Norbert Tan knew his job as managing director of the Rubicon Theatre Company would be challenging. What he didn't know was that his first challenge was going to involve saving the only home the 5-year-old nonprofit group has ever known.
Tan, who moved to Ventura from Washington, D.C., this summer, said it came as a shock when owner Doug Halter announced he was selling the Laurel Theatre for $1.5 million.
At 10,000 square feet, the building houses 16 offices, a 200-seat theater and a rehearsal hall.
Rubicon occupies more than half the offices and is viewing the impending sale as an opportunity to expand further.
"We were surprised, but truthfully, the timing couldn't be more perfect," Tan said. "We are bursting at the seams right now, and we are expanding our season from five to seven shows starting in October.
"Our plan is to buy the building ourselves. That way, we can control our own destiny. We would be more in control of renting out the theater when we are dark; can put together a schedule for other arts or nonprofits that need to rent space; and we can earn more revenue by renting out the theater for events."
The former church at 1006 E. Main St. was purchased by Halter and business partner Joe Murray in 1999 for $400,000.
The pair invested another $400,000 in improvements and renovations that included building a stage, upgrading the plumbing, installing a new electrical system and replacing windows.
The building, which was built in 1905, still has some of its original stained leaded-glass windows.
Tan believes Rubicon can raise the funds necessary to purchase it.
"If we had to raise $15 [million] or $20 million, that would be out of our reach, but at $1.5 [million], it's very reasonable and very doable," Tan said.
"It helps that the product is quality and the capacity for giving is tremendous."
Halter would like to see Rubicon purchase the theater.
"I would love for Rubicon to buy it, and I'm willing to help in any way I can," Halter said.
"We probably could have asked $2.5 million, but we priced it below market because I wanted to keep it in the arts, if possible. I believe cultural arts are an absolute necessity for a healthy community."
A longtime supporter and promoter of the arts in Ventura, Halter said he decided to sell the theater for two reasons.
The first is the cost of the improvements the building still needs.
"We wanted to put in new seats, add restrooms at the theater level and upgrade the lobby and the entrance, but we don't have the wherewithal to do all of that," Halter said.
The second reason is more personal.
"I've had a lot of deaths in my family in the past year, and because of the inheritance tax, family members are having to sell some land in the Santa Cruz Mountains," Halter said. "That land is very special to me, and I want to keep it in my family. I'm lucky that I have the resources to do that."
Halter added that his plans did not include moving to the mountains.
"I love Ventura and don't ever see myself leaving," said Halter, whose plans do include running for City Council at some point in the future.
While Rubicon formulates its plan for raising money, Halter's realtor, Bill Duston of Coldwell Banker, is continuing to show the property.
"I know Doug's first choice would be for Rubicon to buy it, but if they don't, he really wants someone who will not only take the theater to the next level but also maintain the historical integrity of the building," Duston said.
City Councilman Jim Monahan said he hoped that Rubicon could remain at the Laurel.
"That's been the foundation, the bedrock, of performing arts in Ventura," Monahan said. "That group has brought a high level of professionalism to this area, and it would be a considerable loss to see them go."
If Rubicon does not buy the building, the new owners will be contractually bound to honor the theater group's lease for 12 months.
But Tan doesn't see that happening.
"We're ready to take that next step," Tan said. "We've moved from being a fledgling operation to being a professional equity company with a $2-million operating budget. Our big push starts now."