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Editorial: Arts center at Fremont School deserves rave reviews

Amid all the consternation that the Community Center Theater renovation is stuck in neutral, another important arts project for Sacramento is speeding ahead.

If all goes as planned, the $6.5 million E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts will open next fall at the old Fremont School in midtown, providing rehearsal, classroom and office space for the California Musical Theatre, the Sacramento Ballet and the merged Sacramento Opera and Philharmonic.

Some final pieces are falling into place. Last Thursday night, the Sacramento City Unified School District board unanimously approved a $1-a-year lease for Fremont, which closed as an adult education school last year. On Dec. 10, the Sacramento City Council is to sign off on the lease.

In May, the council approved $5 million in grants to help redo the 93-year-old building, half the money coming from repayments of a city loan to the Crocker Art Museum.

Private donors have chipped in another $1.5 million so far; the center is named for philanthropist Joyce Raley Teel’s late mother. More fundraising is planned for possible future enhancements.

This project is a good deal for all involved, and could be a template for future cultural projects.

It will bring arts groups under one roof to encourage more collaboration. In these economic times, the arts groups made the right move to join forces behind this project and abandon a plan to build a $26 million center at 14th and H streets.

It will put a shuttered school to good use, when otherwise it might become a neighborhood eyesore. At the same time, it will bring arts education to the schools, where budget cuts have all but eliminated such classes. Under the lease agreement, as many as 50 students will take part in a two-week summer camp, at least 10 students will get internships, and there will be scholarships – $20,000 worth in the first two years and $40,000 a year after that.

All the progress on the studios focuses even more attention on the need to get going on the Community Center Theater.

After hearing a rather bleak report on how the city might pay for the renovation, the City Council last Tuesday night directed City Manager John Shirey to come up with a plan to fix the plumbing and make other immediate repairs on the 39-year-old building.

Council members also want options – including financing that protects the general fund – to make changes necessary to comply with disability access laws, as well as a more ambitious proposal to make the theater more competitive with the newer, more lavish Mondavi Center at UC Davis and Harris Center at Folsom Lake College.

A couple of council members wondered aloud whether it might make more sense to build a brand-new performing arts center, given the overhaul that is needed to modernize the theater. “Is this the facility that we’re going to commit to for another next 30 years?” asked Councilman Steve Hansen.

That’s a good question. It ought to be answered now before the renovation gets too far along, though a new center would be far more expensive.

The current estimate for the complete renovation is $50 million, with about $12 million in the bank, but until there are construction drawings, the true cost isn’t known. That report is due by April 1. Some council members wanted the study by February, but Shirey said that was unrealistic given that he and his staff are also working on the proposed downtown arena.

Whatever happens with the theater, at least the arts groups that perform there will soon have nicer office and rehearsal space, thanks to the Fremont School makeover.