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Glass is half full

by   JUDY HODGSON


Two weeks ago Humboldt State University announced that due to "the lack of firm commitments from potential major contributors, the diversion of support to the projected Eureka Theater development, the absence of adequate parking downtown, and other concerns," the university was abandoning plans to rehabilitate the historic State Theater in downtown Eureka to use as a live performing arts center.

What really happened? What was so different today from two years ago when HSU accepted the generous offer from the Daly family and the help from the City of Eureka? What were those other concerns?

First, there is a lot more information today. HSU officials spent the last 24-plus months with building engineers and seismic experts, selecting an architect and developing a site-specific plan. With the passage of time and with new information, it became clear that the project wasn't going to cost $5 million-$6 million. The cost rose to $10 million-$11 million, an estimate that included a $1 million endowment fund for ongoing maintenance. (There was talk that the renovation could have been accomplished more economically with another architect; however, the Journal learned that the decision by the committee to select the architect was unanimous because of acoustic expertise required for live musical performances.)

Second, although there were some community leaders who privately questioned the university's efforts to find major donors, the Journal also learned that HSU officials did approach a number of individuals who turned them down.

Parking? It was certainly an issue but one the city accepted responsibility for. Competition from the folks renovating the Eureka Theater? That misconception was partly the fault of an inadequate job done by the media to inform the public. (The two projects were quite different in terms of function and size.)

Finally, I can't help but wonder how significant a factor was the shifting political climate in Eureka, specifically the cranky City Council that recently said no to a $3 million gift (!) and fired its city manager, the one who helped negotiate the HSU-Daly deal. One HSU official told me it was not a factor, but I wonder.

On the surface, it appeared to be a win-win project. The Daly family, staunch supporters of HSU, wanted very much to leave the property as a legacy to the university, not to sell it to the highest bidder. The university for nearly two decades had desired a second -- and larger -- live performing arts center and Eureka would have been ideal. The city would have gained a premier music venue -- it needs badly (if you've ever been to a concert at the Muni) -- while achieving historic preservation, alleviating blight in the inner city and improving community/university relations.

Below the surface, however, there was grumbling in the business community that HSU had trumped several private offers for the building including one from Humboldt Bank. The perceived intrusion into the business affairs of the city was at the least a public relations challenge for the university. Coupled with mounting costs and no major donors, the decision was made to shelve the project.

As the Times-Standard editorialized last week, the loss of the project "is sad news." And we sincerely agree. However, we disagree with the editorial's conclusions that such projects often run into trouble "because of their scale" and "grandiose plans involving big spending and subsequently high maintenance costs or high rents may not be the most effective way to achieve ..." arts-driven downtown revival.

I say we need more of those visionaries who are always dreaming up ways to improve the quality of life here on the North Coast. It is because of them that we are now able to visit the handsome new county library and the beautiful Morris Graves Museum of Art. Because of them, we have a waterfront park for open air performances, a permanent home for the Redwood Concert Ballet and -- some day -- a performance center in a restored Eureka Theater. Because of them, the city's senior center is able to expand and ground soon will be broken on the $11 million waterfront boardwalk project and fishermen's service dock.

We may lose a project like the State Theater once in awhile, and the reasons are complex. But the glass in this community is truly half full.


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