Back in 2009, the City Council had approved an agreement with the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center to have the redevelopment agency invest in the 2,000-seat regional theater that the non-profit wants to build and operate in the now almost vacant block between Railroad Avenue and First Street, bounded by Livermore Avenue and L Street.
Those plans could have been knocked off target when the Legislature followed Gov. Brown’s request and abolished redevelopment agencies as part of the budget balancing exercise in 2011. The governor was rightly concerned that redevelopment agencies had wandered far from the original intent of the law and were being used to build convention centers, stadiums, arenas and performing arts centers. One reason for Stockton’s bankruptcy was the absurd expenditures in the downtown marina, arena and minor league baseball park.
The law, appropriately, required that existing obligations continue to be paid and set up oversight boards to allocate and monitor tax revenues to do so. Redevelopment plans have bonded against the increased property values driven by public improvements and then repaid the bonds using revenue from the higher property taxes. It was this diversion of funds that concerned the governor because the state had to make up revenues for education.
The Livermore oversight board consists of Supervisor Scott Haggerty (chair), City Councilman Stewart Gary (vice chair), school trustee Bill Dunlop, city housing expert Eric Uranga, Planning Commissioner Todd Storti, Isabel Dvorsky from the Chabot Las Positas Community College board and park district director Beth Wilson.
This group determined that the redevelopment agency had committed $205 million that needed to be repaid. Nearly three-quarters of that, $146 million, is for debt that has yet to be incurred for the regional theater. The agency has purchased the land—although it did so for a vastly different project than the regional theater. It has leveled the old Lucky shopping center causing the best downtown restaurant in Livermore (the Railroad Café) to relocate to the Nob Hill Shopping Center on Stanley Boulevard where its business continues to thrive—quality will do that.
No contract has been let for theater construction or related improvements beyond the razing of the existing buildings, yet this group of theater-backers has set up this questionable project to move forward should the majority of the City Council maintain its steadfast support for this project.
Mind you, the theater is designed to compete with the offerings at the Golden Gate and Orpheum theaters in San Francisco—we’re not talking about batting heads with the downtown Walnut Creek theater. Wente’s summer concert series, which has shrunk to a significantly more modest number of events due to the fierce competition from the Indian gaming casinos, operates in a tight niche. The regional theater is sized to compete head-to-head with the San Francisco theaters.
Downtown San Jose operations, despite the significant wealth in the Silicon Valley, certainly struggle to compete with San Francisco.
Yet, the Livermore visionaries along with the politicians who are the enablers are still willing to put the city’s general fund—which ultimately stands behind the project—at risk if they move ahead with this plan. Remember, Livermore laid off police officers and closed a fire station (since re-opened) to bring its budget into balance when revenues cratered in 2008 and beyond.
History has demonstrated that the city, despite the substantial new revenues that are expected to flow from the Paragon upscale outlets at El Charro Road and Interstate 580, has far less margin in its revenue stream than some of its neighbors such as Pleasanton.
Livermore residents would be well advised to pay close attention—given the lack of coverage by the news media—they’re going to have to follow the city’s agenda and the oversight group’s closely to know what their leaders—elected and not—are doing with their tax dollars.