The Vista City Council approved an exclusive agreement with JCG Development for a potential renovation of the historic Avo Playhouse, 303 Main Street, in downtown Vista. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Historic Vista playhouse on path to facelift

VISTA —One of the city’s historic buildings and theaters is ready for a facelift.

Whether or not it comes is dependent on an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement approved by the City Council on Jan. 14 with JCG Development to renovate the 385-seat Avo Playhouse at 303 Main Street.

Per the agreement, the city and JCG Development have up to 18 months to determine the developer’s proposal. Some of those actions include preliminary designs, cost estimates, lease terms, parking management and a potential operating partner for the playhouse.

“This is a big step for us to do this,” Councilwoman Amanda Rigby said. “The Avo Playhouse is historic to our community and a landmark to our community. It is one of the brightest threads to our fabric that makes up Vista.”

The theater was built in 1948 as a neighborhood movie house and has since gone under some transformations. The city purchased the playhouse in 1995 and a restoration project brought live performances to the stage.

The Avo Playhouse is a fully equipped performance venue with an elevated stage, backstage dressing rooms with restrooms, a concession area and restrooms in the lobby. Over the past few years, however, the theater has mostly been used as a rental venue for local and traveling theatrical and musical productions, according to the staff report.

And although the city has been approached in the past by several interested parties to either buy or lease the building, city staff agreed with JCG Development’s plans to renovate the theater as a music and live entertainment venue.

The playhouse is in the heart of the downtown, which is also currently undergoing extensive revitalization efforts by the city and its partners. The enhancement of the Avo through a long-term lease and the creation of a music and live entertainment venue has the potential to create a regional attraction that will help further enhance the vitality and progress in downtown while supporting several city goals including fiscal responsibility and economic development, said Vista Economic Development Director Kevin Ham.

Ham said the facility was used for 155 days last year, and City Manager Patrick Johnson said the city struggled to operate the facility.

“We were losing money,” Johnson said about the city’s past acting as lead operator.

However, a pair of residents said they wanted more resident input including a committee to usher in ideas and collaborate with JCG Development.

Katie Melendez, a resident who as a student performed at the Avo, also asked for a social impact study from the developer. She said some residents also feel a disconnect with the city and its efforts to revitalize downtown.

Natalie Vega, resident who also hosted a music event last summer, questioned the council as to whether they have marketed to other performing arts groups and if any grants have been explored. She said the playhouse has been neglected for years.

Councilman John Franklin said the agreement is to open the negotiations and to start the process. He said the possibilities of a renovated theater will only benefit downtown in a positive light.

Councilman Joe Green said the city is passionate about theater and noted the city has invested millions in the arts. He said the city must be cautious, but since no other developer would take on the project, this agreement is a way to bring the “absolute” best project to infuse a new energy into downtown.

Councilwoman Corinna Contreras echoed those comments and said she sees the opportunity to use someone else’s money for forward-thinking ideas.

“This is an economic engine that is idle,” she said. “The community is right to have concerns. What does it mean to the community if we move forward with this? We absolutely have to have the community involved in this.”

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