City must focus on performing arts theater

A draft concept shows a transformed Community Center Theater in Sacramento.
A draft concept shows a transformed Community Center Theater in Sacramento. #Transform916

A first-rate performing arts theater for Sacramento has had to wait in the wings for far too long.

After 16 years of talking and studying, the City Council must seize the chance Tuesday to take key, concrete steps toward transforming the Community Center Theater and possibly expanding the Sacramento Convention Center.

This proposal is not the brand-new performing arts palace on a new site – next to Crocker Art Museum perhaps – that some in Sacramento want. We appreciate their passion, but until they come up with a plausible way to pay for it, it’s a pipe dream that distracts and delays.

But what’s being envisioned isn’t just sprucing up the 42-year-old theater and complying with federal law on disabled access, either.

Rather, it is a complete overhaul – keeping the “bones,” but replacing all the seats, redesigning the acoustics, expanding the lobby and remaking the exterior that critics hate so much.

Importantly, the plan appears doable. And unlike the push for a new arts center, it has growing support behind it, including major arts groups that use the theater.

A new coalition, led by California Musical Theatre and calling itself #Transform916, says it would basically be a new theater at about one-third the cost of an arts center built from scratch.

The second piece of the plan is to expand the nearby convention center and link it much more closely with the theater. The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau and other boosters say increasing the exhibit hall from 134,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet and adding meeting room and ballroom space will make it much more competitive with other convention centers.

The overall goal is a vibrant arts-convention district at the eastern end of downtown, with the new arena anchoring an entertainment district on the other end.

Both the main candidates for Sacramento’s next mayor are on board. Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby told The Bee’s editorial board that the theater remake is overdue and that Sacramento needs to tap its full potential as a tourism, farm-to-fork and convention destination.

The current estimate for remaking the theater and starting the convention center expansion is $200 million, most of which the city could raise by borrowing against the existing 12 percent hotel tax, which brought in $20 million in 2014-15. About $8 million in hotel tax revenue will be freed up in 2020-21, after the existing convention center debt is paid off. Other potential sources include naming rights and private donations.

Still, many questions remain on cost, financing and feasibility. It’s not just making sure there’s enough for construction, but for operations. Also, we need more convincing that investing in a bigger convention center will pay off, given some studies that question the economic benefits, as well as the changing market for conventions.

To help answer those questions, three contracts with consultants, totaling $1.3 million, are on the council’s agenda Tuesday.

The council would get an update this fall on the project, including cost, funding and timeline. California Musical Theatre, Sacramento Ballet and Sacramento Philharmonic/Opera want the work phased so their prime seasons are not interrupted. But that means it would take four summers to finish the interior.

The debate over the arena overshadowed the theater and convention center. Thanks to the backing of political and business leaders, the state-of-the-art Golden 1 Center is set to open in October.

Now, it’s the turn of the theater and convention center to be in the spotlight. They need the same kind of commitment.