(Article Credit: Willis Jacobson, Lompoc Record)
When the Lompoc Theatre Project formed as a nonprofit organization six years ago with the lofty goal of restoring and reopening the historic Lompoc Theatre, one of its biggest challenges was to drum up support for the venture within Lompoc and surrounding communities.
Those efforts were not wasted, according to a feasibility study commissioned this year by the organization.
The Lompoc Theatre Project recently released the results of that study, which was based on surveys and questionnaires completed by 176 community members and 11 representatives of industries categorized as stakeholders in the project. The study concluded that there was overwhelming support for the project locally, and, despite some key challenges still remaining, a majority of community members believe that the renovation is viable, with 81 percent of respondents “optimistic” about its success.
Mark Herrier, an actor and president of the Lompoc Theatre Project’s board of directors, said he was encouraged by those results.
“It’s been a long, hard journey to get to where we are today, and [the journey] was made longer and harder because of the past history of the previous attempts to renovate the theater,” Herrier said Monday. “Some of them did not go well in the public’s eyes, and it took us many years to overcome those bad feelings.
“What the feasibility study proved beyond any shadow of a doubt is that we have overcome that, that people recognize that we are doing it, and they believe that we can do it,” he added. “That was a huge sea change in public opinion. That was very satisfying and I was happy to see that.”
Four years after forming as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2012, the Lompoc Theatre Project officially took over possession of the theater property, located near the intersection of East Ocean Avenue and North H Street. The group went on to develop a 450-person volunteer base, a 10-year donor list, and attracted a Facebook following of more than 2,000 people.
Each of those achievements, as well as the high-visibility downtown location, was included in the study findings among the “positive internals” for the effort, which aims to bring live entertainment, movies and other events back to the theater that first opened in 1927 but hasn’t been used regularly since the 1990s.
The study, which was conducted by Strategic Vitality LLC and funded in part by a $5,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation, also painted a picture of high external support of the project from the community.
Among the study’s key findings:
- Ninety percent of respondents said each of the proposed uses were "extremely" or "very" important;
- Eighty percent of stakeholders acknowledged a "strong" need for the theater; and
- Eighty-seven percent of community members strongly supported the renovation and believe that Lompoc residents and nonresidents would also support it.
Additionally, the study found no indications that previous unsuccessful attempts to restore the theater by other groups posed any threat to this current effort.
Herrier said he was encouraged but not shocked by those findings.
“I was more surprised when I first started this several years ago that that wasn’t already the case,” he said. “I knew the value of (the project). I knew the economic impact it will have. I knew all of the research that shows this is by far the best thing that could happen to the city. My surprise was that it was not as common knowledge as I thought it might be.”
A significant portion of the study focused on the financial feasibility of the restoration, which the Lompoc Theatre Project has estimated will add up to about $6 million.
The organization reports that it has raised about $200,000 so far, with the largest single donation coming from actress and Santa Barbara County native Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is perhaps best known for her role on the hit TV series “Seinfeld,” and her husband, writer/director Brad Hall.
The study noted that developing relationships with other wealthy locals could be critical to the restoration. It reported that Santa Barbara County had the 11th highest concentration of millionaires in the state, with one out of every 227 tax filers.
Billionaires who either live or have a significant presence in the county that were mentioned in the study include Oprah Winfrey, Tom Barrack and Elon Musk.
The study reported that 91 percent of those surveyed and all of the interviewees said that funding from outside Lompoc will be "important" or "very important” for the project’s success, with few thinking that the money could be raised in Lompoc alone.
Other funding-related findings:
- Sixty-five percent of those surveyed thought half of the money could be raised in the Lompoc Valley, while stakeholder interviewees thought 25 percent could be raised in the Lompoc Valley;
- If all of Santa Barbara County were included, interviewees thought 50 to 75 percent could be raised; and
- Seventy-five percent of interviewees thought $100,000 to $1 million should already be in a “launch fund” at start-up.
The study also reported potential challenges to the group’s fundraising efforts.
The study noted that the Lompoc Theatre Project’s capital campaign will be competing with other organizations for annual support and grant funding. Since those other organizations will include political campaigns both this year and in 2020, the study reported that the Lompoc Theatre Project needs to avoid polarization, which it reports has never been higher in the U.S., and that board members and supporters will “have to walk a fine line” regarding partisan politics.
A local organization’s ongoing efforts to restore the old Lompoc Theatre received a major bo…
The Lompoc demographics also present challenges, according to the study, which noted that some of those same challenges could also open up opportunities. For example, the fact that Lompoc is a “small town” and has average annual household incomes of less than $50,000 and per-capita incomes of slightly more than $20,000 can be leveraged to create strong “needs statements” for public and grant funding, the study notes, both for arts and cultural educational programs.
At the same time, the study also points out that public support of the arts is on the decline, while private support is on the rise.
While the study ultimately offered some encouraging indicators for the restoration, the project still primarily hinges on fundraising.
“If we had the $6 million tomorrow, then we could open in a year and a half,” Herrier said.
Over the past year, work commissioned by the Lompoc Theatre Project has included gutting out the entire auditorium, asbestos abatement and rehabilitation work on the roof. The downstairs office spaces have also recently been cleared out, and the group hopes to make those units available to renters as soon as this month.
The upstairs spaces, which are currently used for meetings by the Lompoc Theatre Project’s board of directors, will be made available after the work on the roof is completed, Herrier said. He indicated that could be done before the end of the year.
Members of the public will be able to go inside the old building and get up-close views of the changes during a mixer coordinated by the Lompoc Theatre Project and the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
“We’re making progress,” Herrier said. “It’s slow but steady.”
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter@WJacobsonLR.