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SLO Rep changes new theater plans, asks for money amid rising costs 

Skyrocketing construction costs have put the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre's long-discussed plans for a new downtown performing arts center out of reach.

Now, SLO Rep is revising its project design and asking the city of SLO for a $3.94 million boost to help get it to the finish line.

click to enlarge RISING COSTS The price tag of a new SLO Repertory Theatre in downtown SLO doubled in recent years—and it's leading to design changes and a new fundraising plan. - RENDERING COURTESY OF SLO REP AND THE CITY OF SLO
  • Rendering Courtesy Of SLO Rep And The City Of Slo
  • RISING COSTS The price tag of a new SLO Repertory Theatre in downtown SLO doubled in recent years—and it's leading to design changes and a new fundraising plan.

"We were determined not to abandon the project," SLO Rep Managing Artistic Director Kevin Harris and board President Pam Nichter wrote in a joint letter to the city last month. "We seek your approval of a $3.94 million challenge grant from one-time funds to assure construction of a new SLO Rep Theatre."

At its Feb. 15 meeting, the SLO City Council will consider setting aside the funds for SLO Rep, whose proposed theater is on city property and has been planned in tandem with a new city parking garage on the corner of Palm and Nipomo streets, which will soon break ground.

The $3.94 million is available as part of a "fund balance"—or a year-end savings from the previous fiscal year, according to city officials.

"The city sees this as a great opportunity to support the downtown economy, and is another way we're advancing in economic recovery and resilience," said Whitney Szentesi, SLO's public communications manager, in a Feb. 9 email to New Times.

Originally planned as a three-story, 22,000-square-foot building with two theaters, rehearsal spaces, classrooms, offices, and more, SLO Rep is scaling down its vision after a recent study showed the price tag nearly doubling from $9.5 million to $18 million, due to "various delays." The cost is "beyond SLO Rep's fundraising capacity," according to Harris and Nichter.

"This price represents a per-square-foot cost that likely would set a record for downtown construction," SLO Rep's letter to the city read.

In December 2021, the SLO Rep board of directors approved a new design for the theater, which preserves the goal of building a 205-seat main theater and a 99-seat "black-box theater" at the downtown location, but moves the offices, costume, and set construction facilities, classrooms, and rehearsal spaces off-site to a building on Empleo Street—at the former headquarters of People's Self-Help Housing.

The cost of that project is currently projected at $14.3 million, and SLO Rep says it's raised $5.6 million to date, with assurances that it can eventually reach $10.4 million in fundraising. The city grant would make up the difference, Harris and Nichter said.

"This plan presents a clear path toward completing an essential pillar of SLO's cultural district at considerably less cost than $18 million," their letter read. "It also provides significantly more functionality and programming. ... Notably, it will enable SLO Rep to exponentially expand its educational programming at least two years earlier than the original plan."

In appealing to the city, SLO Rep argued that its new "two-site" plan is embraced by project donors and that the theater will be an economic and cultural engine for the city "for decades to come" when completed.

"Once fully operational, the new theater would offer 324 shows a year on 176 dates, generating an economic impact of more than $3 million annually," Harris and Nichter said. "For a relatively small investment, the city would be able to complete a large, central piece of its Downtown Concept Plan."

The letter also emphasized that the city will ultimately own the theater as a community asset. If it moves ahead on schedule, the theater would open to the public in 2027. Δ

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