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Save the Lear (opinion)

By ThisIsReno
The Lear Theater

Submitted by Randi Thompson

“I want see the Lear Theater restored before I die!”

Those were the last words Bob Cashell said to me when I saw him at a dinner last November.  His words have continually run though my head from the day Bob died, and today they are my mantra.  

Over the past few years, if you knew Bob, he’d tell you that it’s a real tragedy the way Artown has not been a good steward of the Lear since receiving it some nine years ago. 

Bob’s history with the Lear began as a result of his long-time friendship with Moya Lear.  In 1998, Moya donated funds to purchase the historic church, built by famed Los Angeles African American Architect Paul Revere Williams, with the goal of turning it into a community performing arts center.  For over twenty years, efforts to complete the restoration failed, despite the millions of dollars that generous donors in our community provided.

The Lear Theater, currently fenced off pending future plans.
The Lear Theater in 2017, fenced off pending future plans. Photo: Ty O’Neil

In 2011, then Mayor Bob Cashell and City Councilman Dave Aiazzi facilitated the transfer of the Lear Theater, its parking lot, and the house at 528 West First Street to Artown, in the “hope” they would complete the restoration or find someone to do so.  Artown paid $1 for the buildings and parking lot, and received a bank account with about $80,000 to maintain the properties until they could figure out what to do with them.

Since that time, Artown has done little to nothing to maintain the Lear.

Artown has operated rent-free in the small red house, while the Lear has continued to deteriorate.  They have used the Lear as a storage facility and the parking lot for staging Artown events, all the while turning a blind eye to their “obligation” to the community to preserve and protect this historic church.  They stopped watering the landscaping, causing most of that to die, including a landmark tree.  The building was tagged and repainted while homeless folks camped out there, forcing Artown to fence off the Lear.  Their stewardship of the Lear has truly been a disgrace and a tragedy.

In 2017, six years after entirely neglecting the Lear, Artown finally got around to issuing a Request For Proposals (RFP) from non-profit theater groups to buy it for $1.  Transforming a former church into a theater is a big lift requiring a significant amount of capital.  It would be hard for most theater groups in this town to take up such a challenge, but it was one I and a few others felt worthy of pursuit.   

At that time, I was on the board of the Sierra School of Performing Arts (SSPA).  Our board was looking for a new home, but we didn’t have the skill set and experience to undertake such a project. So, we formed a development team to support SSPA with the project. Bob Cashell was our first member.  We recruited the preservation architect who led the effort to secure the Historical Tax credits for the Lear, a local commercial developer, a commercial architect, a former casino entertainment director, and a few others who had the experience and desire to bring the Lear back to life.

Artown selected our team in a very public and transparent manner.  Then we began negotiating with them…for over a year and a half!  It’s not like we had to haggle over the price!  Artown kept changing the terms of the purchase agreement and placing unreasonable demands on SSPA that were not part of the RFP they issued.

During our negotiations, SSPA hired consultants and attorneys who helped us negotiate the agreement and secure project funding.  We planned to use New Market Tax Credits for the restoration, which we were securing. We had a significant portion of the funds to perform the restoration lined up, and we were ready to close on the purchase. 

On April 4, 2019 we had a meeting with Artown’s Lear Committee, which included Mayor Hillary Schieve and Artown’s pro-bono attorney, to negotiate final terms of the purchase.  Our team left the meeting believing we had reached a final agreement.  SSPA redrafted the purchase agreement based on the terms negotiated in good faith at that meeting and sent that revised agreement back to Artown. Two days after we sent back the revised agreement, Artown sent a letter essentially stating their Board “believed that the parties will unfortunately be unable to reach an agreement with terms and conditions that are satisfactory to both parties.”

The Lear is a valuable community asset, purchased and remodeled through donations of millions of dollars from many local individuals and foundations.”

With that letter, they unilaterally and unexpectedly terminated negotiations, despite a revised agreement that reflected the terms they had just demanded.  Our development team was shocked. For months after that we called and emailed Artown seeking specifics of why they terminated negotiations, but they refused to talk to us.  

We have kept our silence all this time about this frustrating saga, as there is still a group of us who have the vision and a realistic plan to transform the Lear into the “Heart of Performing Arts” in Reno.  We have been quietly working to grow our team and gain support and financing to purchase the Lear – and for more than $1!  This arts and events center could be a center for performing and visual arts organizations in the Truckee Meadows that desperately need a venue of this size.  

We envision this performing arts center would support a broad range of events including plays, film festivals, concerts, art shows, private celebrations, and corporate events.  Our goal is to revive the Lear guided by Moya Lear’s vision that this building could “host anything from a children’s dance recital to a world-renowned string quartet.”  Like the Pioneer Center, the Lear would operate as a nonprofit serving the needs of the community. 

I’m breaking the silence now because we recently learned that Artown has entered into an “exclusive” negotiation with a California developer, who has a local partner, who wants to acquire the Lear.  One of the concepts may be housing in the basement and a “small” theater upstairs.   If that is the case, then it totally contradicts Artown’s 2017 RFP that required that the Lear be renovated as a theater for the community’s use. More concerning is that the developer and Artown may be doing this in their self-interest to profit from the project.

Whatever the developer’s plans may be, Artown’s private negotiations are clearly a violation of the public’s trust.  The Lear is a valuable community asset, purchased and remodeled through donations of millions of dollars from many local individuals and foundations. These individuals and organizations have a vested interest in the Lear that cannot be ignored. Artown is a publicly-funded organization and they need to be completely transparent about their funding and activities.  More importantly, they have an obligation to do what is best for the historic building and our community, not what’s best for Artown.

The community expects that the Lear will one day be a performing arts center.  If Artown sells it for their financial benefit and does not ensure its future as a community performing arts center, they are deceiving the public for their own gain.  Artown has a strict obligation to the community to be open and transparent with their plans, or any purchaser’s plans with the Lear, as they were before.

If Bob Cashell were alive, I can only imagine his fury.  It’s our obligation as a community to see this great building transformed to its best use: as the Heart of Performing Arts in Reno.  I hope you will join me in this fight to save the Lear!

Randi Thompson

Randi Thompson is public relations and government affairs consultant who has been active in the community since her days at Reno High School.  She is past president of the Nevada Opera Board and a former board member of the Sierra School of Performing Arts, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, and the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority.  She is currently on the board of Sky Tavern.  She has a degree in Journalism from the Univ. of Oregon and spent 10 years Washington D.C. in government affairs. 

Submitted opinions do not represent the views of ThisisReno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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1 comments

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Leeanne Hemenway May 29, 2020 - 10:04 am

How do we join the fight? Shame on Artown.

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