Back in July of 2004, I drove to Hiddenbrooke to conduct an interview with Curt Johansen, Executive Vice President of Triad Communities. We spoke about Triad?s plans for Vallejo?s downtown. He told a compelling story, even if some of it was merely conjecture, (like rent breaks for arts organiztions?like incubator loans to stir up economic activity.) Almost two years later, some of Triad?s plans for Vallejo?s downtown are only beginning to be implemented, and others still appear to be years away. Much of the downtown?s revitalization was pinned, in that conversation, on the revival of the Empress Theatre, part of a concept that the ?thriving? arts community would be an integral part of the downtown revitalization. Now almost a year after its original scheduled opening date of Spring 2005, there is little sign of activity. Apparently there were unforeseen structural issues that had to be addressed, and required extending the budget. Of course when the reconstruction is complete, the theatre will still have to be outfitted. It remains to be seen whether a 400 seat theatre can create enough of a stir downtown to launch a revival, and whether Vallejo Community Arts Foundation is up to the task of launching a viable Empress Theatre.
Roger Kemp, our former City Manager, was another individual who I interviewed for Listen & Be Heard Weekly about plans for the downtown. He actually stopped by to visit our offices, and dropped off a book he edited entitled Cities and the Arts. He also seemed to be sold on the idea that the arts are, or should be, an integral part of any plans for any city to revitalize its downtown. But Kemp has come and gone, and we don?t know why, or what part of the plans for Vallejo?s downtown might have died with his exit. The fact that we are returning to a former interim City Manager seems to point in the direction of going back to former attitudes which have not been conducive to the arts in this city.
Around the corner from the Empress, the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum operates on a bare minimum budget that won?t even cover the cost of maintenance, and there appears to be no commitment from anywhere to change that situation. So the idea is that the supposedly wealthier and more cultured individuals who move into the brand new condos soon to be constructed by Triad Communities, will want to endow the museum, and then the museum will have a budget. Maybe we should just wait for those people to move in, for schools for their children to appear out of nowhere, and then let them decide what should be done in Vallejo, and what artistic activity is worth supporting. OK, I?m not serious, but watch out folks, if we don?t all get on the same page about our artistic and cultural future, there will come a time when the hill will be much steeper to climb.
Those of us who are already running businesses downtown know that we face many challenges, among them the lack of much foot traffic, safety issues, and limited bus service to the downtown area. We know that if we wait on Triad Communities to solve our immediate problems we might as well go out of business. We know that the city can?t solve all these problems for us, but it can cause a woman to scratch her head in wonder about why any organization whose existence is meant to promote Vallejo?s Downtown, would hold any event in Benicia. But that is exactly what the CCRC and Vallejo Main Street did a week and a half ago, when they handed out awards to their volunteers. There are venues available right around the corner from their offices in downtown Vallejo that I am sure would have been happy to accommodate them. It goes without saying (but I guess I?ll say it), that such a choice would have brought some activity to the downtown, which might have spilled over to some of the other businesses, but that is a lost opportunity. What was the matter? Vallejo just wasn?t classy enough, or just not the right class?
Speaking of Benicia, if their downtown organization?s plans to put a Starbucks on the waterfront is a beacon for their idea of revitalizing, (when they already have several similar businesses operating on that street) then we can only hope that Vallejo will not race to erase itself in the same manner. There doesn?t appear to be much evidence that our City Council and Planning Commission will in fact refrain from selling out the People who populate this city. The People who send their kids to its schools. The People who have to be airlifted to Walnut Creek when they are run over in the streets because we surely can?t service those people here where we live.
I?m still confused. There?s the Downtown Association, the CCRC, Vallejo Main Street, Vallejo Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce, the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Filipino Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Chamber of Commerce, (what?s up with that? Shouldn?t the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce be serving all those people?s interests?) There?s Vallejo Community Access Television finally getting their foot past the door of the studio over at Jesse Bethel High School, Vallejo Community Arts Foundation, Vallejo Arts Council, Vallejo Artists? Guild, and the Vallejo Commission on Arts and Culture. It would appear that the foremost thing these groups have in common is a lack of communication with each other about a Vision for Vallejo.
What do the People want and Need? Let me take a guess, and then you can tell me what you think by sending a Speak Out! We the people want cultural programming available to all our school children at our local museum. We the people want arts education available to all our students, and special arts programs available to our gifted students. We the people want to celebrate and preserve the diversity in our city. We the People want a sophisticated marketing program focused on the San Francisco end of the Ferry Terminal, to attract people to Vallejo?s Arts and Cultural community, and all that it has to offer. We the people want the People?s paper (Listen & Be Heard Weekly) to be available at the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce offices, so that visitors can see everything that is going on here. (No we haven?t paid dues, but we pay our taxes and dues to some of the above mentioned organizations that are supposed to be representing us, and we are doing more than any other publication to promote arts and culture in Vallejo. It seems to me that they ought to be excited about that.) We the people want our leaders to get on the same page, and work for a collective vision of our future.
Are you the People? Or are you someone else? Please speak up and let us know for sure.