Tis the Season To Renovate

Back Commentary Dec 8, 2016 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

The nights are longer as the season of bright lights descends on Sacramento.  The holidays are, of course, a season of traditions.  For many of us, that holiday tradition isn’t complete without taking in a performance of The Nutcracker ballet.  For generations of families, the holiday is celebrated with Tchaikovsky’s iconic Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara’s magical journey to the Land of Sweets through the Sparkling Forest.

The performances are a joint production between the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera and the Sacramento Ballet, and not a touring company from out of town. It’s a sign of how robust our local performing arts groups have become. The same can be said for the Sacramento Choral Society, which is staging its own holiday program, “Home for the Holidays,” at the Memorial Auditorium down the street.          

Clearly, Sacramento is home to a lot of artistic talent and our holiday traditions are brighter because of it. And we’ve been fortunate to have venues to host these performances. These aged facilities have served Sacramento well for a long time — perhaps too long. Memorial Auditorium is now 90 years old. The Sacramento Community Theater is essentially the same as it was when it opened over 40 years ago.

But times have changed and so have the needs of modern performing arts organizations. Ticket buyers in the front of the house see the dancers, actors and musicians on stage.  But they don’t see the back of the house, with truckloads of equipment that support the performance squeezed into cramped loading facilities. Lighting and sound systems need to keep pace with modern technology. Facilities must meet the needs of all patrons, including those with disabilities.  

At this time of year, we revel in tradition. But it’s also time to bring new life and energy to these community gems. Electronic communication and presentation technology have advanced significantly since earlier days. Renovation, renaissance, new life and new energy are overdue.

Fortunately, the Sacramento City Council, along with hotel operators, civic and business groups, and performing arts organizations are working on a plan to do just that.  Getting it done will require a juggling act worthy of the Cirque du Soleil.  The $270 million plan includes:

Expanding the Sacramento Convention Center: The 134,000-  square-foot facility is simply too small to attract the convention business the city needs.  Other major cities in competition for convention business are expanding their convention facilities, leaving us well behind. Public and private efforts have invested $1.1 billion into downtown over the last 10 years and the convention center must be part of that economic engine.

Renovating the Sacramento Community Theater: The 2,398-seat theater is a more intimate setting, complementing the Golden 1 Center, but it needs better facilities and better acoustics, enhancing the show experience and complying with ADA laws.  

Modernizing the Memorial Auditorium for hosting performances during construction at the other two venues: Upgrades here would prevent disrupting theater and opera seasons, and will save money and time. The $16 million project could theoretically pay for itself. If construction on the Sacramento Community Theater and Sacramento Convention Center was limited to summer months, it would add an estimated four to six years to the overall project, at a cost of $16 million per year.  

Issues to resolve before construction begins include deciding whether the convention center expansion should be as large as possible allowing the city to grow into it, or whether it should be built in phases as convention business increases. But when these issues are settled soon, construction should begin a year from now.   

Mayor Kevin Johnson earned great thanks for his leadership in producing our recently opened Golden 1 Center at the west end of K Street. Mayor-Elect Darrell Steinberg is giving a most welcomed, much needed, equal importance to renovating cultural and convention facilities at the other end of town.

When everyone works together, Sacramento will have a thriving and revived cultural arts and theater district complementing the Golden 1 Center by 2021. This will give new generations of families top quality places to enjoy holiday traditions for another 50 years.

World-class cities and world-class states, including Sacramento and the Capital Region of California, deserve, need and require world-class meeting, show and performance venues.