When Cecilia Martner looks at the deteriorating theater that stands silently at the corner of H Street and Highway 246 in downtown Lompoc, she’s looking past the signs urging people to keep out, the trash strewn across the front and broken windows, and focuses on the building’s historic details.
Peering through the glass front door, one of which has been shattered badly, Martner points out an art deco gem just inside the abandoned theater’s lobby.
A string of golden dancers encircle the room’s doorway, welcoming would-be theater patrons in toward a concession counter and the dark entrance to the theater itself, which was built in 1927.
Bits of its gilded former glory are still visible even if they’ve been tarnished over time, and “it’s full of little details,” Martner said excitedly.
Those details mark the building not as a forgotten relic, but as a historic monument and community treasure for Martner, a former city council member, and others she’s gathered together to help reopen the theater and, in time, give the downtown area a vibrancy it’s lacking now.
The Lompoc Theatre Project was formed “because there was really nobody making an attempt to do something about the theater,” she said.
Founding members started to look at how they could take ownership of the theater and move forward with renovating it.
The group started a nonprofit organization just about a year ago, and they’ve been working with the city on a memorandum of understanding to try to come up with a path to assume ownership of the building, which has multiple liens on it, and is owned by the now-defunct Lompoc Housing & Community Development Corp.
Because the building was purchased with redevelopment agency monies, and because those agencies were dissolved by the state, the property sits in what Martner called “a legal quagmire.”
The housing agency had two loans from the City of Lompoc, which were used for acquisition and development plans, “but nothing came out of it,” she said.
Ten years later, agency is in the process of dissolving and the California Department of Finance would have the ultimate say in whether ownership of the building will be transferred to the community.
The property has some sizable liens against it — as much as a $1 million — and as the legal issues continue to slog on, Martner’s group has already started on some restoration projects with volunteer community members.
There are two layers to the theater project: Coming up with the funding for the restoration of the building and then establishing an operating budget, Martner said.
She acknowledged that a “phenomenal” amount of fundraising will have to come from the community. There will also have to be a huge volunteer effort.
“We need the community to get involved and stand behind the project,” she said. “If they don’t, it’s just not going to happen.”
Right now, the group is fundraising to get $100,000 to stabilize the building’s roof.
Consultants have told Martner that if the group had all of the money raised for the entire project, it would take 16 months to complete.
Getting enough money will likely need to amount to several million dollars, but the “biggest priority right now is to take ownership of the theater,” she said.
“We understand that it’s difficult to raise money when you don’t have ownership of the property,” she said.
The group has been issuing surveys to gauge what kinds of events people would like to see at the theater — early feedback shows that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a favorite — and how much they would pay for a ticket.
“We don’t have an agenda, we’re looking for what the community wants and then we’ll make it happen,” she said.
Organizers have also been reaching out to local dance and theater companies and musicians to get their feedback. In principal, Martner said, those groups would be able to perform at the theater for free.
With more people coming from other places to explore the Wine Ghetto, Martner said if the theater had an event going on, “I’m sure they would spend the weekend here.”
She suggested that the theater would draw people from Solvang, Mission Hills, Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley to events, which could be as diverse as a lecture series from UC Santa Barbara to short films and performances.
The theater contains 350 seats, making the venue unlike any of the others in the area.
Inside, “it’s dark, it’s dirty, but it’s structurally sound,” Martner said.
It needs upgrades, but the skeleton of theater is a solid one.
“The bones are healthy, and it would be a shame if it didn’t get restored,” she said.
The property is also home to some commercial and office space, and Martner said the group plans to rent out those spaces to subsidize the operation. She pictures one of the areas hosting a food space for coffee, frozen yogurt, wine or the like, that would serve people before and after shows.
“The history of the theater is a sad one ... This is perhaps the third attempt to restore it,” Martner said. “What is going to make us different than the rest is being as realistic as possible and to actively engage the community.
“We need to inspire people in this town and the surrounding areas that this can be done.”
People can help the effort by contacting elected officials at all levels and asking for their support. Volunteers are also needed in the effort.
Grant writers, people to conduct the surveys, and people to help get bids for the building repairs and do historical research on the theater are all things the group needs help with.
“We need anything and everything,” she said.
Click here to take the survey, volunteer or make an online donation.