Senator tower restoration in limbo

Last October, Eric Hart, the man who two years ago purchased the then-disintegrating Senator Theater building from United Artists, asked the Chico City Council for a $320,00 loan to resurrect the building’s famous tower, removed because of its precariously leaning posture.

But a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires that any loan from the city’s redevelopment agency funding requires that, if it goes toward a construction project, prevailing wages must be paid to laborers. Paying such wages in an otherwise low-wage town like Chico would have jacked up the cost of Hart’s project—which also calls for sprucing up the rest of the outside of the building—by 35 to 40 percent, by his estimations.

So the council’s Economic Development Committee recommended the loan instead come from the city’s general fund, which would eliminate the prevailing-wage requirement. But at the council’s Feb. 5 meeting, Councilmember Coleen Jarvis said changing the source of the loan amounted to an “end around” the prevailing wage.

“The prevailing wage has a purpose,” she said. “It pays people more money for their labor.”

Prevailing wage is calculated according to the most prevalent pay in a region. For instance, out of a pool of 10 carpenters, if three make $15 an hour, three earn $15.50 and four make $24, the $24 is considered the prevailing wage. Chico’s region includes high-cost San Francisco.

Councilmembers Rick Keene and Steve Bertagna said they were only trying to help restore the theater and not cost the city any money. The loan from the general fund would have carried the same interest rate as that paid to the general-fund investment portfolio the city maintains.

The council, with Councilmember Larry Wahl abstaining because his wife owns property whose value could be enhanced by the theater’s improvement, deadlocked 3­3 on motions to approve the new loan or send it back to the Economic Development Committee. By default the original loan from RDA funding stands, but since Hart has already said that loan won’t cover labor costs, the Senator improvement remains uncertain.

Hart told the city in a letter that it would cost $319,000 to restore the exterior, including painting, new awnings and restoration of the marquee and about $185,000 for the tower. Hart originally asked for a $925,000 loan, saying he still owed $644,000 on the building, which he said is worth more than $1.4 million. Hart is reportedly trying to sell the theater half of the building for $750,000. The rest of the building consists of ground-floor commercial space and second-story apartment space.

The Right Now Foundation, the nonprofit that has operated the theater since taking over a year ago, is trying to pull together the funding to purchase the theater.

The foundation is made up of local music promoter and News & Review columnist DNA and partner Kirk Johnson, who have worked to turn the four-plex movie theater back into the original single-stage venue. Along the way they’ve encountered a collapsed roof, a flooded basement and asbestos abatement problems.

“This is for Chico 50 years from now, after I’m gone,” said DNA. “We’re thinking in the long term, not just trying to slap something together. We made a leap of faith here for the betterment of Chico, but I don’t know if Chico sees it that way.”

He said the shows they’ve put on have ranged from the “The Vagina Monologues to Christian rock and everything in between.”

DNA said that, although there have been some successful fund-raisers, he’s had to spend money out of his own pocket for things like paint, and partner Johnson has had to mow lawns just to help pay his rent.

The ever-optimistic DNA remains undiscouraged.

"Our dream is to come to an equitable agreement on the purchase," he said, "close escrow, then bring in a team of specialists to help us make this building become what it can and should be."