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Area Growth Is Pushing the Arts to Front-Row Seat : Culture: In a region already strong in the performance arts, several cities have taken ambitious steps to satisfy new appetites.

April 19, 1990|DIRK SUTRO | Dirk Sutro is a free-lance writer based in Cardiff who specializes in the arts. He writes the architecture and jazz columns for the San Diego County edition of The Times. and

In the final years before the millennium, there will be a fundamental and revolutionary shift in leisure time and spending priorities. During the 1990s, the arts will gradually replace sports as society's primary leisure activity. This extraordinary megatrend is already visible in an explosion in the visual and performing arts that is already under way.

From "Megatrends 2000" by John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene

In North County, futurists Naisbitt and Aburdene would find their predictions in full bloom. When singer Melissa Manchester opens the Poway Center for the Performing Arts on May 12 during a black-tie fund-raiser, the curtain will also rise on a new age of culture here.

As the northern end of San Diego County has become a metropolis unto itself--a sea of people between San Diego proper and Orange County, with a growing appetite for the arts--several cities in the region have taken ambitious steps.

Poway's new $8.4-million, 800-seat theater--already booked through its first two months with Ben Vereen, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the San Diego Symphony, Mel Torme and the Poway Performing Arts Company's production of A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room"--is only the beginning:

* In 1993, the city of Escondido will complete the $60-million second phase of its downtown Civic Center, including 1,500- and 400-seat theaters and three art galleries.

* Vista hopes to build its own cultural center to complement the 2,000-seat Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park. The Moonlight drew crowds averaging 900 people to last summer's four locally produced Broadway musicals, according to Jim Porter, director of parks and community services for the city. Vista is planning a small community theater, followed by a 600- to 800-seat performing arts theater, plus gallery space and rooms for other arts-related uses.

* The new California State University campus in San Marcos, the first buildings of which will be completed by 1992, may include a performing arts complex by 1995 or '96.

* La Jolla developer Hal Kolker is intent on building a 25,000-seat amphitheater at El Camino Real and Oceanside Boulevard in Oceanside, despite petition signatures from more than 1,600 area residents who fear the venture would bring excessive noise and traffic.

* New civic centers in both Escondido and Oceanside are the most visible evidence of a new urbanism that is likely to spur the arts in North County. Not content to settle for run-of-the-mill architecture, both cities held competitions to select architects. Escondido's City Hall, completed in 1988, and Oceanside's Civic Center, finished this year, represent some of the county's best architecture in years.

None of the new facilities would be moving ahead without cold, hard numbers favoring their eventual success. The facts are fairly mind-boggling.

"What you're getting is a profile that, in terms of the arts, is very promising," said Diane Annala, who until recently served as a consultant to Escondido on marketing and fund raising for the city's performing-arts complex.

North County grew at a feverish pace during the 1970s and '80s. From 1970-85, the region's population grew 105%--roughly twice the growth rate of the county as a whole, according to a report prepared for Escondido by Stamford, Conn.-based Theatre Projects Consultants.

According to a study commissioned by the Ernest W. Hahn Co. before its construction of the North County Fair shopping mall in Escondido, the mall's market consists of about 284,000 consumers with an average household income of $38,000, in an area extending in four directions to Ramona, Rancho California, Vista and Rancho Penasquitos.

Last year's Sandag figures indicate there are 197,000 North County households with incomes of $35,000 to $50,000. According to the Theater Projects study, the potential audience for the arts--within 20 minutes of the Escondido Civic Center--is not only well-heeled but well-educated: 60.7% have a high school education or some college courses, well above the statewide and national averages.

In many ways, North County already has a strong arts scene, heavier on performing than on such visual arts as painting and sculpture.

The Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido sells out its weekend shows and averages 80% attendance year-round with locally produced mainstream musicals and dramas such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Odd Couple."

There are several community and college theater groups as well. The Patio Playhouse in Escondido will present six plays for adults and three for children this year in its 200-seat auditorium in The Vineyard shopping center. The group would like to move to Escondido's new community theater in 1993, but so far the city has given the thespians a cold shoulder, offering only two weekends per year, according to Ken Seabold, president of the theater's board of directors.

In Solana Beach, the 8-year-old North Coast Repertory Theater will present seven plays this year in its 194-seat theater.

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