"Art-centric" questions were posed to City Council candidates Saturday at the forum hosted by the Arts Alliance at the Laguna Playhouse.
Festival of Arts board member Anita Mangels served as moderator, rotating questions among Mayor Elizabeth Pearson, Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman, Councilman Kelly Boyd and state Sen. Tom Harman aide Emanuel Patrascu.
"If you are here about parking, you can stay, but the questions will be about the arts," alliance Chairwoman Karen Jacobs warned the audience of about 30 — some of whom were members of candidates' teams.
Even questions asked about the city budget were related to how it colored the arts community.
Laguna Beach is fortunate to have a hotel industry willing to contribute money to support the arts in Laguna via a Business Improvement District, Boyd said.
"It's important to keep that going," he said.
Patrascu said the bed tax is self-imposed and that could become a problem.
Only 2% is self-imposed; the remaining percentage is imposed by the city and the revenue is not siphoned off — as yet — by the hard-pressed state budget.
Patrascu also said the employee salaries and benefits eat up 70% of the city's budget, and if they grow the city won't be able maintain its infrastructure.
Pearson said the employees include an arts manager to oversee the beneficial arts projects and programs in the city that help bring tourist dollars to Laguna.
All four candidates agreed that the arts help define Laguna Beach and should be promoted. They all would support an Arts Center — but they split on how to pay for it, if a location could be found.
Patrascu said the city does have a role to play and perhaps could work with the school district to use the Artists' Theatre on the Laguna Beach High School campus.
"The most appropriate place for a center would be in the Civic Arts District [an area carved out to the Downtown Commercial Basin]," Pearson said. "But all of Laguna is an arts center."
The Arts Commission is working on creating distinct art districts where art events can be held, which would get shoppers going to different areas, Pearson said.
"Now is the time to get public [federal] funding," she said. "If ever there was a time, it is now."
Boyd said a center is a good idea. But financially feasible? Not so much.
"This is a discussion that has gone on for years," Iseman said. "We talked about the movie theater, the Village Entrance and the tennis courts [adjacent to the Festival of Arts]."
Before the economy flipped, Iseman had envisioned a theater atop parking at the entrance to the Athens Group's Aliso Canyon project.
"We haven't found a place, but I like the idea of going after federal money, and this is a good time because development costs are down," Iseman said.
Next question: What would the city be willing to pay to build a center and make it affordable for users?
Pearson favors a partnership with a developer. She does not favor funding by bonds.
"In the end bonds cost twice as much because of the interest," she said.
And it would not be appropriate for the city to fund a center when the employees are asked to hold off on raises, she said.
"We'd have to find a property and the city is in no position to buy property downtown," Boyd said. "We are watching our pennies."
As for the use of the Artists' Theatre by community groups, the school district has repeatedly blocked that, even though the city put a lot of money into remodeling it, Boyd claimed.
There is a lot of griping about it among some community groups who helped raise funds for the improvements with the understanding that it was a community asset, but it hasn't helped.
Iseman suggested a multi-purpose center that could be used in the daytime for meeting rooms to bring in more conventions, which would benefit the hotels and restaurants in town, and for performances at night, which would benefit the city's reputation as an arts community.
"It would take extraordinary creativity, but we are talking about the Arts Commission," said Iseman, plugging their contributions to the community.
Iseman said she is more comfortable with bonds than Pearson.
Patrascu plumped for a partnership with nonprofits to fund a center.
"We need a place," he said. "We need a partnership, but I fear a partnership with hotels. I would prefer nonprofits."
He suggested the city could waive building fees — a solution he favors for many issues.
"We are not just losing artists [who can't afford to live in Laguna], we are losing teachers and firefighters," Iseman said. "But we are seeing housing for art students, and that is very encouraging. Our problem is that Laguna is 96 to 97 percent built out. We have to look for creative ways to find housing."
Patrascu said the city could waive most of the fees and that would reduce the costs of building in town.
"Teachers and seniors cannot afford to live here, either, " Pearson said. "Silicon Valley had to create affordable housing for the techies."
"I remember a guy who was upset because his project was not accepted as artist live/work," Boyd said. The disappointed developer wanted to sell condos for $800,000 each — well beyond the means of most artists, he added.
Boyd supports rental projects such as the one sculpture Louis Longi is working on in Laguna Canyon.
"I know someone else who rents at a very good price because she knew it was a student," Boyd said. "We need to identify more of that."
Boyd would like to see the Civic Arts District expanded to Ocean Avenue. He also thinks when the art districts proposed by the Arts Commission are named, people will become more aware of the galleries where artists display their work.
Iseman said the districts will distribute parking.
"The neighborhoods are concerned about parking, so we need to pull it down closer to Coast Highway," Iseman said
Patrascu said it isn't the city's business.
"We have a great arts district," Patrascu said. "The City Council shouldn't be telling you how to make it better; artists should be telling them."
Pearson, who served on the Planning Commission when the district was created by the city, said she also would like to see the north end of Ocean incorporated into the district.