ESCONDIDO — The city's municipal art gallery is in a converted library building that also houses the Parks and Recreation Department.
The community playhouse is on the second floor of a small shopping center; patrons sit in folding chairs.
When the Escondido Chamber of Commerce holds its annual banquet, there's no place in town big enough for everyone, so it is held outside the city.
Against that backdrop, voters here on June 4 will be asked to approve the construction of a $52-million civic center and cultural arts complex.
The plans call for a 2,500-seat auditorium where symphonic, operatic, musical and Broadway-like productions can be staged; a 500-seat theater for lectures and locally produced stage shows; a 25,000-square-foot fine arts museum for traveling art exhibits and displays of local art and historic memorabilia; a 25,000-square-foot banquet and meeting room for public and private conventions, receptions and banquets for as many as 800 people; a new City Hall, and extra office buildings for county and state governments.
The entire project will be financed as part of the city's downtown redevelopment project, which uses a financing mechanism that allows the city to capture as much as $250 million by redirecting the flow of property tax revenue.
This massive undertaking, its supporters say, will not only transform Escondido into the cultural jewel of North County--if not all of San Diego County--but also revitalize the stagnant downtown, enrich the city treasury and pay for all the public schools this town will ever need.
And, the proponents note, it won't cost the taxpayers a single dime in extra taxes or fees.
Sound too good to be true?
Yes, say the critics of the plan. There's no such thing as a free lunch, much less rainbows with golden pots, they say. Although the taxpayers won't have to dip into their own pockets to pay for the undertaking, the project eventually will starve the municipal treasury of money that's needed to pay for such basic city responsibilities as police, parks and road improvements, the critics contend. Besides, they ask, does Escondido, a city of 77,000, really need an elaborate cultural arts center?
Harry Sternberg, a nationally recognized painter of modernistic portraiture who lives in Escondido, has had paintings shown in art museums around the world, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But his showing at Escondido's own Mathes Community Culture Center received a dismal turnout, he said.
"I'd be the last guy opposed to such a thing (as the cultural arts center). Naturally, I want to see a nice gallery in Escondido," he said. "But we already have a hell of a nice one. There's only one minor problem--nobody comes.
"I'm afraid Escondido is trying to fool itself into believing it is more cultural than it is. This is a silly dream. It's idiotic."
Since most people have little firm understanding of the redevelopment process, whether the city ends up building the civic center complex will depend largely and simply on whether the voters want to support the cultural arts and believe that the center can be built without financial risk to the city.
There is no doubt the stakes are incredibly high for Escondido. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be generated over the next 45 years or so by the project, city officials say.
The center will give the city its first real piece of distinctive civic identity, proponents say; it holds the potential for changing the complexion of the tired downtown area into one thriving with new specialty stores, offices and fine restaurants.
Four of the five members of the City Council favor the project. Jerry Harmon remains undecided. Privately financed opinion polls indicate that the center will be approved in the election.
But a small handful of vocal opponents, led by Ron Bittner, a former mayor and one-time gun shop owner, is attacking the center and its financing plan as far-fetched, unworkable and too risky.
City officials are irked by Bittner's opposition because he has commanded a good deal of anti-civic center publicity in the local newspapers. In fact, the citizens group campaigning for passage of the civic center measure, Proposition A on the ballot, has announced it will no longer publicly debate him because that only serves to give the sharp-tongued Bittner more newspaper coverage.
General manager of a microscope manufacturing company in town, Bittner sits in an office dominated by a 48-star American flag and a tapestry of an eagle, the Liberty Bell and the Stars and Stripes.
He preaches the free marketplace and abhors government involvement in it. He is opposed to the redevelopment of downtown Escondido for the simple reason that it involves City Hall.
He says he likes to "take on government" for fun. "Somebody has to be cynical and skeptical about government. Otherwise, government walks all over you," he said with a smile.