When the El Cajon City Council meets on Jan. 25 to decide the future of the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC), Sarah de la Isla won't be casting a vote. For starters, she's only 10. And anyway, there isn't a political bone in her body. She's an actor, and she has the résumé to prove it. Just last month, the Doyle Elementary School fifth-grader polished off her ninth assignment by acting in the Christian Community Theater's 12th annual Traditions of Christmas variety show at ECPAC.
The show was notable, and not just because Sarah was in it. It marked the point when talk of ECPAC's potential closure escalated to an alarming rate. Predictably, funding is at the core of the flap. Predictably, the mess has created the usual backlash between factions. And predictably, people like Sarah are caught somewhere in the middle.
"I'd be really sad if it closed," she said after a December rally in support of ECPAC, attended by about 180. "Traditions has always been here. I'd miss performing here. I'll miss the games. And this is a really comfortable theater."
It should be. Even the seat cushions have been replaced since 1997, the year the Arts Center Foundation was formed. The foundation has administered $2 million in such capital improvements over the last seven years. Today, ECPAC's economic impact on El Cajon reportedly reaches $4.6 million annually, and nearby restaurateurs routinely cite business upturns as much as 300 percent on show nights.
The city of El Cajon owns the 1,142-seat theater, which opened in 1977. It pays the monthly premiums for its operation, with reimbursement coming from the foundation. Ticket sales account for 60 percent of the center's $1.8 million annual budget. The remainder must be raised through grants, donations and rentals. The center hosts top-name talent and community shows 180 days a year.
For three years, the city provided an annual subsidy of $350,000, but terminated the support in 2003, citing budget constraints.
Problems arose last June as a $271,000 operations payment came due. For the first time, the foundation failed to meet the requirement. The city extended the deadline to October, but the foundation defaulted after a 120-day fundraising effort fell short. The City Council then voted 4-1 to declare the foundation in breach of contract and has given it until Jan. 25 to rectify the shortfall.
Dick Zellner, foundation president and CEO, says one aspect of the agreement with the city has ironically cast a shadow across his group's push for donations.
"We have a 90-day float," Zellner explains. "We've always owed the city about $600,000. It's just that nobody knew about it, because we made our payments in a timely way. Then when we missed a payment, all of a sudden the $600,000 amount was exposed, and everybody said, "Oh, my God; how'd they lose $600,000?' We didn't." Nonetheless, he adds, potential sponsors were suddenly in no hurry to commit bucks in the face of the news.
But City Councilmember Bob McClellan says that a city manager's assessment shows the foundation's total debt at $1.7 million, money he asserts the city needs to shore up leaky city-services coffers. He says the Downtown Management District-which includes businesses that benefit from the shows-has expanded its territory to garner more income.
"They could use some of that money [to close the difference]," McClellan says, "but of course, nobody's ever said anything about that. You wonder how much [the performing arts center] means to them.
"If they'd stay current," McClellan says, "I'd have no problem keeping them in there, even with the debt. But the longer this goes on, the more [the indebtedness] grows. Every show they do is a [money] loser pretty much."
Zellner says the foundation will honor its commitments through the end of ECPAC's current season, scheduled to end April 9 with an appearance by the Smothers Brothers. Even if ECPAC survives scrutiny past that date, the die is cast in favor of a city council eager to reappropriate the money.
Big-name draws (or at least their agents) seek East County audiences with equal interest. But by this time next week, they-and Sarah de la Isla-may be looking for another place to play.