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The Big Score

Santa Rosa tries to lure LBC downtown

By Paula Harris

"STARS IN YOUR OWN backyard--LBC!" warbles the chirpy radio promo for the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. But some Santa Rosa movers and shakers--who are trying to lure away LBC's chief tenant, the Santa Rosa Symphony--want the entire arts center to get out of that "backyard" and set up shop inside city limits.

The plan to move the Santa Rosa Symphony surfaced June 6 in the press. But Santa Rosa City Council members Dave Berto and Pat Wiggins--who hatched the plan after attending a recent performing arts facility conference in Walnut Creek--told the Independent this week they believe LBC's board of directors should sell all or part of its current facility at an old church on Mark West Springs Road and form a partnership with the Santa Rosa Symphony and the city of Santa Rosa to create a new $25 million performing arts center at one of several downtown sites in or near Railroad Square.

According to Wiggins, the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce reports that city's performing arts center is "a money machine," with patrons each spending an average of $11 downtown.

Wiggins says LBC is "on the fringe" and not part of the "vital" downtown. "You go there and you leave," she says.

"You don't experience dining and other related activities."

As one of the partners, the city could contribute to the new site. Berto says LBC's location in the former Christian Life Center building north of town along Highway 101--where patrons in the main auditorium sit on straight wooden pews and the acoustics are problematic--fulfilled community needs when it opened its doors in 1981 as a performing arts center, but not now.

"LBC has not gotten the financial support from the government it really should," Berto says. "There's no ongoing support and it hasn't been able to make a strong showing and improve itself over the years. Needs have changed. The experiment was for LBC to be completely self-sufficient, but it's not all it could be. It needs more partners, more support. It needs to come to downtown."

The suggestion to move LBC's operations downtown fits into an overall scheme to revitalize the beleaguered city core. In 1994, San Francisco developer Tom Robertson -- president of San Francisco North Properties -- renovated the Rosenberg Building on Fourth Street, now occupied by Barnes & Noble Bookstore. The following year, he followed suit on Fifth Street at a building that houses the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre and Massés billiards. Then came the recent proposal to reunify Courthouse Square and reports that the Santa Rosa Symphony could move downtown. The LBC plan is the resurrection of a two-decade-old idea to create a performing arts center in the heart of Santa Rosa.

But some wonder whether this unofficial downtown master plan isn't gaining too much unnecessary momentum.

CLAUDIA HASKELL, LBC executive director, is surprised that what she essentially considers to be a pipe dream is capturing so much attention. "I still think that it's important to understand that there is no proposal, this is merely an idea," she stresses, adding that the symphony board has yet to issue a statement requesting a new center. "I don't feel that there's merit in concluding that such an idea would come to fruition," says Haskell.

"This is very premature."

Haskell admits the acoustics at LBC are a problem, but favors upgrading the current facilities. "The opportunities to build a cultural vortex here are much more expansive," she concludes.

Spence Flournoy, chairman of the LBC board of directors (whose three-year term expires this week), says most of the board members he's spoken to "cannot figure out where the city would find the space to accomplish what is being handled in the north end of town. . . . We've got 53 acres and parking lots all over the place here--I don't know where you'd put that downtown."

Councilman Berto agrees that another option for LBC would be to build a symphony hall with "state-of-the-art acoustics" at its current site. But, he adds, "they have to weigh that with the idea of selling the land and taking the money and building it [downtown] and getting more total support."

As long as LBC, which is owned by a community foundation, stays outside the city limits, it's not going to get municipal support, he adds.

City officials have targeted several downtown sites as possibilities for a performing arts center. These include: the old White House department store location at E and Third streets--now a city parking lot; a second city parking lot at Fifth and B streets; the site of the 100,000-square-foot Second Street Post Office, which would be relocated; the site of the almost vacant AT&T building on Third Street and Santa Rosa Avenue; and the Northwestern Pacific railroad property at Third and Wilson streets near Railroad Square and a planned conference center.

Another possibility, which Berto says is his preference, is the Grace Brothers Brewery between Days Inn and the freeway on the south side of West Third Street--the prime candidate for a performing arts center 20 years ago before LBC opened.

However, the Innkeeper Associates Development Co. of San Francisco has an exclusive agreement with Santa Rosa to develop that site as a 156-room hotel and conference center. The association last week began seeking investors for the $24 million project, says Robertson, who is helping to find funding for the Innkeeper project.

But, if the hotel project is not viable, the property could revert to city ownership in September. According to City Council member Wiggins, a performing arts center could work well at that site with the Santa Rosa Avenue renovation plan.

"We could integrate the creek plan with the Grace Brothers site, have a pedestrian connection with outdoor cafes, and open up Olive Park for an outdoor amphitheater to have an indoor-outdoor arts facility," she says. "That's certainly in the wings if the conference center doesn't fly."

Debbie Timm, executive director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, says the symphony's main goal is to have a facility specifically designed for music, whether downtown or at LBC.

"We need to explore a lot of sites and partnerships--we don't have a big fund here ready to go," she explains.

"Contributing a site is one thing and it's very important, but it's also important for anyone who is going to partner with the city to get some kind of long-term commitment."


Associate Editor Gretchen Giles contributed to this article.

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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