It's Showtime: Gallo arts center is last piece of '80s plan to remake downtown

10th Street downtown Modesto between J & K Streets Monday, October 5, 1981.
10th Street downtown Modesto between J & K Streets Monday, October 5, 1981. Modesto Bee

In retrospect, "Curtains Up '88" looks a little overambitious.

Those curtains are expected to rise later this month, when the Gallo Center for the Arts opens its doors after decades of planning.

Its arrival marks the end of more than 20 years of work to replace downtown's abandoned storefronts with regional attractions that draw investment to the city center.

"It took a long, long time for this recovery to come," said Modesto concrete contractor Gregory Reed, who owns a half-dozen downtown buildings. "Heck, it's taken 25 years."

Downtown once was Modesto's retail center, but Vintage Faire Mall's opening in 1977 lured key tenants, such as Sears and J.C. Penney.

They left behind a commercial neighborhood that drew dwindling numbers of patrons, in turn pushing others out of business. Those retail shops didn't return, creating a downtown dominated by abandoned hotels and storefronts.

A group of city leaders in the early 1980s hatched plans to revive downtown with a three-pronged approach to investment.

They wanted to use public and private money to open a community center, a high-rise hotel and a performing arts center, all of which would raise property values and give the city a return on its investment through increased taxes.

Former Modesto City Councilman Frank Muratore said the arts center was supposed to come first. That's why city leaders crafted the "Curtains Up '88" campaign.

"That was part of the optimism of youth," former Mayor Carol Whiteside said.

Instead, the city built the Centre Plaza in 1988 for $29 million.

$33M for a hotel

The Red Lion Hotel, now the DoubleTree, followed in 1990 at a cost of $33 million. Modesto's Redevelopment Agency helped pay for parking garages that benefited those buildings, but the hotel was built with private funds.

The Red Lion turned into a debacle for the city when its original owners could not meet their debt payments. Their failure to keep up with their bills caused a bank to foreclose on the hotel in 1996, which undercut the city's investment in the land underneath the property. That loss cost the city millions in rent.

Nonetheless, Whiteside said those buildings drew new people downtown, people who would spend money on meals and entertainment.

Downtown business owners said it took two more investments to solidify the area as a walkable district where people could shop and enjoy some night life: the $55 million Tenth Street Place government center and the nearby Brenden Theatres, both of which opened in 1999.

"All of those projects have done two things," said Mike Pratt, a City Redevelopment Advisory Commission member who works at a downtown engineering firm. "They've brought people downtown, they've increased the interest in downtown and they will make people less hesitant about the safety downtown.

"All things being equal, I'm optimistic for the future of downtown."

After 28 years, jeweler Norman Cavanna moved his shop from the ground floor of the Hotel Covell in 1997 to make way for Tenth Street Place. He's just across the street on J Street.

"It made downtown a much more attractive, nicer place," he said.

The push for the performing arts center gained momentum in 1999 with the backing of then-Mayor Dick Lang and a committed group of arts supporters.

Modesto opted not to fund the Gallo Center for the Arts, but Stanislaus County and the nonprofit Central Valley Center for the Arts dedicated money to building the $40 million attraction, which completes the original plan for downtown's redevelopment.

Patty Hill Thomas, the county's chief operations officer who oversaw construction of Tenth Street Place and the Gallo center, said downtown's resurgence gives Modesto a destination for entertainment and culture.

"Sadly as a child and then as a young adult returning here to work, we hadn't preserved the history and the treasure of our downtown very well as a community," she said. "What we've been involved in has been shaping it, creating a whole new legacy by the mix of wonderful old buildings here and there's been a tremendous amount of private investment since Tenth Street Place."

Muratore, who served on the council for 16 years, said the results proved worthwhile, even if they took years longer than expected.

"It all came together just wonderful," he said. "And now we're an OK city because of what was done down there."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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