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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024
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Editor’s Notebook A new look for the old Wards

The California Center for the Arts, Escondido, sticks out like a sore thumb.

The $85 million center is a wonderful facility, with a 1,500-seat concert venue as good as any in the county. Performers have raved about the acoustics, and rightly so. It’s crystal clear from the second row all the way to the upper balcony.

The museum draws unique community-driven exhibits (presently it features a visual exhibit of the American car culture). It’s not the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art or the Timken Museum, but it certainly offers visitors a pleasant visual experience.

Critics initially saw the sprawling facility , it also includes an intimate 400-seat theater, conference rooms and an arts studio , as a huge white elephant. Completed in 1994 in the midst of a horrendous recession, the 12-acre campus was, many argued, an edifice built to please an elite few.

Built with redevelopment funds and propped up by the city, the center initially was awash in red ink. Over time, the growing pains subsided and the center is a thriving cultural gem.

Escondido’s arts center is recognized as a major cultural asset; unfortunately, the surrounding community has seriously lagged. The adjacent Grape Day Park is still inhabited by derelicts and gang-bangers. Take a stroll across the park after a show at your own risk.

Much of the surrounding business district remains a sea of nondescript, rundown shopping centers and plazas. To its east, Valley Parkway offers a number of great restaurants , if you’re looking for a quick burger, fries and a soda. Many storefronts up and down Escondido Boulevard , the center’s north-south frontage road , sit vacant or are occupied by thrift shops and liquor stores.

Drive to the arts center from Interstate 15 and nothing catches your eye. Drive back to the freeway and about the only place worth stopping for is the McDonald’s along West Valley Parkway.

With the exception of several restaurants and galleries along Grand Avenue, there is no compelling reason to arrive early or stay late in Escondido. Get in and get out , quickly. At least the freeway’s not far away.

But for all the seeming malaise in the arts center’s neighborhood, there must be a sense of anticipation running through Escondido’s cultural community. Revitalization around the arts center could take a giant leap forward.

As Montgomery Ward unceremoniously liquidates itself into history, a new chapter in Escondido’s downtown redevelopment could begin. The Wards store at Valley Parkway and Escondido Boulevard has been a downtown Escondido mainstay since the mid-1960s.

With the demise of the 120-year-old department store chain, the community is faced with the rarest of opportunities: Redevelop a huge parcel of land directly across the street from its most prized cultural possession.

Understandably, downtown business owners are excited by the prospect of redeveloping the old Wards site in the Civic Center Plaza. Escondido Chamber of Commerce CEO David Ish agreed it’s a prime location. He hasn’t seen any plans, but several ideas have been kicked around, including a hotel.

“That parcel presents an opportunity to put something there that would be complementary to both the arts center and downtown,” he noted.

The Downtown Business Association’s Suzanne Strassburger knows what will not be built on the site.

“We don’t want to see another strip mall there,” said the DBA’s chief executive. “That location faces two main arteries , Escondido Boulevard and Centre City Parkway. It’s a pivotal site because of its geographic location in downtown. It acts as a gateway.”

Strassburger noted while arts center patrons may hustle in and out of town, downtown Escondido boasts several fine restaurants, a dozen art galleries and two live theater companies. The heart of downtown is emerging as an arts community.

“The arts center is an attraction to downtown. We’re not comparing ourselves to Las Vegas, or to the Gaslamp District. Where we’re going in downtown is an 18-hour city, and we need to have more businesses to support that concept.”

Downtown merchants realize the value of what’s at stake with the Wards site, she said.

“This is a prime area that’s critical to our efforts. A strip center is not going to bring in people and make them stay.”

So, what will? Strassburger pointed to possibilities like a boutique hotel, a restaurant row and movie theaters. I’d take it a step further and suggest closing Escondido Boulevard between Wards and the arts center.

Escondido’s economic future is not particularly bright. It has little commercial property left and has difficulty attracting large businesses.

The redevelopment of the old Wards site alone will not solve the city’s economic woes. It can, however, act as a catalyst for downtown’s current revitalization.

Instead of an outdated department store, Escondido has a chance to reap millions of dollars annually in money that likely would be spent elsewhere. Perhaps as importantly, it’s a chance to provide the arts center with a backdrop befitting its role as one of the county’s cultural treasures.

Bell is the Business Journal’s managing editor.

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