramento say the existing Community Center Theater can’t compete with the Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis.
Supporters of a new performing arts center in Sacramento say the existing Community Center Theater can’t compete with the Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis. carl@carlcostas.com

A task force looking into a potential new performing arts center for Sacramento deserves some bravos for its hard work so far.

It came up with a preferred design – a 2,200-seat theater that could be made smaller for the ballet, opera and orchestra, plus a 300-seat rehearsal hall. It also pinpointed the two best sites – two blocks bounded by 16th, 17th, J and K streets near Memorial Auditorium, and a lot near Crocker Art Museum.

What it hasn’t produced, however, is a viable plan to pay for building a $200 million project, or for covering an operating subsidy estimated at $1.4 million a year.

Until it does, this proposal is, as William Shakespeare might say, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, or at least not much.

After presenting their progress report to the City Council last week, task force leaders will now spend three to six months working with city staff and Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office to come up with a financing plan and to fine tune other recommendations.

The task force, appointed last year by the mayor, cites some funding possibilities that read more like a wish list.

Private sources could include naming rights, corporate sponsorships, foundations, wealthy arts lovers, even a grass-roots fundraising campaign.

The city could help through direct grants, a piece of the hotel tax or ticket surcharges. The state could chip in from its Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, which gave an $8.4 million long-term loan to B Street Theatre for its new home. The feds might be called on through the National Endowment for the Arts or tax credits.

Ideally, of course, most of the cash would come from private and outside sources, not local taxpayers.

The construction cost does not include buying the necessary land on the J Street site, which has 13 owners whose willingness to sell at what price isn’t known. The lot near Crocker is being acquired already by the Sacramento Kings as part of the downtown arena deal; the Kings are mentioned as possible partners in building and operating the arts center.

Then there’s the issue of operating costs. The task force makes the crucial point that there’s no sense in constructing a sparkling new arts palace without a plausible way to keep the doors open over the long haul.

It resurrects the idea of a 2016 vote on a new sales tax for civic amenities, which was talked about last year in connection with a new soccer stadium but then shelved. There might be another option, used for theaters in Newark, N.J., and Cleveland – leveraging real estate. The task force suggests building a new parking deck in midtown to generate revenue.

The unanswered money questions aside, the task force does make some strong arguments that building a new center would be a better investment than spending $11 million to $50 million to spruce up the 2,400-seat Community Center Theater, a 41-year-old workhorse that is past its prime.

It also points out that there’s no room to expand at the current theater site because it is landlocked, and also says it blocks any expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center. That’s another major project on city boosters’ to-do list without a firm financing plan.

That same old plot seems to be playing over and over in Sacramento. You couldn’t blame the audience if it gets bored.