April 28--As they prepare to finalize a deal to build a new Kings arena downtown, Sacramento city leaders are also beginning to explore the possibility of building another major entertainment venue: a performing arts center to replace the aging Community Center Theater.
With approval this month by the Sacramento City Council, Mayor Kevin Johnson and others are forming a task force to look at whether it would make sense to build a new concert hall or renovate the existing theater, which opened 40 years ago at 13th and L streets.
Their hope is to put the Sacramento facility at least on par with with new performance venues that have been built in Folsom and Davis in the past decade or so. The Mondavi Center at UC Davis and the Harris Center for the Arts at Folsom Lake College are architectural showpieces that draw ticket buyers from across Northern California with national touring acts.
While ticket sales for the Broadway shows at the Community Center Theater still far outpace those at the new venues, critics say the aging facility has fallen behind in terms of offering patrons a quality experience. It was built in a blocky concrete style popular in the 1970s called brutalism, and it hasn't improved with age, they say. The theater has poor acoustics, too few toilets, and needs major upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Renovation plans presented to council members earlier this month range from $11 million for the disabled-access upgrades and a few other fixes to $52 million for a major face-lift. With such large sums at stake, civic leaders said the city should determine if it makes more sense to build a modern venue instead.
"In a region of 2 million people, downtown Sacramento is the epicenter," said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and made the motion for the task force at a recent City Council meeting. "It's natural that we would have a facility for speakers, ballet and opera. Are we competitive now? No. The facility needs improvement. We're locked in a model that's not very nimble, not very entrepreneurial. We need to do better."
The cost, based on performing arts centers planned or built recently in similarly-sized cities, could range from $100 million to $300 million, potentially rivaling the city's share of the new sports arena. Sacramento council members are expected to commit $255 million soon for the new Sacramento Kings arena, which would replace much of the half-empty Downtown Plaza shopping mall.
Two big-ticket items in succession could be hard to justify to the public, and there's no obvious source of money available now for a new facility. But some city leaders said they are thinking beyond immediate needs to planning Sacramento for future generations. They're looking at the performance center as one of several big pieces, including the arena, that have the potential to reshape the city for decades to come.
Another candidate for major changes is the Sacramento Convention Center on J Street, which some say is too small to compete with other cities' centers. Hansen has been talking about whether it would make sense to move the Convention Center to a new location, such as the downtown Sacramento railyard.
A new performing arts center may be at least five years away, Hansen said. Some civic leaders have discussed building a new concert hall at the former railyard, but Hansen said he'd like to see a new venue downtown to take advantage of nearby restaurants and hotels.
Whether the city could pay for such an expensive venture so soon after the arena is a major question, Hansen acknowledged. And if the fight over the arena is any indication, the city could be in a for a rough ride if it decides to embark on another big project.
Right now, not even the groups that use the Community Center Theater can agree on the need for a new performance venue or how big it should be.
Choral singers and classical musicians say they would like a more intimate concert hall with good acoustics and warm, inviting spaces. Unlike the Community Center Theater, which has nearly 2,500 seats, Mondavi and the Harris Center have multiple stages in theaters that are all smaller than Sacramento's.
"How can it be that Davis, and its Mondavi Center, and Folsom, with the Harris Center, have first-rate venues and Sacramento does not?" asked Lee Blachowicz, vice president of the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, which has called the Community Center Theater home since the group's formation.
"We feel strongly that the city should put no more money into renovating the 40-year-old CCT," Blachowicz said. "Rather, the city should pursue a new performance venue that would be state-of-the-art in terms of audience and artist amenities, acoustics, lighting and electronics."
The size of such a hall could be as small as 1,000 seats but not more than 1,800, he said.
'A small price tag'
The Community Center Theater's biggest user, however, is pushing for a simple face-lift. Spending about $36.5 million would maintain the theater as a suitable venue for at least the next 10 years for the musicals in California Musical Theatre's Broadway Sacramento series, which brings in most of its ticket revenue, said Richard Lewis, the group's executive director.
"Spending that will serve to create something that will last a long time, and you're going to end up with a $200 million building for a small price tag," Lewis said.
A venue with fewer than 2,200 seats will not work for the group because it would not generate the revenue the big traveling shows require, he said. "That would not suit us. If that happened, Broadway Sacramento would cease to exist in its current form."
Another question: Given the proximity of the Mondavi and Harris centers, would a new performing arts center downtown draw significantly more acts and patrons than the current one?
Elizabeth Strom, a professor of urban planning at the University of South Florida, has specialized in researching the effects of performing arts centers on urban landscapes. She said they have helped revitalize cities such as Newark, N.J., by drawing more well-off suburbanites to urban cores for concerts. But if Sacramento's upscale suburbs already have their own performance spaces, their residents may be less likely to travel to the larger city, she said.
"I would be concerned about the market," Strom said.
On the other hand, if the resident companies at the Community Center Theater -- the Sacramento Ballet, Sacramento Opera, Sacramento Philharmonic and the California Musical Theatre -- can draw enough audience members, competition for the same ticket buyers might be less of an issue, she said.
Strom said an added bonus of building a new performing arts center is the potential to prompt new businesses to locate around it. City officials are already counting on that to happen near the new Kings arena.
Hansen said the mayor's task force, which has yet to be appointed, will likely include potential donors, representatives of arts organizations, and "folks from other cities who have planned a process like this to get insight."
An 'immediate success'
At the Harris Center in Folsom, director David Pier already has some advice. He said Sacramento should follow Folsom's lead and commission a marketing and feasibility study. The study done for Folsom identified a clear need for a regional arts center for the eastern side of the Sacramento region, he said.
The center opened three years ago at a cost of $50 million. Its three stages include an 850-seat Stage One theater, a 200-seat studio theater and a 100-seat recital hall. Country legend Merle Haggard will perform there in June. So will jazz artist Dianne Reeves.
Harris Center processed $4.2 million in ticket sales last season and now operates on a $4 million budget. It has proved so popular that both the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Ballet have performed there in search of new audiences.
Pier said a feasibility study like Folsom's could show whether a new Sacramento performing arts center has a chance of a similar outcome.
"The results of that study have been clearly borne out in the immediate success that the Harris Center has seen, as we now regularly serve over 150,000 patrons per year," he said.
In Davis, the Mondavi Center sold $3.6 million worth of tickets in the 2012-13 season and has sold $3 million so far in the 2013-14 season, with a few events remaining. Venues at Mondavi include the 1,800-seat Jackson Hall and the 250-seat Vanderhoef Studio Theater.
The city of Sacramento could not immediately provide ticket-sales figures for the Community Center Theater. City Treasurer Russ Fehr said in an email that it could be difficult to calculate the total, because an arts group could pay to use the theater but not disclose ticket sales.
But Broadway Sacramento alone expects to generate $11.2 million in revenue for 81 performances this season, up from $6.47 million for 64 performances last year, Lewis said, citing strong sales of tickets this year for the musical "Wicked." That's more than the Mondavi and the Harris Center combined.
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