Arts identity diminished

City Council votes to further gut the Arts Commission

The Our Hands sculpture in front of City Hall is an example of public art.

The Our Hands sculpture in front of City Hall is an example of public art.


As the Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 16) approached midnight, Councilwoman Ann Schwab observed that the evening’s discussions had revolved around “what we do not want the city of Chico to be.” Indeed, the general sentiment was that Chicoans don’t want a downtown core defined by gambling, alcohol abuse and homelessness.

What they do want, she said, is “to be known as an arts community.”

The council was considering restructuring the Arts Commission, a city body that promotes public art and Chico as an arts and culture destination. On Sept. 17 of last year, the council, faced with budgetary constraints, directed the commission to meet six times a year—rather than once a month—and develop a plan for restructuring over the following year. At the meeting on Tuesday, the implicit understanding was that the Arts Commission was in danger of being eviscerated. That is, the council was weighing cutting all city support to the longtime panel.

Arts Commission Chairwoman Muir Hughes described how the commission has adapted to working with reduced resources while still conducting “massive outreach” to local arts organizations and focusing on an economic impact survey.

“We’re looking for a continued partnership [with the city] as we move forward from a time of intense transition,” Hughes said. “Based on our research, we have concluded it needs to remain a city commission. Maintaining a link to the city is critical for the opportunity for resident participation and a facet of city government that oversees one of our strongest economic drivers.

“We’d like to recommend that, for the upcoming year, our schedule remain the same.”

The arts community showed up in force, including representatives from downtown, Chico State, the Museum of Northern California Art, Chico Arts Foundation and Chico Unified School District. They spoke of the arts as a major draw for tourism that pumps money into the local economy and contributes to overall quality of life.

Meanwhile, council newcomers Andrew Coolidge and Reanette Fillmer made it clear that they favored cutting ties with the Arts Commission. Fillmer repeatedly asserted that it had failed to produce a proposal for restructuring, while Coolidge said he supports the arts, “but the very unfortunate fact is that our city is completely broke.”

The council voted down three motions, including Councilman Randall Stone’s attempt to maintain the status quo, and two variations on Mayor Mark Sorensen’s idea of merging the Arts Commission with the Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board.

Fillmer then moved for the Arts Commission to meet only twice a year and explore separating from the city, which passed by a 4-3 vote along party lines.

Another hot topic on Tuesday night’s agenda was local businessman Jon Scott’s proposal to rezone downtown to allow for a seven-table card room and restaurant in the vacant spaces at Third and Main streets.

In October, the Planning Commission voted to recommend against changing the zoning code. The decision came despite Scott’s promise to revitalize the site—which he characterized as a “homeless hangout” and “public urinal” during the council meeting on Tuesday—and supply dozens of high-paying jobs in the process.

A staff report provided by Senior Planner Bob Summerville recommended against approving the card room because it would be contrary to general plan guidelines for that zoning district. While a good number of public comments favored Scott’s proposal, many others maintained a gambling establishment would diminish the value of surrounding businesses.

For example, Tom Van Overbeek, who recently purchased the building at 300 Main Street directly across from the site, commended Scott’s entrepreneurial spirit but said “it’s the wrong use for this place. Chico’s downtown is very special; it’s starting to come back, and it needs to be carefully managed.”

Even Vice Mayor Sean Morgan, a self-described “free-market capitalist,” said the concerns of the downtown business community outweighed the potential facelift. “That corner would look better revitalized … but stakeholders downtown are pretty violently opposed to it,” he said.

The council voted 5-1 to reject the appeal, with Councilwoman Tami Ritter dissenting (and Schwab abstaining due to owning a nearby business).

The council also revisited a familiar issue: alcohol licensing. In recent months, the city has moved forward with two amendments to Title 19, the city’s land use and development regulations—a conditional use permit and a “deemed approved” ordinance.

The conditional use permit would impose a series of requirements on new businesses that sell alcohol, while a deemed approved ordinance would establish operational requirements for existing businesses and standard penalties for noncompliance.

The council took issue with the specific language of the proposed amendments and voted unanimously to send the amendments to the Internal Affairs Committee for revision.