Venezia: Theater aid no blockbuster of an idea

Is the Balboa Village Theatre project a go or a no?

That depends on whom you talk to.

Revitalization of the theater has been a lingering issue since it closed in 1992, and the nonprofit Balboa Performing Theater Arts Foundation was formed in 1996 to preserve and renovate it.

The building, bought by Newport Beach in 1998, pretty much remains four walls and a dirt floor, as fundraising efforts have lagged.

But at the council meeting March 11, city leaders seemed to give the project a cautious nod with a promise to provide $2 million toward the restoration, if the foundation can raise matching funds and produce a viable business plan before Dec. 31.

Steven Beazley, president of the Balboa Village Theatre, tells me he sees this as a win, one he anticipates will open doors to fundraising for the theater.

He estimates a half million dollars has been raised or pledged so far. He says donors were hesitant to step up without knowing where the city stood on the project. Now he feels confident they will.

Beazley is moving full speed ahead.

The foundation's website should be up by the end of the week. He's working on rebuilding the foundation board and hopes to present a business plan to the city by the first week of April.

What about past donors, like the Crean family? The Creans gave the project a million dollars in the late 1990s and were promised certain naming rights.

"The Creans were given the right for the auditorium called Crean Hall," Beazley says. "I don't see where that changes in their case. If something that was pledged or promised that was taken out of the design, then we have to sit down with these folks and see what else we can do for them."

Beazley was upbeat and raring to go when we spoke, but this is far from a done deal even if he does raise the $2 million.

Newport City Councilman Ed Selich says he's keeping an open mind but isn't totally convinced the project makes sense for taxpayers.

And he takes exception to Beazley calling the city's expenditure to renovate the building an investment.

"Let's call it what it is, a gift, not an investment," Selich says. "He says we'll see revenue of $40,000 a year for 50 years, that's not an investment in my book. And we have to ask if that's the best thing to do with $2 million of taxpayer money."

He has other concerns.

If the theater operates at a deficit of about $450,000 to $500,000, and the foundation can't raise that annually, they'll be coming back to the city for it.

Selich points to venues like the Irvine Barclay Theatre and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, which are subsidized by their cities.

Councilwoman Nancy Gardner shares his concerns here.

"Cities do subsidize the arts, but that's a decision better made when there's not a financial emergency coloring the decision," she says.

If the theater isn't making it, then Newport enters the concert hall business, says Selich, adding, "If we are going to get into it, we need to reevaluate the purpose."

If the city wants a performing arts center, maybe it should be in an area with better access than the Balboa Peninsula, he says.

In the business plan, Selich wants to see what Beazley has reserved for maintenance of the building annually, as any landlord would.

Both Selich and Gardner say they also question whether the community really has a burning desire to see this project come to fruition.

Unlike other well-supported council agenda items that draw residents to meetings, only a few people showed up the night this matter was heard.

Beazley tells me his group did an extensive survey, and those results show that the community is behind the concept.

To that, Selich says he wants to see not only the survey results, but the questions, the number of people surveyed and what ZIP Codes they live in. He assumes this will be included in the business plan Beazley delivers.

But Gardner's concerns look further down the road on this project.

"If the city decided to let the theater fail and take the building back and sell the property, it would net $2 million less on a sale," Gardner says.

Selich says he doesn't want to be a naysayer, but he feels he's raising questions any businessman would and is reserving judgment until the council and an expert consultant review Beazley's business plan.

Of course Councilman Mike Henn, whose district includes the theater, has always strongly supported the project.

The Balboa Village Theatre could be his legacy.

I guess what kind of legacy that turns out to be will be the $2-million question.

BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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