Dozens of supporters of The Rock Church—most clad in church T-shirts—filed into the Aug. 12 El Cajon City Council meeting. On the agenda was the church's proposal to become a long-term, part-time tenant of the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC), a city-owned facility that's been closed and in need of repair since 2010.
El Cajon City Manager Douglas Williford introduced the church's proposal by calling it an excellent business opportunity that would finally provide long-term financial stability for ECPAC, a 1,145-seat theater that's struggled for viability since opening in 1977.
The Rock, an evangelical megachurch with locations across the county, wants to lease the space for roughly 130 days a year—every Sunday and Tuesday and about 25 percent of Fridays and Saturdays—for an annual rent of $216,000. The Rock also wants to build a new, 20,000-square-foot Sunday-school headquarters and event space (which the city could use) on the lot between ECPAC and Main Street. They'd lease that land for $4,000 a month for 35 years, at which time the building would be turned over to the city.
"This is the single greatest proposal that we have ever seen for our downtown revitalization," Williford said before being interrupted by a young man in the audience yelling, "Who's the man?" and The Rock supporters immediately answering, "Jesus!"
After Williford's endorsement and an abundance of public comments mostly in favor of the deal, the council voted 4-0 to enter into lease negotiations with The Rock— Councilmember Gary Kendrick abstained because his son is a summer counselor for Christian Youth Theater, the only other organization that responded to the city's request for a long-term tenant or partnership deal for ECPAC.
Before the vote, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells made it clear that The Rock would be just a tenant; the city, he said, would hire a theater-management company or booking agency to handle performances after the planned $2.5 million in renovations and before the official reopening of ECPAC in late 2015. ECPAC would still serve as a public performance space, he assured.
Among the few voices of dissent at the meeting was Ray Lutz, an engineer and political activist who's become a fixture at El Cajon City Council meetings. Lutz is the chair of Save ECPAC, a group instrumental in preventing the demolition of the center in 2012, and founder of the watchdog group Citizens' Oversight Projects.
"My prediction," Lutz says, sitting in a coffee shop down the street from ECPAC: "The center is just going to permanently become The Rock Church, and all this talk about sharing it with the public is just a red herring. It's just to try to pacify any objection."
Lutz is looking into the constitutionality of the deal; he believes it's a violation of the separation of church and state. While a local representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says he might have a hard time making that case, because the city released an ostensibly unbiased, public call for tenants, Lutz is a squeaky wheel that's not easily ignored. He successfully got the city to stop airing religious messages on its public cable channel and has enjoyed other small victories, including intervening early when the city met privately with The Rock about lease negotiations. His involvement resulted in the city releasing the public call for interested tenants and made the process more transparent.
A more common complaint among folks who oppose the deal is that the city should've hired a professional theater-management company before securing a long-term tenant, especially since the building won't be ready for occupancy until late next year.
CityBeat talked to a handful of experienced theater managers who say the city's approach is, indeed, backwards.
"I would've reversed the process," says Wes Brustad, a former member of the ECPAC board of directors with decades of experience in performing-arts production. "Anyone who's going to be involved in managing the space should definitely be involved in any decisions on how the space is used."
"It does seem odd to me that they may be moving forward with renting the building and then finding the management company afterwards," agrees Don Telford, president and CEO of San Diego Theatres, which runs the Balboa and San Diego Civic theaters. "It would make sense to me that they might issue [a request for proposals] where respondents could apply as a management company or a renter or both."
Mayor Wells says the city did seek input from theater managers. "Frankly, if it was a perfect world and we had plenty of money, we wouldn't have to lease out the theater for any days," he says. "Unfortunately, that's not the reality . We've gotten quite a bit of advice from other small theaters who've really guided us on the process, and they recommended getting financials in order, undergoing renovations and then hiring the manager."
He says that while The Rock Church proposal initially came in unsolicited, it quickly became clear that the deal would help secure long-term financial stability for ECPAC.
One of the theater managers who Wells says helped guide the city's process is Mitch Gershenfeld, president and CEO of McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert and the former director of the nonprofit that ran ECPAC for several years. Yet when CityBeat contacted Gershenfeld, he, too, said he thinks the city should have hired a theater manager first.
"To give any tenant two or three days out of seven on a calendar is going to make it difficult for any organization to run an arts center," Gershenfeld says. "If I were approached about running a performing-arts center in that scenario, it just wouldn't interest me."
Gershenfeld and other theater managers mention Sunday matinees as important dates for performing-arts groups, and even say that Tuesdays could present a problem due to rehearsal time and stage build-outs.
"We are already aware of the effect of The Rock's tenancy on available dates for ECPAC bookings and already aware that any manager would prefer to have all dates of the year available, if possible," wrote Brett Channing, assistant city manager of El Cajon, in a follow-up to the mayor's response. "That type of utilization of ECPAC has never been successful in financially stabilizing the facility, and the city cannot afford to continue that practice into the future."
Another argument from the city and its supporters is that The Rock Church deal is better than having ECPAC fail, and eventually be torn town.
For his part, Lutz says he'd rather see ECPAC close than become a church.
"The community put money into this building so it would be a performing arts center," Lutz says. "The city didn't even try to find a theater manager to run it that way. Williford is always saying we have one last shot to run this thing right, but he's not giving it that shot. This is a give-up move."