San Diego redevelopers want sports, not arts

Whither the Civic Theater?

— The arts community fervently hopes that if Mayor Jerry Sanders tries to redevelop the four-block Civic Center Plaza, as he mentioned in his state of the city speech January 11, the Civic Theatre will remain in place -- in fact, might be upgraded at some point in the future.

Early indications are that developers won't be able to aim the wrecking ball at the building, which is used for opera, ballet, musicals, classical music concerts, and the like.

First, the four-block redevelopment idea is a wacky one. The City is now paying rent at several locations to house its employees; the rationale for redevelopment is that consolidating city employees under one roof would save money. That is dubious. Councilmember Donna Frye points out that the City has many more important things to do with what little money it has.

But suppose the redevelopment plans go ahead. Then the question becomes: will the City keep its word and not touch the Civic Theatre?

It depends on how much city government values the arts. How does one make such a judgment? I went back to the State of the City speeches since 2001. I counted the number of words devoted to the arts and the number devoted to athletics -- almost entirely professional athletics. The results are not encouraging.

Here they are:

Dick Murphy's 2001 speech: sports 280, arts 0.

Murphy's 2002 speech: sports 420, arts 3.

Murphy's 2003 speech: sports 658, arts 25. (Oh yes. In this speech, Murphy said the City was "basically sound" and noted that the Reason Public Policy Institute of California had found "San Diego to be the most efficiently run big city in California." That was "a fine tribute to City Manager Michael Uberuaga and his staff.") Hmm.

Murphy's 2004 speech: sports 464, arts 23. (Oh yes. Boasted Murphy, "At Harvard Business School, they taught us that the best way to motivate a large organization to implement the chief executive officer's vision is to set very specific goals and hold employees accountable. That's what I did. I set very specific goals that would promote economic prosperity and protect our quality of life." Murphy waxed on about "steady, consistent leadership that has proven to be effective during the past three years." Shortly after that speech, the City admitted that it had been plundering the pension fund and falsifying bond prospectuses and that the massive pension deficits would lead to a tax increase or severe spending and service cuts. Murphy resigned.)

Jerry Sanders, 2006: sports 80, arts 8. (The mayor admitted that municipal government had become "a corrupt impediment to progress.")

Jerry Sanders, 2007: sports 228, arts 2. ("The state of our city is strong, perhaps one of the strongest in the nation," enthused Sanders, although he admitted that government still had to be fixed.)

Critics will say that these are invidious comparisons. Mayors Murphy and Sanders were devoting so many words to sports because there were controversies swirling around pro athletics subsidies: putting public money into finishing the ballpark, and the various proposals for keeping the Chargers in town, for example. But I disagree. I think it would have been an encouraging sign of San Diego's maturity if there had been controversies about putting public money into the arts, rather than into the pockets of billionaire sports team owners. For example, it would have been uplifting if during those years there had been raging civic controversy over putting taxpayers' money into a new arts complex -- say, a building for performance of opera, ballet, musicals, classical music concerts, and the like.

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