Proposal for Convention Center Is Revived After 5-Year Hiatus : Ventura: The fair board decides to gauge community support for what would be the county's first such facility. Opponents blast the effort as futile.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plan to build what could be Ventura County's first convention center has been revived--five years after the idea was shelved by the Ventura City Council.

The Ventura County Fair Board on Tuesday decided to form a committee to gauge community support for the idea. The board also voted to spend $15,000 to update a 1986 economic study of the proposal.

"Time has gone by. Maybe there has been a change of heart," said Diane Starr, the fair board president who will co-chair the committee with City Councilman Jim Monahan. "I think it will enhance the community. We want to stop people from going to Los Angeles for all their do's."

Opponents blasted the effort as futile.

"I think they're beating a dead horse," said Richard Henniger, a retired teacher who headed a citizens committee in 1988 to defeat the plan. "They have a hard enough time filling 800 seats in the Ventura Theatre. I don't think it's going to gain steam."

In 1988, Ventura residents were faced with two advisory measures regarding improvements at the fairgrounds.

By a vote of 62.6% to 37.4%, voters rejected a proposal that the city lend $9.4 million to the Fair Board to help build a 6,500-seat auditorium and multipurpose events center, which had an estimated price tag of $20 million.

However, voters approved--53% to 47%--a city-sponsored measure that could allow improvement of facilities at the fairgrounds.

The mixed message caused the Ventura City Council to drop the project. A few months ago, however, the idea was revived by the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, said Bob Alviani, president-elect of the group.

Members of the organization--which has strong ties to the City Council and the fair board--sent letters to both groups requesting that a committee be formed to measure support for the idea.

The center proposed in 1988 was a 120,000-square-foot facility that would have housed a 6,500-seat auditorium and 2,000-seat banquet hall. It would have served a wide range of uses, including concerts, community functions, proms and conventions. If it were built, it would be the largest entertainment center in the county, four times larger than Oxnard's 1,600-seat Community Center.

Critics had called the proposed center an oversized white elephant, while proponents had hailed it as a tourism booster.

Starr said it is too early to decide whether the events center would be the same project that residents rejected or whether it would be scaled down. She said it is also too soon to decide how to pay for the proposed facility. "We first have to figure out if people want it," Starr said.

The $9.4 million that would have helped pay for the facility has been earning interest since 1988, City Manager John Baker said. The money is part of the city's general fund and has been earmarked for capital improvements at the fairgrounds, he said. The City Council can use the money for something else if members want, Baker said.

The committee will ask Ventura residents whether a center is needed, Starr said. The city's residents will be surveyed because they would have the most to gain from a center.

"If they don't want it, then we have to face it. We certainly don't want to shove it down people's throats."

The political climate, however, has changed since 1988, Starr said. Five years ago, people were worried that the center would induce unwanted growth. Now, people are worried about the city's declining tax base and are aggressively pushing for tourism, she said.

An economic study commissioned by the city and the fair said the center would generate up to 400 jobs, according to the 1986 study.

Councilman Gary Tuttle said he has reservations about the proposal. He advocates making Ventura a tourist draw but wants to make sure that residents like the center.

"If we need it, great. But let's make sure it's not going to be a white elephant," Tuttle said. "If that became the hot convention site in Southern California, I'm all for it."

Starr said the makeup of the committee has not been decided yet, but participants are likely to come from groups that would benefit from a convention center, such as the Chamber of Commerce, tourist-related businesses, agricultural interests, arts enthusiasts and schools.

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