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For $3 Million, Art Center Is Yours

Culture: The Port Hueneme building is often praised for its design, but sits empty once again. Location has been its Achilles' heel.

September 29, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a beachfront setting, top-notch acoustics and an intimate atmosphere, the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Center had all the necessary ingredients for success.

Except for location.

The Port Hueneme performing arts center's site--more than seven miles from the Ventura Freeway--hampered efforts to attract sizable crowds that would help generate enough cash to make it self-supporting. Since it opened in 1983, the 564-seat theater depended on subsidies from the city to keep operating. It was shut down 10 years later in the midst of a city budget crunch.

The center was finally sold in 2000 to a private entertainment company run by Tracey Birdsall-Kall, an actress who planned to turn it into a bustling film studio, movie theater and home to an international film festival. But those lofty plans went awry, and the building sits empty, the property again up for sale.

Some local arts supporters--including the center's namesake, 81-year-old Dorill B. Wright--say the time may be right for a new owner to step in and reopen the building as a performing arts center.

They point to the county's growth over the last decade and the success enjoyed by other regional arts venues as evidence that Port Hueneme could finally support a performing arts center.

Nestled between a park and a condominium complex on a quiet, tree-lined street, the $2-million center was the dream of Port Hueneme arts supporters, including Wright, who fought hard to bring a theater to the city.

But location proved to be its Achilles' heel.

Times have changed, says Margaret Travers, director of the Ventura County Arts Council. Census data show that the county's population increased more than 84,000 between 1990 and 2000. And that rise means more prospective patrons, she said.

If new owners booked the right mix of performances and mounted an aggressive marketing campaign, the center could become a thriving cultural facility to rival those in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, she said.

"I'm sure the location had an impact on whether it was successful or not," Travers said. "But there are lots of things that are often off the beaten path that people make a point of going to."

The key would be to book the right acts for the venue's size, she said. For example, the Wright center is not likely to attract big-name acts such as Sheryl Crow or Bill Cosby, or bring in touring Broadway musicals, as does the 1,800-seat Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. But small theaters can still find a niche, she said.

The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center has made the most of its 240-seat theater, offering a mix of film screenings, plays and popular concerts. "You have to analyze your audience," Travers said. "And I suppose early on, you have to try a variety of [acts] to see what will appeal to the broadest audience."

Wright still hopes to see the center reopen as a performing or visual arts venue. He likened the cultural center to a public library or park, both which generate little revenue but enhance the quality of life for area residents.

For an arts venue to be successful, it must have support from the city of Port Hueneme, he said.

"You cannot operate one of these facilities at a profit, based on ticket sales alone," he said. "You have to develop a community-based support system that basically helps cover part of the operating cost."

Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks both help their arts centers. Simi Valley pays the salaries of the center's full-time employees and, in return, receives a percentage of the ticket sales. In Thousand Oaks, the city partnered with the Alliance for the Arts, a private nonprofit group that raises thousands of dollars each year for the arts plaza.

The city of Port Hueneme has the option to purchase the Wright center, but Community Development Director Greg Brown said there are no plans to do so.

For one thing, it's unlikely the city could afford the building's asking price of nearly $3 million, he said. And with several other performing arts centers around the county, it would be difficult to compete, he said.

Potential buyers have been few, mostly because of the building's distance from Hollywood.

"It's an exceptional building," said Carl Alaniz, who is representing Birdsall-Kall in the sale. "I'm surprised that it hasn't sold yet. If this thing were sitting anywhere but Port Hueneme, it would have been gone by now."

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