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Simi Arts Center Faces Hurdle in Rising Costs : Finances: The City Council agrees to put project out to bid. But officials say work will be postponed if expenses exceed $2.8 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As performers scramble for stage time in the much-touted $63.8-million Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, officials in Simi Valley are worried that skyrocketing costs will delay construction of east Ventura County’s other planned theater--a 70-year-old church scheduled for a $2.8-million make-over.

The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center of the future will feature wisteria-covered porticoes, parquet wood floors and stained-glass windows if the design presented to the City Council prevails.

But even as council members last week agreed to put the project out to bid, they said they feared that a boom in repair work caused by the earthquake may force the cost of the long-awaited project to soar out of the city’s reach.

“When we started this, we were hoping to get good bids because of the recession, but now we’re looking at a post-quake recovery,” Mayor Greg Stratton said. “If the bids come in ridiculously high, we have to be prepared to put this off for a while.”

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The rest of the council agreed with Stratton to postpone construction if the cost exceeds $2.8 million.

In supporting the plan, Councilwoman Judy Mikels called it a “much more positive step” than a proposal Thousand Oaks officials devised to make up a $13-million funding shortfall in construction costs for their Civic Arts Plaza.

The Thousand Oaks City Council has agreed to close the funding gap by issuing bonds or taking out loans for construction of the plaza, which will include an 1,800-seat theater, an adjacent 400-seat forum theater and a new city hall.

Mikels said she would oppose similar action to ensure speedy construction of the city-run Simi theater.

“We’re taking a much more conservative, much more workable approach,” Mikels said. “We’re not getting into anything we can’t pay for.”

Thousand Oaks Councilman Frank Schillo defended his city’s funding plan, saying the debt is worth it to build a first-rate theater that has been in the planning for more than two decades.

“When you decide the size of a theater, you have to decide if you want to make it big enough to get top performers,” he said. “Our theater will meet those requirements.”

Schillo said he is confident that the theater will have no problem attracting large crowds. The center has already booked performer Bernadette Peters for its opening gala in the fall.

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“This is going to be the best facility between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Schillo said. “Just watch our dust.”

The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center has met with resistance from council members who are reluctant to spend city money on a theater.

The council granted approval to design and plan the center in August, over the objections of Councilwomen Sandi Webb and Barbara Williamson, who argued that the money should be spent on public safety and other essential city services.

In 1991, the city paid $821,000 for the crumbling former home of the Simi Valley Community Methodist Episcopal Church at 3050 Los Angeles Ave. When the renovation is completed, the drab-gray, boarded-up church will be transformed into a 290-seat theater with an art gallery, surrounded by rose gardens and swaying palms.

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Williamson set aside her reservations last week and agreed to go along with the council’s vote on the project.

“I will support this part of the project because all we’re doing is going out to bid,” she said. “We’re not agreeing to spend any money.”

Webb cast the lone dissenting vote, holding fast to her stance that city money should not be used to fund a theater.

“Once again, it breaks my heart to vote no,” Webb said. “I still have to say I think we need to take the money and use it for a police station.”

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The council earlier this month launched a study of sites and funding sources for a new police headquarters, which could cost up to $11.3 million.

Stratton countered Webb’s argument, saying the arts center would provide a much-needed focal point for the city’s art scene.

“The police station is still a few years off,” he said. “This arts center has been a long time coming, and I think it’s something we need.”


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