Editor’s note: This is the second article of a two-part series about the long-delayed Calvert theater renovation and the theater’s possible impact on Lompoc’s economy.
The old Lompoc Theater has had a long and interesting history in its 83 years. Renamed the Calvert Performing Arts Center, there is a $10 million renovation effort to ensure the theater has just as long a future.
The renovation project has stalled, however, in an economy where federal, state and local governments are cutting budgets and doing without credit. Still, Lompoc city and business leaders say the theater is worth the price, and can serve as the cornerstone to build up downtown Lompoc’s future.
“It will help create a people place. In order to create a successful downtown environment, we need a reason for people to be here,” said Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Denny Anderson.
Anderson has reason to believe a renovated theater can help a downtown flourish, having been part of a similar theater project that was successful in Loveland, Colo., before he moved to Lompoc.
Anderson is not alone in that belief. Mayor Mike Siminski said he could not think of a single project that would be more of an asset to revitalizing the old downtown.
Former mayor and community activist Joyce Howerton agreed.
“I believe it really is sort of the gem of Lompoc. If we’re ever going to have a vibrant downtown, the theater would be the anchor,” Howerton said.
Once upon a time, the Lompoc Theater really was a major attraction to the city’s vibrant downtown, centered at H Street and Ocean Avenue. The 600-seat theater was built by Walter Calvert and William Baker in 1927. Historical records show the theater often sold out, even back when Lompoc only had a population of only 2,000. The entertainment included plays, lectures, movies, concerts, and even a Mickey Mouse Club.
“I wish they had the money to work on it,” said descendant and former theater owner Carol Calvert. “It’s a great place — just old, and needs renovation.”
According to the Calverts, the theater business began to decline in the 1970s. Carol Calvert said it was in the 1980s that the family began leasing the theater to entrepreneurs in hopes others could keep the place profitable, but the decline continued as the space began to sit empty for longer and longer. One step into the theater’s musty lobby can demonstrate the years of disuse — the phone booth still has a 1991 phone book, and the ticket dispenser still shows less than $4 for adult admission.
“The building’s always been a white elephant, never able to generate the revenue to match the property value,” said Ron Bock, who operates a state probate office in the theater’s nearly-deserted upstairs, which he has rented for six years.
As the theater sat unused, commercial developers, who were interested in tearing it down to redevelop, began to approach the Calvert family with offers.
Roughly five years ago, a small committee seeking to preserve the theater found a private donor willing to sink $2 million into the project, according to Joyce Howerton. The committee’s plan was to take one year for the renovation, then have the private investor turn the property over to a nonprofit organization to run and maintain as an art and culture center.
Howerton said she thinks the private investment plan “could have had the theater up and running by now.”
In the end, however, the Calvert family chose the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation’s (LHCDC) more expansive renovation plan, which relied on public funding.
In 2007, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held to help build community support for the renovation project.
Bock said he attended the LHCDC’s groundbreaking ceremony, and still hoped the renovation plans become a reality, even though it would mean giving up his inexpensive office space during the construction.
“It’s a pretty cool building. I’m glad I get to stay here a little longer, but I’m more happy Lompoc gets to keep this place,” Bock said.
The city of Livermore, Calif., population 90,000, was a lot like Lompoc. Though it’s in the Bay Area, the city had an agricultural component, a downtown in desperate need of revitalization, and community leaders who hoped to capitalize on the growing popularity of the local wine region.
In 2007, a nonprofit organization used a combination of private funds, public donations, and funding from the city and state to build the 500-seat Bankhead Theater in downtown Livermore. It was built on time, and under budget, at a total cost of
$22.3 million. In its first year of operation, more than 76,000 people attended shows at the theater, generating $1.2 million in ticket sales, and boosted the economy of downtown Livermore.
“Our projects and a local cinema on the same block have contributed to the opening of seven or eight new restaurants that have breathed new life to that part of the downtown,” said David Dial, executive director of the nonprofit group Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center.
Since then, Livermore has earned a national award for its downtown revitalization efforts.
Success stories like Livermore’s are no fluke, according to Sue Ehrlich, executive director of LHCDC.
“Theaters, in economic development, have a solid track record of turning neighborhoods around,” Ehrlich said.
Aside from economic development, there is a long list of area performers eager to take the stage.
“There’s no place in Lompoc that has the acoustics that the theater does. It’s terrific, especially for performing arts,” said Carol Calvert.
Judy Carpenter, of the Lompoc Concert Association, added, “You could speak in a whisper on the stage and still be heard in the back of the house.”
Groups like the concert association and the Lompoc Civic Theater have long histories of putting on performances in the old theater, and say they are craving the chance to bring life to the stage once again. Nicole Barnick, vice president for the Lompoc Civic Theater, said the renovated theater would be one of the nicest on the entire Central Coast.
“There’s a lot of interest, even from outside this town. We could definitely bring some revenue into this town,” Barnick said.
Once renovated, the Calvert Performing Arts Center would be more than just a theater. An upstairs lounge would be added, as would a 100-seat theater at the rear of the building “that could be used for small events or as rehearsal space,” according to Ehrlich.
Separate plans call for the space to the north and south of the theater (also owned by LHCDC) to change as well. The old harness shop, currently tucked to the rear of the building, would be brought up to H Street to become new commercial space. The vacant lot to the south of the theater, currently a sculpture garden, would become a 30,000-square- foot office/commercial building, including “a courtyard that the theater doors would open onto so we could use it as interactive space,” Ehrlich said.
According to the LHCDC’s business projections, the additional lease space helps ensure the theater property will be financially stable. Conversely, the presence of the theater will help raise foot traffic to the area, helping to keep more of old town Lompoc’s storefronts filled.
But for now, everything is on hold, due to a lack of available financing according to Ehrlich.
In recent months, criticism from the community, and from City Council members have questioned LHCDC’s ability to handle the myriad of projects it has undertaken. Like the theater, several residential projects have been stalled for the nonprofit. Funding cutbacks by the state, and county also endanger portions of the corporation’s ongoing funding. Most recently, the City Council took the corporation to task for not keeping up on paperwork requirements for some of its low-income rental properties.
Asked about the criticism, Ehrlich said the LHCDC has a past track record of success, and that the current economic situation affects everyone.
“If there’s somebody on the council, or in the community who can get this moving, they should let us know,” Ehrlich said.
There is hope, even in the current economy that something could happen. After Livermore built the Bankhead Theater and saw its success, work began to design and build a larger theater complex, to draw audiences from the entire region (similar to one built recently in Thousand Oaks).
Though it is ten times more expensive than the Calvert Theater project, the proposed Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center is to be funded in much the same way, with a combination of Redevelopment Agency funds courtesy of the city, local donations, and a large bank loan to get the whole thing going.
Dial said that the recent upheaval with the national bank and credit system had delayed Livermore’s theater project as well.
“The market was somewhat nonexistent in October 2008, but it has slowly come back to life in the last several months.
“We hope to be in the ground starting construction sometime in 2010,” Dial said.
Worst case scenario according to Ehrlich: “That it sits for another 10 years.” The LHCDC would keep the two leases upstairs, and the Lompoc Civic Theater and County Youth Corps making some use of the downstairs. Building patchwork, like a roof leak fix being planned now, would continue.
Best case scenario: A better economy, a bank willing and able to make exceptions for the LHCDC’s credit situation, or perhaps a second stimulus package influx of funds would allow the theater renovation to begin moving again, with actual construction beginning only a month or two later.
“We just have a little bit more engineering work to do, and we could begin,” Ehrlich said.
Until then, the marquee will stay dark, the LHCDC will continue looking for the way forward, and residents will keep dreaming of what could be.