Supporters of the East County Performing Arts Center gathered at the downtown El Cajon facility Tuesday afternoon to voice concerns over its future.
The crowd of about 100 assembled in front of the arts center, next door to City Hall. Speakers included artists, school leaders, business owners, patrons and a board member from The Arts Center Foundation.
In November, the foundation -- a nonprofit group that runs the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC) for the city of El Cajon -- was declared by the City Council to be in breach of its financial contract. The city covers the foundation's operating expenses and payroll and is later reimbursed by the nonprofit. But the foundation missed two payments, and now owes the city nearly $462,000, a number that will grow to $726,000 by the end of January. The foundation also owes the city approximately $580,000 on a loan used for theater improvements.
The City Council gave the nonprofit until Jan. 25 to repair the breach. If the debts are not repaid, the council said it could seek a new manager or rent out the facility.
The Arts Center Foundation has managed the 1,142-seat theater for the past seven years. Millions of dollars in private and public funds have been invested in downtown El Cajon redevelopment in recent years, with ECPAC as the cornerstone.
The city provided the foundation with an annual subsidy of $350,000 for three years, but the funding was cut two years ago due to budgetary constraints. The loss of funding was significant to the center, representing about 18 percent of total operating budget. The figure also represents less than 1 percent of the city's $50 million dollar operating budget.
A shortfall in donations and corporate sponsorship has led to the foundation's falling behind on its payments to the city. But the publicity surrounding the debt and the council's repeated threats to the center's existence have harmed the foundation's ability to raise the needed funds from the community, according to a foundation press release.
"Unfortunately, the very public stance that the City Council has taken on this issue has seriously undermined our fund-raising efforts, which were in high gear," said Dick Zellner, president and CEO of the Arts Center Foundation. "Over the last seven years the foundation has accomplished a lot -- bringing big stars and recognition for a world-class theater to the city of El Cajon and greater San Diego. When the City Council voted to cut our funding two years ago, it put a serious strain on our ability to continue to develop programming for the community as well as putting a tremendous financial burden on an already lean operation."
The foundation has been nationally recognized for its community arts education program, "Plug Into the Arts." The program was recently granted $10,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts, and has reached more than 10,000 students since its inception in 1999. The foundation estimates that ECPAC's impact to the economy of greater El Cajon is $4.6 million annually. Diverse performances on the bill this season include Al Jarreau, The San Diego Symphony, Carol Channing, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and the Smothers Brothers.
Following the rally, advocates moved over to City Hall to speak in support of the arts center during the public comment period of the City Council meeting.
The rally was coordinated by Friends of the East County Performing Arts Center, which has also begun a letter-writing campaign. Jay Mills, of J.B. Mills Insurance, spokesperson for the Friends of the East County Performing Arts Center, urged concerned citizens to write a letter to El Cajon City Council members emphasizing the positive impact the theater has on the community and the benefit of the arts education programs to local schools.
"The bottom line is, the taxpayers' money, under the direction of the foundation, has gone into making this Arts Center what it is today," said Mills. "This is the people's performing arts center and the people have a duty to let the politicians know how they feel about continuing to support this local treasure."
The foundation has asked the council to forgive the loan, reinstate the subsidy and give the organization more time to pay its bills. The council is scheduled to discuss the matter on Jan. 25.