Imagining a Future for Downtown Vallejo

I have heard discussions, offered some ideas, sometimes argued, probably been too opinionated (a family trait) mused about and imagined the future in downtown Vallejo. It’s a popular subject, because the Now is a place we’re all ready to move on from.

Some of the whispers in the wind traveling up and down the quiet streets are saying that Triad won’t be breaking ground down here any time soon. While Triad has set back the date(s) for the project that’s supposed to bring residents to downtown Vallejo with money to spend, many of the details of that plan have begun to be implemented anyway.

What has been interesting to me for several years now is that a large part of this plan is pinned on the Empress Theatre being like a beacon for an arts revival in downtown Vallejo. Back in the day when when we had Mr. Kemp as our City Manager, I interviewed him after reading a book he edited entitled “Cities and the Arts.” Whatever else may have been said, or not said, about his tenure in Vallejo, the book that he put into my hands turned out to be a useful volume that I would recommend as good reading to people who have an invested interest in the development of downtown Vallejo. It is an assembly of articles and essays on the subject of the arts as a vital form of economic stimulation, and leader of economic growth in blighted and depressed cities all over the country. What may have been lost in the shuffle of City Managers is the clarity of a single goal that the City Council, any developer coming to downtown, the CCRC, the Main Streeters, the The Commission on Culture and the Arts, Vallejo Community Arts Organization, other arts and cultural organizations and residents, should all rally behind.

Downtown Vallejo has the raw ingredients for an arts reviva,l but it won’t happen without some elbow grease. It could go beyond the usual, the done before, the tired and no longer true, and be downright dazzling. Why can’t we be a role model for other cities to turn to? What’s needed is cooperation in the entire community to fulfill the vision of diversity that is the heartbeat of this city. After reading the Times-Herald cover story the other day about branding this city, Tony, my husband and business partner, exclaimed that we already have a brand. We are the most diverse city in the country. We used to boast about that. By making an effort to reach out and come together to combine forces in the arts, something that all cultures participate in and create, we can learn from each other, and create synergistic energy.

The movers and shakers behind the plans to open the Empress Theatre next year have not waited for Triad to build condominiums across the street from them on Virginia between Marin and Sacramento. They have now shifted from raising capital for construction, to planning programming for an opening next year. There are many challenges for this medium size venue to be a viable one that can bring in both high priced ticket events to cover operational expenses, and still serve the local cultural community.

The reality of Now is that the majority of downtown residents will not be buying high priced tickets to hear the symphony. Another reality of Now is that the young children who live in this neighborhood and attend the public schools here will not be exposed to the Arts in a regular and meaningful way that would encourage them to to have an interest in arts events, or to become artists themselves. While a good booking agent may be able to bring in a few big names that would draw in people from other areas, it will require a great publicist to overcome the image of downtown Vallejo in the bay area and entice people to drive here, park their cars, and stroll our streets before and after the show.

Looking into the reflection of my thoughts I see a shadowy upside down future that looks like an opportunity to do something really Great. Something like creating an arts program at the Empress that is much more than just something to do after school. The Empress can not only serve the community, it can create community and develop world class performing artists at the same time. Professional artists and teachers could work together to create a model curriculum that could be provided to the community at low or no cost. Funding for the program would contribute to the operational costs of the theatre. A professionally delivered, demanding program that begins at entry level and is available five days a week in the afternoon could transform a community from having kids hanging out getting into trouble and creating problems, to one that takes pride in its world class reputation and the opportunities it offers its youth.

There is some refreshing energy afoot, with the Vallejo Music Theatre project, 4th Fridays event on Marin Street, our own plans for a Summer Arts Festival, the continuation of the Wednesday night celebrations, and the excitement of those who have been working for years to bring the Empress to this point. What’s needed to get to the next level is creativity, imagination and unification behind a worthy goal.

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