A Struggle To Succeed

ESCONDIDO -- Building a big, fancy arts center isn't enough to ensure that audiences will pack the house.

Just look at the California Center for the Arts, which has struggled to make ends meet despite rave reviews for its lavish facilities.

The city-owned complex, which includes two theaters, a museum, art and dance studios, and a conference center, has operated at a deficit for most of its 13-year history.

Still, the northern San Diego County venue is credited with spurring development downtown, helping increase sales tax revenues and adding to the community's cultural life.

Mike Peters, vice president of the Escondido Downtown Business Association, said the arts center has been a boon, despite its problems. He points to the once-lifeless nearby main drag of Grand Street, which is filled with coffee shops, restaurants and galleries, thanks, in part, to the arts center.

Far bigger than Modesto's Gallo Center for the Arts, the Escondido venue cost $81 million and is spread out on a 12-acre campus by a large park. As a comparison, imagine that the Gallo center, Modesto Centre Plaza, the McHenry Museum, Juline School of Dance and Graceada Park were next-door neighbors.

Although ticket sales here were strong the first year in Escondido, they often have failed to meet expectations since then. Last month, the center reported a $412,975 budget deficit as a result of poor ticket sales, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Vicki Bayshore, president and chief operating officer, told the paper ticket sales were 71 percent of what was projected for the 2006-07 season. Part of the problem was that the marketing department was not fully staffed, said Kathy Rubesha, chairwoman of the center's board.

In 2003, the nonprofit that operates the center had to make deep budget cuts, laying off 17 employees and temporarily closing the museum. Center staff members blamed the financial problems on overly optimistic budget projections, withdrawn monetary pledges and a city government that didn't provide enough cash, according to an analysis by the North County Times paper.

Although the arts center potentially could draw from a 2 million-plus regional population -- Escondido is 30 miles north of San Diego -- the number of people interested in arts events is much smaller.

Michael Wagman, communications and marketing director for the center, said it's been a struggle to sell tickets because it's tough to compete in a region with so many other options, including casinos, beaches and professional sports. Also, Escondido's 133,510 residents have one of the lowest median incomes in San Diego County.

About half the population is Latino and they generally stay away from the arts center, Wagman said. The arts center is trying to bring more Latinos by booking mariachi and regional Mexican shows and is about to survey Latinos to determine what programming and marketing would work best.

With Latinos making up 30 percent of Modesto's population, the Gallo center is working hard to make sure they feel welcome. Los Tigres del Norte, a Mexican-American supergroup, will perform opening week. The Gallo center is offering two series targeted to Latinos.

Alejandro Sabre, a Mexican native who sits on the Gallo center board, said part of the reason he participated is to make sure the center serves Latinos.

In Escondido, most of people who attend are non-Latino whites ages 45 and older with an income of $75,000 or more.

Attendance in the 2006-07 season was 143,000, down from 190,000 in 1998-99, but part of the drop was because there were far fewer performances scheduled last year. The best-selling acts over the years have been the most famous names, such as country stars Vince Gill and LeAnn Rimes, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the musical "Cats," which is booked at the Gallo center in May.

The arts center presented more than 40 shows last season and booked additional shows from outside producers, staging more than 300 performances overall. Unlike Gallo, which has four resident companies, the Escondido center has none.

Craig Achin, who has lived in Escondido a year, said the center is one of the things that makes the city a good place to live. "It's beautiful," he said. "The sound is great."

But, he said, the center doesn't book enough of the well-known rock bands he likes. Most of the bigger names get diverted to nearby Indian casinos.

Still, the city has seen downtown sales tax revenue more than double in six years, from $586,914 in 2000 to $1.4 million in 2006.

While the arts center can't take all the credit for the success, it didn't hurt, Peters said.

"It's a piece of the puzzle," he said. "It's one thing that helped build downtown."

He said it's important to draw crowds downtown with fun activities, such as Escondido's weekly summer Cruisin' Grand, in which classic cars parade.

The center kick-started development in the commercial strip across the street. Tina Sarno Inscoe, director of individual giving and special events, said that when the venue opened, the dominant neighbor was an aging Montgomery Ward.

"I can't even tell you how demoralizing it was to look across the street," she said.

Now, there are movie theaters and a wide array of restaurants, coffeehouses and stores.

A recent study by Americans for the Arts says the arts have helped local economies in cities across the country. According to the report by the arts advocacy group, a typical attendee at a performance spends $27.79 per event, in addition to the cost of tickets, on such things as meals, gifts or souvenirs, baby-sitting, transportation and parking.

One of the Escondido center's proudest accomplishments, however, has nothing to do with the economy and instead is about arts education. The organization has benefited thousands of students by allowing school groups to perform at the center and presenting matinees for students to see professional artists.

Among the center's many fans is elementary school music teacher Debi Pellkofer, whose students have performed at the venue.

"For most, it is the biggest experience of this kind in their young lives," she said. "It inspires them to work harder to play even better."

Linda Woods, president of the Escondido Union School District board, said the center has added to the educational opportunities for students.

"It is providing a unique partnership, opening doors for our children we would never get otherwise," she said.

The center runs on a $7 million annual budget, with the city contributing $1.3 million a year from its general fund, and paying the utilities and handling some maintenance. Corporate sponsors give $1.1 million and the rest comes from tickets, user fees, grants and other sources.

The city of Modesto contributed more than $1 million for paving, gutters, curbs and utility line work, but has declined to offer other financial support for the Gallo center. While Stanislaus County contributed $15 million, it, too, is not providing ongoing funding.

Like other arts center staff members interviewed for this series, Wagman was impressed that the Gallo center plans to operate without an ongoing source of government funding and that it is opening with a $15 million endowment. Although Dave Pier, executive director of the Gallo center, said the endowment's benefits will be undercut by the fact the center is opening with $14 million in debt, Wagman said the fund still is something of which to be proud.

"You are very, very fortunate," he said, adding that success attracts success and that it will be easier to get more donors to make the endowment grow. "You don't know how lucky you are."

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.