Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: ‘Clear eyes’ on big projects

Dancers Katie Miller and Ava Chatterson leap during a performance of Sacramento Ballet’s “Swan Lake” at the Community Center Theater in March. Arts groups are pushing for a brand new performing arts center.
Dancers Katie Miller and Ava Chatterson leap during a performance of Sacramento Ballet’s “Swan Lake” at the Community Center Theater in March. Arts groups are pushing for a brand new performing arts center. Sacramento Bee file

Friday Night Lights” is one of my favorite TV series of all time. Don’t get me started on how it didn’t get the audience or critical acclaim it deserved. If you’re a fan as well, you’ve memorized the rallying cry of the fictional Texas high school football team: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose!”

It’s a pretty good philosophy for life – and for public policy. “Clear eyes” means having a vision, but also recognizing reality. “Full hearts” means having compassion for the less fortunate, but also the courage to do big things. “Can’t lose” means overcoming hurdles to accomplish important goals.

I’ve been thinking that Sacramento City Hall could do a lot worse than follow the motto. The city is showing “full hearts” by helping poor families pay higher garbage fees. To partly offset increases that hit customers July 1, the city is expanding an assistance program that will reduce solid waste charges by $12. A family could save $156 a year on its utility bill – not a ton, but better than nothing.

It’s far less contentious than another idea to boost working families – raising the city’s minimum wage. A task force launched last week by Mayor Kevin Johnson is studying the pros and cons, but business groups are warning of disaster if Sacramento follows the lead of Los Angeles and San Francisco, both headed to $15 an hour.

“Clear eyes” is especially important when it comes to two big-dollar projects on the horizon – a new performing arts center and a convention center expansion.

Though boosters hope the city will build both, there’s no firm plan to pay for either. I’m skeptical that Sacramento can afford them, and I’m not convinced they’re needed.

First up is a decision on whether to build a brand new arts center – or renovate the 41-year-old Community Center Theater. Because the city is basically tapped out, that determination will depend on whether there’s enough private money out there.

A task force is working with the city’s staff and the mayor’s office to produce a financing plan to build a $200 million arts center, plus cover a $1.4 million annual operating subsidy. In May, the task force presented a preferred design for a 2,200-seat theater and identified sites near Memorial Auditorium and near Crocker Art Museum.

Most arts groups say a modern center is far better than spending as much as $50 million to fix the Community Center Theater, which critics call an ugly relic. It certainly isn’t as glitzy as the Mondavi Center at UC Davis or the Harris Center at Folsom Lake College.

Sacramento’s ballet, opera and philharmonic hope a sparkling new venue will help reverse their fortunes. Sure, it would be a painful blow to civic pride if California’s capital city lost any of those groups.

Still, I need much more persuading that Sacramento really requires its own performing arts palace. The powers that be incessantly preach regional cooperation, but somehow this is an exception.

It’s going to be several months before it’s clear whether Sacramento will pursue a new arts center. The city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau is patiently awaiting that decision because it will determine the direction of the convention center expansion.

If there’s no new arts center, visitors bureau officials hope that the convention center expansion and community theater renovation can be done in tandem. They have drawings that show a bigger meeting hall linked by an elevated pedestrian walkway to a spruced-up theater topped with a new ballroom.

But cooperation only goes so far. The visitors bureau is counting on the city’s hotel tax as the backbone of any financing plan for the convention center expansion, and so would oppose any attempt to tap into it for the arts center.

Boosters point out that the convention center was last expanded 20 years ago and say Sacramento is in dire need of more first-class and flexible exhibition space to compete against other convention centers on the West Coast. Coming out of the recession, there are some 50 new centers, expansions or major renovations at least on the drawing board in North America.

So “clear eyes” means that the City Council may need to prioritize these projects. Council members haven’t debated in any depth which one is more important, should it come down to a choice.

Finally, there’s “can’t lose.” That means the city gets the projects done, but without soaking taxpayers.

The downtown arena, scheduled to open in October 2016, was a heavy lift. Can the city really pull off three major public projects in just a few years?

If it can, it would call for the government equivalent of a celebratory dog pile in the end zone.

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