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Opponents, Proponents Millions of Dollars Apart : Arts Center Debate Focuses on Money

Times Staff Writer

Friends and foes of the proposed Thousand Oaks cultural center clashed in debate Friday night, underscoring sharp disagreement over how much the proposal will eventually cost city taxpayers.

The debate was held as city voters prepared to cast ballots Tuesday on Measure C, the advisory question asking whether the city should use redevelopment funds for a $22.3-million arts complex.

Measure C calls for a center with a 1,800-seat main theater, a 299-seat theater for smaller stage groups, an art gallery and an outdoor amphitheater. It also includes contributions toward construction of theaters at three high schools in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. The arts center would be built either on the driving range at Los Robles Golf Course or on a parking lot near The Oaks shopping mall.

Two leading critics of the plan contended that the city’s final cost would soar to $60 million or more after the city pays off municipal bonds issued to finance the center. Complaining that the city would be spending money “like a bunch of drunken sailors,” critics predicted that it would need to purchase 25-year bonds at interest rates of about 9%, bringing the total pay-back to about $60 million.

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‘Like Mortgage on House’

“It’s like the mortgage on your house,” said Jack Rudd, president of the Committee Against Tax Supported Culture.

But center backers sharply rejected that contention, saying the city’s pay-back would amount to about $30 million. That figure was based on using 10-year bonds and an interest rate of about 5%.

The City Council, which endorsed the cultural center plan, has not indicated what bonding formula it would seek for the cultural center. The issue of how much redevelopment money the center would eventually take is an important one because most of the city’s $265-million redevelopment fund has already been committed to schools, low-cost housing and government agencies.

Council members are likely to follow the voters’ judgment, and, if approved, the center could open in 1987 or 1988.

The debate, before about 40 people in the council chambers at Thousand Oaks City Hall, was televised live in Ventura County on cable television. The two sides made opening and closing statements and fielded questions from a panel of four reporters.

Operating Deficits Questioned

Emblematic of the gulf that separates supporters from opponents was one angry exchange over the yearly operating deficits the complex is expected to produce.

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“I would prefer to refer to it as an operating cost,” said Virginia Davis, one of the pro-center debaters and member of the For Measure C Committee.

Richard D. Booker, a longtime opponent, retorted: “What should we call it--a banana? They are losses incurred in the operation of a cultural center.”

Supporters stressed that the center would not raise local property taxes and would represent, according to former Thousand Oaks Mayor Frances Prince, “your hard-earned tax rebate.”

Prince urged voters to spend “your money here rather than in Sacramento.”

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Opponents responded by criticizing the role of the redevelopment agency, which declared a five-mile section of Thousand Oaks Boulevard as “blighted” in order to begin collecting $265 million in property taxes through new development.

“Anti-poverty funds should not be used to build a cultural palace,” Rudd argued.

The pro-center speakers pointed to the lack of public theaters in Thousand Oaks, a city of 97,000, and said the center would allow local arts groups to flourish in good facilities.

“There is one major unfilled need--housing for the arts,” said Prince.

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