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Council gets positive report on arts center: ‘We are memory makers’

Staff members, board members and supporters of the California Center for the Arts, led by board Chairman Cynthia Weir and Executive Director Jerry Van Leeuwen Wednesday celebrated the Center’s message in a report to the city council that carried this message: “We are memory makers.”

They gave an upbeat and inspirational update on the Center’s progress—and profitability, something that didn’t used to be so common, but under Van Leeuwen’s leadership has almost become routine.

Even so, with all the good news, the center is a city crown jewel whose setting has gotten a little tarnished and in need of polish and repair.

$2 million repair, replace

Assistant City Manager Jay Petrek started off the presentation, including the justification for a deferred maintenance expenditure of $2 million over the next few years, which breaks down to $87,000 for each of the 23 years the center has been open.

The facility includes a museum, a 1,523-seat concert hall and 406 seat center theater, has had its ups and downs. In recent years, however, the direction has been generally up.

The non-profit 501 (c) 3 foundation and board that governs the center was formed in 1990. The center remains a city-owned facility, and one that the city supports with funds. The message supporters of the center brought to the council Wednesday was that it needs sprucing up to restore its former glory.

The city pays for landscaping, fireworks and utility costs. The challenge, said Petrek is security and safety around the center, including the many homeless people who camp nearby on Grape Day Park. “The city is working very closely with the center,” said Petrek.

Deferred maintenance is a major challenge, he said. Since the center opened it has never been repainted or its stucco walls resurfaced. Signs of deterioration are noteworthy. The Lyric Court roof needs work and the arches and colonnades running along Valley Parkway and Escondido Boulevard need repairs.

Petrek added that the museum floor also needs repair and the conference center needs new carpeting and new air walls (i.e. room dividers.) The condition of the air walls has prevented the center from being rented out on several occasions, he said.

The theater seating is also in need of sprucing up and some seats show signs of significant wear, said Petrek. “This creates the impression of a less than top experience,” he said.

Currently city staff is evaluating possible revenue sources to fund the face-lift the center needs. They are looking at possibly installing solar panels on the roof to help cut utility costs and free up that money to fund the restoration.

Living within its means

Foundation treasurer Andy Washburn presented the center’s revenues and expenditures for the last year.

Revenues were $6,058,478 for the just ended fiscal year; a 13% increase. Expenses were $5,836,255, creating a surplus of $222,223.  “The management and staff identified additional sources of revenue and held costs and we have begun several initiatives that will pay off in coming years,” Washburn said

Over the past few years, the budget for the center has fluctuated 5% up or down, with  surpluses outnumbering shortfalls. The last time the center came to the city for financial assistance was in 2010. “Things have changed,” said Washburn.

It’s always hard to predict how many people will buy tickets during a season. Nevertheless, the formula the center uses now for booking performers seems to be in the main successful, so that the portion of the center’s budget the city provides has gone from 32% to 12%.  “That means the money you give us gets eight times the benefit it did before,” said Washburn. “The center is committed to living within its means.”

Washburn attributed this financial stability to an improved national economy, improved management practices and expanded programming to align with the community’s interests.

Van Leeuwen talked about the center’s goals for the new year. Ticket sales, he said, are on target and so are rentals of the facility. “We are seeing increased revenues from all sources,” he said.

He hopes to implement even more efficiencies with the use of high tech and leveraging the excellence of the center’s cooking staff. “We are anxious to improve the appearance and safety of the campus,” he said.

The center is also looking to continue and expand partnerships with area universities such as San Diego State University and John Paul the Great University, and with local arts organizations such as the Escondido Chorale and the Classical Academy.

The presentation also included a ten-minute film produced by staff, and included interviews with business owners who benefit from the center’s proximity and members of the community who regularly use the facilities.

Board Chairman Cynthia Weir nearly brought the council chambers to its feet with her rousing and inspiring message (see Page 3 for the full text of her address) during which she told a story of young girls who attended a performance with a dream of meeting the artists—and who went home thrilled that they had met their heroes.

“We are in the business of bringing people together,” she said.  “Politics, race, differences, melt away,” she said, when people meet to celebrate art and culture. She noted that more than 400 events take place each year at the center, attracting 250,000 visitors, and that most of the events the center sponsors are free to the public.

Mayor Sam Abed praised the presentation and called the center “a great success story,” adding, “We have to find a way to manage the two-million-dollar funding.”

Councilmember Ed Gallo praised the presentation: “After your presentation, you should pass the hat!” He turned to Van Leeuwen: “Jerry, since you took over as manager of the center we are pleased with the financial stability. You have been doing a great job!”

Gallo noted that “everything in this center is the original equipment,” and added, “Somehow or other we have to enhance the experience.” He called for doing something on the bridge that brings visitors from the parking lot across the culvert to the center. “The bridge should be exciting,” he said. “It should appeal to the senses. I’ve always envisioned a water treatment of some sort being there.” Gallo concluded, “I want to congratulate you for doing a fantastic job.”

Mike Morasco, who, with Gallo, has served on the council subcommittee that works with the center, said, “It makes it so easy to sell. Thank you for everything you do for the center.”

Councilmember Olgas Diaz exclaimed that she “almost cried” during Mrs. Weir’s speech. “I really feel you have captured the essence of what the center means to the city,” she said. She said that it used to be that it was hard to find something to see at the center. “I don’t have to do that anymore,” she said. “There is no better facility anywhere in the county.”

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