The new art of the city

A megacenter designed to house the Sacramento Ballet, among other creative groups, may finally be on point for development

Although other major arts groups are no longer involved, the Sacramento Ballet still has plans to use this former adult education school as part of the Studios for the Performing Arts Operating Company.

Although other major arts groups are no longer involved, the Sacramento Ballet still has plans to use this former adult education school as part of the Studios for the Performing Arts Operating Company.

photo by nick miller

The Sacramento Ballet and other arts groups aim to turn an old, currently unused adult school in Midtown into a major community arts hub. As many laud the plan, its fate currently awaits the city manager’s recommendation and city council’s vote.

The proposed center, the Studios for the Performing Arts Operating Company, is designed as a megacenter where several arts groups would share practice space, resources and ideas. It will also host free summer camps and internships, and donate various performance tickets to the community.

According to public records, in 2006, the city committed $14 million in grant and bridge funding from the Community Reinvestment Capital Improvement Program bond to the SPA. Back then it was planned that the Studios Operating Company, an organization developed to secure and operate the campus for the project under a board of directors, would be given cash to get the ball rolling, but the rest of the grant would be reserved until the SOC could fulfill its own fundraising commitment. The project’s initial timeline was projected at three years.

In 2008, however, the economy turned sour. Richard Rich, president of the SOC board of directors, said the group was able to solicit a large chunk of change before donations slowed to a trickle, but it wasn’t enough.

In 2009, the city loaned $10 million of the Studios’ $14 million to the Crocker Art Museum Association, to be repaid in 2014. In 2013, however, the city instead refigured the loan to include various provisions including that $2.5 million be redirected from the Crocker to the SOC, with payments starting in 2018. That, plus an additional $2.5 million from the California Environmental Protection Agency fund, would replace the original bridge funding guaranteed in 2006.

In the meantime, the Studios set its sights on the vacant Fremont School for Adults, located at 24th and N streets in Midtown. In December of 2013, the city negotiated a lease on the Fremont building from the Sacramento Unified School District. In turn, the city then negotiated a sublease with the SOC.

Not wanting to wait for the Crocker payments to kick in, the SOC board of directors also asked city council for gap funding to start construction at the Fremont site immediately. Permits were filed and plans drawn.

But then, nothing happened. For months.

When council did finally address the issue again it was this past October, after Mayor Kevin Johnson directed City Manager John Shirey’s office to recommend a strategy to address the funding issue.

The item, however, was then withdrawn from the November 13 and 18 meeting agendas with no report. In early December, Johnson asked Shirey to make a recommendation, setting a report deadline for the end of January, just days before the ballet’s lease at its current K Street location is set to expire.

Shirey, for his part, has already suggested a decision.

“I doubt we will be providing a loan or loan guarantee for the project,” Shirey wrote in November in an email to SN&R. “We have little debt capacity for doing so.”

Still, Shirey also hinted that while the city might not loan money to the Studios, such a decision would “not … rule out the possibility that we will make an additional grant to the project.”

Other key political figures have indicated support.

City Councilman Steve Hansen and Mayor Johnson have both given the project verbal backing.

“We definitely have the capacity as a city to fund it,” Hansen said, adding that the Studios is “a project whose time has come.”

For now the SOC and city council seem to be banking on an “If you build it, they will come” strategy.

The deal with the city requires an 80-percent occupancy of the 31,000 total square footage of the Fremont space, with minimum five-year leases from different local arts groups. In addition to the Sacramento Ballet, the California Musical Theatre, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Opera all committed to being part of the Studios in 2006, when funding was fresh and construction under way at the original location.

But CMT withdrew from the partnership in 2013. Likewise, Laurie Nelson, president of Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance board of directors that oversees the recently merged Philharmonic and Opera, explained to SN&R via email that the alliance is working on growing itself as an organization.

“[The alliance is in] no position to commit to anything right now,” Nelson told SN&R.

Even without the other big players, however, the Sacramento Ballet is still strongly tied to the project. Rich is also on the ballet’s board, and according to the October council report, has letters of intent from enough arts groups to meet its occupancy requirement.

“I’m convinced this is not an issue of funding, but of belief,” explained Rich in an email. “If City Hall believed in the benefits the way the community does, we’d be under construction very soon.”

The mayor, for his part, has set the stage for the rest of the council.

“A city’s soul ties to its arts community,” Johnson said during the October council meeting, “and we’re front and center on this and want to make it happen.”