Coming Tuesday: The four options the City Council will be asked to consider for the theater.
Ken Calvert is obsessed with disquieting thoughts as he waits for the Lompoc City Council meeting at City Hall on Tuesday evening. What will be the fate of his beloved Lompoc Theatre?
The 75-year-old Calvert wonders if his family’s dream of restoring the theater will ever be realized now that Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation (LHCDC), owner of the theater for the past six years, waits to dissolve.
Calvert’s parents, Earl and Anne Calvert, owned the once-elegant, 450-seat theater built by Earl’s father, Walter, that opened in 1927 and has sat largely unused since 1985, the last year a film was projected onto its CinemaScope screen.
City Council members on Tuesday will consider a report from city staff outlining four options for the disposition of the deteriorating theater and the three liens on the property.
When council members consider the pros and cons of the options, it will be at least the fourth time the restoration and survival of the theater building has hung in the balance.
“I dwell on thinking of this outcome,” Calvert said about the council meeting. “I take it to heart. I have to see that what (my father) dedicated his life to comes true. Every time I go by that building and look at it, it gets to me. It’s in such horrible condition. It’s frustrating, it’s like a waiting game.”
Today, the historic theater sits empty, with a look of abandonment and neglect, its interior water-damaged and littered with leaves, trash, dead birds and bird droppings. The theater front displays a taped legal “Writ of Attachment” by a bank that is owed money by LHCDC, rather than the title of a featured film.
Brian Cole, owner of Howlin’ Byroon’s Music Exchange in downtown, harbors disquieting thoughts similar to those of Ken Calvert. Can the city revitalize Old Town with a darkened, decaying theater at its center?
Cole, whose music store offers live shows once a month, is a vocal proponent of transforming downtown into a bustling center of retail shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and attractive storefronts that could bring a much-needed boost to the city’s floundering economy. He wonders if the slide of the city’s deteriorating core will ever be reversed, and believes restoring the theater is an essential ingredient for the rejuvenation of Old Town.
On Tuesday, Cole plans to share his research with council members on how cities across the nation have rejuvenated their downtowns with restorations of old theaters as the cornerstone. Cole said many theater restorations have succeeded with a partnership of public and private dollars and community support.
“The people have to take charge of their own revitalization here,” Cole said. “I honestly think it has less to do with a lack of money, than with an appropriation of existing money and an appropriation of volunteer effort. If they’re going to do that ‘we don’t have the money’ dance, I don’t buy it.
“At a minimum, I don’t understand why a few of us couldn’t go down to that theater, put on a coat of paint and get the lights on, at least look like we’re alive.”
Beginning of the dream
Two previous attempts to restore the theater had failed, but it was LHCDC’s attempt that generated the most community enthusiasm and hope that, this time, the restoration could succeed.
LHCDC fed those hopes with compelling plans to restore the theater, renaming it the Calvert Performing Arts Center, and tying it to an adjacent retail and office complex the nonprofit planned to build on the corner lot on H Street and Ocean Avenue that it purchased in late 2002.
In July 2003, LHCDC announced it had signed a 6-month option agreement with the Calvert family to acquire, restore and reopen the theater as a multi-use performing arts center.
Calvert now wonders if he was naïve to believe LHCDC would truly make it happen.
Ken’ Calvert’s wife, Carol, recalls that Susan Warnstrom, vice-president of LHCDC at the time, contacted the couple in early 2003 about purchasing the theater. The initial meeting took place in Warnstrom’s county office, where she worked as an assistant to 4th district Supervisor Joni Gray. Gray was not a part of the meeting, nor present in the office, Carol Calvert said.
In attendance were Sue Ehrlich, LHCDC executive director, Warnstrom and LHCDC Board President Frank Signorelli. The Calverts said they were impressed with their certainty that the restoration could succeed.
The Calverts, the city and LHCDC negotiated almost three years — from 2003 to 2006 — to finalize the sale of the theater for $850,000, financed by city funds, a cash payment from LHCDC and a loan note from the Calverts.
The sale was completed in April 2006, with the city awarding interest-free loans of $250,000 in Lompoc Redevelopment Agency funds and $225,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to acquire the property. LHCDC contributed $200,000, and the Calverts carried a note of $175,000, with interest, for LHCDC. The Calvert family received a cash payment of about $650,000 to be split between Earl Calvert’s two sons, Ken and Erlan.
In June 2007, the city awarded an additional $450,000 in redevelopment funds to LHCDC for predevelopment costs, including expenses for architects, engineering consultants, construction plans, and theater restoration specialists, bringing the total of the city’s investment to $925,000. The city also set aside $750,000 in redevelopment funds for construction costs.
The bulk of the financing for the now estimated $10 million theater restoration project — about 60 percent — would come from a private commercial loan, donations, foundation grants, historic preservation tax credits and the nonprofit’s reserves, according to LHCDC’s development budget submitted to the city in May 2007.
Despite a flurry of publicity and newspaper articles heralding the upcoming restoration and nearby retail/office complex, and a ceremonial groundbreaking event for the theater held in May 2007 — 80 years after the theater opened — LHCDC was unable to complete financing plans for either project.
In June 2008, Ehrlich notified the city that the theater project was on hold while the nonprofit investigated alternative financing mechanisms, noting that “the Theater’s success may well hinge on securing additional funding sources.” Ehrlich also wrote that “significant discussion still needs to take place with city officials regarding the city’s role in both the construction and ongoing operation of this project.”
Ehrlich said she would ask the city for more predevelopment funds to revise construction drawings, pursue historical designations and hire a fundraising consultant to begin a capital campaign to raise $1 million in private donations. At the same time, LHCDC’s status updates on the theater project did not report any foundation grants or funds from private sources, according to city records.
In August 2008, the city requested that the county reallocate $931,898 in CDBG funds reserved for the theater by the city during the previous two years. The funds were reallocated in September 2008 to the proposed community/senior center on West Ocean Avenue, citing the need to comply with CDBG spending timelines.
The city continued to reserve $750,000 in redevelopment funds for construction costs, but LHCDC was now delinquent in submitting both independent financial audits and unaudited financial statements, called Form 990s, according to city staff. The delinquent financial data prevented LHCDC from being able to meet the requirements to apply for federal stimulus funds in 2009, as well as government funds and grants from private foundations.
End of the dream
LHCDC’s financial situation continued to deteriorate after it experienced unexpected costs associated with College Park, a 35-unit affordable housing project, and banks tightened credit standards. More loans went unpaid. The city moved to foreclose on one overdue loan for a vacant lot LHCDC was unable to develop, eventually accepting title to the deed in lieu of foreclosure.
In June 2010, the city reallocated the $750,000 set aside for theater construction and moved the money into a general Historic Preservation and Restoration account. The city assured LHCDC that both RDA and CDBG funds would be available if a completed application was received.
In September 2011, LHCDC announced that it intended to dissolve.
Now the theater building is encumbered with three outstanding loans — the former Redevelopment Agency, the city of Lompoc and the Calverts all hold liens on the property. LHCDC missed the April 2011 due date for the balance of the Calvert loan, and stopped making payments in November 2011.
The theater’s condition has deteriorated since it was purchased in 2006, but a January 2012 structural survey by a city-paid consultant found that “the existing structure is still adequate to support the previously designed renovation.”
The report noted increased damage from undetermined water leaks, fungus mold and enlarged interior and exterior cracks in walls. The consultant recommended additional structural testing for seismic safety and investigation into the source of the water leaks.
Ken Calvert remembers that LHCDC signed an agreement to maintain the property in good condition. Restoration costs would be lower, he said, if the nonprofit had taken simple steps to repair the roof. He believes the Calvert family, the community and the theater itself, have been “treated very shabbily” by LHCDC.
“I think a decision has to be made. Right now, the chips are down,” Calvert said. “Whatever happens, realistically, well, it could be the end of it or it could be the start of it. I pray to God that they come up with a solution to not let this go.”
Timeline of LHCDC’s plans for the Lompoc Theatre
July 2003: The Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation announces plans to restore the landmark Lompoc Theatre. The Calvert family and LHCDC sign a 6-month purchase option agreement.
July 2004: Sue Ehrlich, executive director of LHCDC, reports cost of renovating the theater at $1.2 million with completion expected by May 2006. Negotiations with the Calverts continue.
November 2004: LHCDC presents plans to restore theater at a City Council workshop. About $475,000 will be needed from city funds, Ehrlich reports. Estimated completion date is mid-2006. LHCDC is busy writing grant requests, Ehrlich reports.
March 2005: Phase II of the city’s Downtown Renovation Project for sidewalks, trees and street lights is put on hold pending LHCDC’s renovation of the theater and an adjacent two-story retail/office complex at the corner of H Street and Ocean Avenue, reported to be completed by July 2006.
June 2005: Target date of completion for the restored Lompoc Theatre is now Christmas 2006, Ehrlich reports.
July 2005: Planning Commission approves plans for $4.7 million retail/office complex at H and Ocean. Groundbreaking expected by March 2006 and completion of the complex and the restored theater by March or April 2007, Ehrlich reports.
March 2006: City Council approves $475,000 in loans to acquire theater. Exact cost of renovation is unknown, Ehrlich reports. Groundbreaking expected in early 2007. “It’s not going to be a difficult rehabilitation project,” LHCDC consultant says. Ehrlich reports LHCDC is working to place theater on National Register of Historic Places to earn preservation tax credits as part of financing.
April 2006: The purchase of the Lompoc Theatre is completed with a purchase price of $850,000. The theater was appraised at $875,000.
October 2006: Ehrlich reports Lompoc Theatre has a new name: The Calvert Performing Arts Center. Groundbreaking will take place on May 27, 2007, 80 years to day theater opened in 1927. Total cost of renovation is now estimated at $6 million. Expected completion date for theater and retail/office complex is now early 2008, Ehrlich reports.
March 2007: Groundbreaking for theater is still set for May 2007. Estimated cost of renovation is now $9 million, with completion of theater and retail/office complex expected in late 2008, Ehrlich reports.
April 2007: Planning Commission approves plans for renovation of Lompoc Theatre. Estimated cost is still $9 million.
May 2007: Gala groundbreaking ceremony is held for Lompoc Theatre restoration. Estimated opening is now November 2008.
June 2007: City allocates $450,000 for predevelopment costs for theater project.
March 2008: Ehrlich reports “We essentially have just one big hoop left” before construction can begin on theater restoration. LHCDC is awaiting approval of state and federal agencies for historic preservation designation. Expected completion date is now fall or winter 2009 and restoration costs are now “hovering just under $10 million,” Ehrlich reports. Mayor Dick DeWees reports, “We’ve got to start seeing some progress here before we dedicate more money to it.”
June 2008: Ehrlich notifies city that theater project is on hold pending the development of new funding sources. Ehrlich cites need for unspecified amount of additional predevelopment funds from city. “Significant discussion still needs to take place with city officials regarding city’s role in both the construction and ongoing operation of this project,” she says.
August-September 2008: The city and county reprogram $931,898 of CDBG funds held in reserve for theater restoration. The city continues to reserve $750,000 in RDA funds for construction costs for theater.
October 2008: LHCDC expends the last of its $450,000 predevelopment loan for theater restoration.
December 2009: RDA staff reports to Council that LHCDC applied for additional predevelopment funds, but application was denied due to incomplete information needed to process application.
January 2010: Ehrlich reports LHCDC is delaying applying for $3.4 million in additional city funding for theater restoration until “enough of the remaining financing is in place to assure the City Council the project can be completed.” The good news is that estimated construction costs are now lower due to the bad economy, Ehrlich reports. The worst case scenario, she says, is “that it sits for another 10 years.”
June 2010: City reallocates $750,000 in funds held for theater construction for two years, including $685,000 moved to Historic Preservation and Restoration account which LHCDC can apply for.
September 2011: LHCDC Board President Susan Warnstrom announces plans for LHCDC to dissolve and to seek “an organization to protect the services that the county and other organizations have invested in.”
November 2011: LHCDC stops installment payments to the Calvert family for purchase of theater.
August 2012: Lompoc Theater placed on City Council agenda for public discussion.
Sources: Lompoc Record archives, city documents and LHCDC correspondence to City Council.