CIVIC CENTER — For over a quarter of a century, an eclectic mix of skilled artisans from across the country have trucked their wares to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the Contemporary Crafts Market.
Smooth glass vases the color of sunbursts, intricately carved stone necklaces featuring hand-painted cranes, lush leather handbags and stained wooden end tables filled the interior of architect Welton Beckett’s classic Streamline Moderne building and spilled out onto its lush lawns underneath white tents.
Thousands of shoppers flocked for the weekend to tackle their Christmas lists or simply indulge in some of the finest crafts available, unique goods that couldn’t be found in stores. That didn’t come easy.
“In 1986, we held our very first show; it was Memorial Day weekend and my research was not very good,” said Roy Helms, creator of the Contemporary Crafts Market, during a phone interview last week from his home in Hawaii. “It turns out, the city empties out. It’s dead. Nobody came. It was a lesson, but we learned our lesson … kept persisting and became successful by nurturing an audience.”
Helms figured it took about three years before the market caught on. Being able to use the 3,000-seat civic year after year certainly helped. But now that landmarked structure, which is seismically unsafe and in need of modernization, has been shuttered, the victim of the termination of redevelopment agencies across the state, Helms had to pack up his operation and take it to the Pasadena Convention Center.
The market is slated for the first weekend in November and Helms is somewhat concerned about the turnout. He’s built a database of some 20,000 former attendees and his staff has been reaching out to them. They’re also offering some free passes.
“I think that our previous customers will be excited to see the new home,” he said. “Pasadena has been very welcoming. I think they’ve received a big gift from Santa Monica.”
As city officials begin the long process of formulating a plan for the future of the civic, devising a working group comprised of residents and experts in event management, something they should keep in mind is what will happen to those who have relied on the civic for so long. Will they come back if the civic is reborn? Will the ancillary spending by attendees and exhibitors — the lunches, hotel stays, car rentals and shopping sprees — return? If not, does it even matter? Will Santa Monica survive and attract others as it always has?
The civic closed for business at the end of June, the City Council deciding that mothballing it at an estimated cost of $185,000 a year was better than the approximately $2 million it required in General Fund subsidies to keep it open even with its normal slate of bookings that included gem and bead expos, a cat show and community symphonies. (Councilman Kevin McKeown cast the lone no vote). At the time of the council’s decision, the economy was still dragging and there were fears of wasting much-needed taxpayer money.
Originally, City Hall slated some $50 million of Redevelopment Agency money for upgrades, an estimated $8 to $10 million going to the most fundamental safety improvements. Then the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown moved to dissolve some 400 RDAs throughout California, redirecting millions in property tax revenue that normally funded the creation of affordable housing in Santa Monica, as well as pay for upgrades to infrastructure or create new public facilities. City Hall lobbied elected officials in Sacramento and joined efforts to reverse the budgeting maneuver to no avail.
Some residents and private companies called for the council to make the minimum investment and keep it open.
“The economic loss is significant for Santa Monica businesses, … a loss for residents of Santa Monica who enjoyed going to the shows and events at the Civic Center,” said Brian Fischer, marketing director for the International Gem & Jewelry Show, which booked the civic for nearly 30 years. It will now be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center later this week.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s just sitting there empty.”
Jessica Cusick, Cultural Affairs director for City Hall, said the goal is to not let the civic remain dormant. The council is expected to select members for the working group near the end of October. The panel will surely vet a set of recommendations by the independent Urban Land Institute, which called for the renovation and modernization of the venue with significant financial support through private development on surrounding land that would help nurture an arts community.
The institute suggested a multi-pronged approach to financing, including selling the naming rights or floating a bond to be paid for by property owners.
In the meantime, City Hall is trying to leverage the adjacent parking lot, recently using the space to host the AltCar Expo, which featured the latest makes and models of plug-ins, hybrids and all-electric autos.
“We never want to see an event leave, but at the same time we really didn’t have an option,” Cusick said. “It isn’t safe. We are trying to accommodate events in the parking lot. I think there are other venues in Santa Monica, but what this illustrates is the need to get this venue back online. That’s going to take a big infusion of cash and it won’t happen overnight.”
That’s not what exhibitors like Helms want to hear. He has to shell out more money to host the crafts market in Pasadena, but he believes the new venue offers many amenities the civic can’t, helping to cut other costs. Still, it is a gamble to move events that have a foothold in one area, particularly moving to the other side of Los Angeles County, where traffic often dictates people’s decisions to venture out of their comfort zones.
“There is always anxiety about moving a show from one location to another,” said Laurie Reluzco, who works with Fischer on the International Gem & Jewelry Show. “People are creatures of habit. They might get the flyer, but not look twice at it and show up; not realizing the civic’s closed until they get there. We’re still getting calls from people who ask when we’re coming. They think the civic is still open.”
Until the year’s sales tax numbers are released, and even then, it will be difficult to determine if the loss of the civic will hit City Hall’s coffers. Companies that supply catering and booths for the expos have reported seeing a slight dip, but local hotels seem to be doing just fine. Studies project a healthy average hotel occupancy rate of 83 percent for 2014, one of the highest in L.A. County.
“[That] will continue to bring our restaurants, shopping and attraction partners overnight visitors who dine and spend locally,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Considering the … newly-introduced opportunities to rent space in the civic lot, we look forward to see what type of new economic benefits may result and, like many others, remain hopeful and look forward to the next phase of the redevelopment of the civic.”
Even if the civic is brought up to current standards for entertainment venues in the area, Helms doesn’t think he’ll be back. He’s not keen on moving, and he likes what Pasadena has to offer.
“(The Pasadena Convention Center) is a great venue, there’s plenty of parking and if you haven’t been to Pasadena, you need to see it,” he said. “I think our customers are going to be excited.”
For more information on the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium planning efforts, visit savethecivic.org.