Members of the Enchanted Playhouse theater company performed in "Peter Pan" earlier this year at downtown Visalia’s Main Street Theater. Photo contributed by Enchanted Playhouse
Written by David Castellon
Whether Visalia’s Main Street Theater continues as a playhouse or if the building is renovated into a pair of restaurants is in the hands of the youth theater company that currently calls it home.
Monday night, after an impassioned, nearly hour-and-a-half-long meeting that included current and former performers urging the Visalia City Council not to sell the theater, council members voted 3-2 to delay the vote by 90 days to give the Enchanted Playhouse theater company an opportunity to come up with a counter to the $515,000 already made to purchase the building in the city’s downtown district.
On Sunday, representatives of the theater company plan to meet with a professional fundraising advisor to discuss how to do that, said Shanna Meier of Visalia, a member of Enchanted Playhouse’s board of directors who also performs in the group’s plays, along with her daughter.
Whether the group has to match the bid already made or exceed it wasn’t clear, she said, noting that the council members requested only a “viable competing offer“ and that the Enchanted Playhouse draft a business plan for the purchase that includes proof of financial backing for its offer.
That initial offer is coming from Legacy Investments, LLC. — owned solely by local developer J.R. Shannon — which offered one of two bids made on the building after the city requested offers and proposals on what to do with it in February.
The other proposed bid was below the minimum $450,000 the city sought, so only Shannon’s offer was considered.
His proposal involves a $1.4 million renovation to the 8,529-square-foot theater built in 1949, with a plan to split it into two high-end restaurants.
In his proposal, Shannon states he has a letter of intent signed by an interested potential occupant, identified as “Tenant A,” and is in negotiations with “multiple users, including one who’s an award-winning Central Coast Restaurant.”
It goes on to say the west half of the building would host Tenant A, “a very popular, 4,000-square-foot restaurant who will bring a new conceptual restaurant that we currently don’t have in Visalia.”
Shannon’s plan also asks to work with the city to secure a portion of Garden Street Plaza, a public area along the west side of the theater, for outdoor patio space.
The letter states that Tenant A could employ 60-70 people and generate $1.75-$2.5 million a year, based on revenues at other locations, and has indicated a willingness to work with the Enchanted Playhouse to help its general fundraising efforts
Expectations for the likely “Tenant B” are to employ 50-75 workers — more if the demand for catering is good — and annual revenues in the $1.5-$2.5 million range.
The city took over ownership of the Main Street Theater in 2004 through eminent domain, at a cost of more than $600,000.
The Enchanted Playhouse already had been a tenant since 1997 and continued after the city took over the theater.
Currently, the theater company for children and young adults — with older adults participating as needed — is the sole tenant, though it allows other high school and community performing groups to use the space.
Enchanted Playhouse’s sets and costumes are stored in the theater, and the group doesn’t want to give that space up.
As for what prompted the interest in a sale, Visalia’s Assistant City Manager Mario Cifuentes said the city received an inquiry about selling the theater, and city officials determined that the building is in need of extensive repairs and upgrades — including those to make it Americans with Disabilities Act compliant — which roughly penned out to at least $300,000, more than the city could afford. That prompted city officials to begin the process of formally determining what interest exists to buy the property.
Cifuentes said the City Council didn’t say Monday night whether the Enchanted Playhouse has to match or beat the offer already made on the building, as the members only responded to the group’s last-minute request to make an offer on it.
He did say that beyond the amounts offered, the council members would consider which of the proposed uses of the building would best serve the community in deciding to whom to sell it.
But getting the funding needed to buy and renovate the theater may be a tough push for the theater company.
Last year, the city agreed to knock $1,000 of the monthly rent of to give Enchanted Playhouse some breathing room because it was cash strapped.
The group was supposed to begin paying back that money in monthly $1,000 increments earlier this year, but has fallen six months behind, Meier said.
“We’re still short on funds” but once some outstanding bills owed to Enchanted Playhouse are paid off, the group will be able to catch up on its debt to the city, she said.
Still, the theater company’s presence on Main Street seems uncertain enough that its next play, “Once Upon Pandora’s Box,” has been booked to run in October at Visalia’s Rotary Theater, in case Main Street Theater can’t be secured.