The Long Road to Renovating the Civic Theatre Has Hit Another Bump

Arts/Culture

The Long Road to Renovating the Civic Theatre Has Hit Another Bump

San Diego Theatres, the nonprofit that runs the Civic Theatre, agreed in its lease with the city to spend at least $30 million renovating the theater and break ground no later than Jan. 1, 2023. With redevelopment money off the table, no fundraising staff and two recent departures, the group is banking on private donors or a corporation to step up.

Elizabeth Doran had big ideas for San Diego Theatres Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Civic Theatre and the Balboa Theatre for the city.

She planned to introduce the powerful but unknown group to more San Diegans, bring more shows to the two theaters and help theater staff and others get U.S. citizenship.

Turns out, those ideas were too big for the organization.

Last week, a year and a half into her new gig, Doran resigned. San Diego Theatres released a short statement saying Doran was leaving to pursue other opportunities.

Doran declined to comment, but San Diego Theatres board chair M. Faye Wilson said the board and Doran’s timelines for change didn’t match up. She said Doran was more interested in shaking things up by bringing in new shows for both theaters and doing things other than maintaining the status quo.

“It was clear that she really wanted to do something that was more creatively fulfilling to her,” Wilson said. “And we don’t have the ability to react to her need for change that quickly. Even if we did, it would fly in the face of our commitment to the local arts groups that use our theaters.”

San Diego Theatres has always financed just a few shows at the theaters it runs, but Wilson said the goal was never to drift too far away from its main role of facilitating other organizations’ shows by renting the Civic and Balboa theaters out to groups like Broadway San Diego and the San Diego Opera, its two biggest tenants.

Doran is leaving just a few weeks after San Diego Theatres’ director of finance, Chris Stanicek, left for a new job in Riverside County.

The leadership shakeup comes at a critical time for San Diego Theatres. The nonprofit is gearing up to fund a major renovation of Civic Theatre.

The renovation has been talked about for decades by San Diego Theatres founding CEO Don Telford, city officials, the city’s former redevelopment agency and theater tenants. Theater users have even been paying money toward the renovation in the form of a $1.25 fee tacked onto tickets.

But remodeling San Diego’s foremost performance art venue has never come together.

Rendering courtesy of San Diego Theatres
Rendering courtesy of San Diego Theatres

In 2005, the U-T published photos of a 3D model of the revamped theater and wrote that the fundraising campaign was just months from getting under way. That same model and a watercolor featuring the new face of the theater was dragged out into the lobby of the Civic Theatre last year with renewed hopes of getting things going.

One of the biggest hurdles in 2005 was the need for San Diego Theatres to become an independent nonprofit, instead of a subsidiary of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. The theater is next to buildings that used to be operated by the Convention Center, so the partnership made sense at one time. That change didn’t end up happening until about three years ago. Wilson says a tumultuous city leadership in preceding years was mostly to blame.

“That was a time of change,” Wilson said. “We went through a few mayors around that time and had some different heads of the real estate assets office, so every time people changed, we sort of had to start over.”

Once San Diego Theatres got its own nonprofit status, it was able to secure a 50-year lease with the city in 2013. In exchange for the long-term lease, San Diego Theatres agreed to spend at least $30 million renovating the theater and break ground no later than Jan. 1, 2023.

Civic Theatre opened in 1965 and hasn’t been significantly upgraded for decades. The $1.25 fee tacked onto tickets was never meant to be the main funding source for the renovation. It’s one source, but it’s also meant to be used for general upkeep of both theaters. Wilson said the organization has used the money on things like a new elevator and required accessibility upgrades – things Wilson said the city, as their landlord, could have helped fund but didn’t.

Wilson said San Diego Theatres spent $433,000 on necessary facility upgrades this past year alone.

San Diego Theaters has $4.8 million from tickets fees on hand. That money has to be split between both theaters, but right now it’s the only money available for the renovation.

Wilson said there’s been talk over the years of as much as a $30 million investment from the city’s former redevelopment agency for the renovation. When the state did away with redevelopment, that opportunity went by the wayside. She now expects all the funding will have to come from private donors and corporations. Something like the Petco Civic Theatre is a real possibility in the future.

“I’d take Sempra, AT&T,” said Wilson. “I think it’s a nice naming opportunity.”

John Weil is the interim CEO of San Diego Theatres. He was chief of staff to former County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who currently serves on the San Diego Theatres board. Whether Weil or someone else takes over the organization, the new leader will need to know how to fundraise.

The organization doesn’t currently have a fundraising staff in place, and the only tangible work toward the renovation thus far has been paying for preliminary designs. The design includes additions for new restaurants, a new entrance and other new amenities, but Wilson said things have changed in recent years, so they may have to redo some aspects of it.

Since its near-death experience in 2014, the San Diego Opera doesn’t use the Civic Theatre as much as it once did. Wilson said they’ll need to do a usability study and make adjustments for other possible future tenants who might fill the gap left by the opera. They’ll also need to complete a study on the project’s environmental effects, which could take a few years.

San Diego Theatres gets a sweetheart deal on rent, paying the city just $3,250 a year for both theaters. Wilson said San Diego Theatres upholds its end of the deal by getting close to breaking even every year and not relying on city subsidies. Other city-owned performance centers, like the shuttered East County Performing Arts Center and the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, have both struggled financially and relied on city subsidies.

Not one penny of city money is slated to go toward the renovation of the Civic Theatre, and Wilson said San Diego Theatres won’t likely be asking city leaders to help, but she did say she hopes the city steps up in another way.

“The one thing we would like from the city is to do something with the rest of the Civic Center Plaza,” she said. “One of our board members actually asked the question when we were talking about this renovation project, she said, ‘Wait a minute, why are we polishing up a diamond when it’s sitting in the middle of this dump?’”

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