The board of directors of the Napa Valley Opera House has announced a plan to either sell the historic building or find strategic partners to create an endowment to allow them to expand its programming “to be more meaningful to the Napa community.”
Cass Walker, the immediate past president of the board, stressed that Opera House is not in financial difficulties, as in past years, but is trying to “think outside the box.”
“We are in a good financial situation, probably better than ever,” she said. “Some board members feel we should sell the building and create an endowment to fund programming. Consequently, we have decided to see what possibilities are out there for us.”
The building has been listed for $5 million with Michael C. Holcomb, who has “a strategic partnership/listing agreement to market the opportunity,” Walker said.
Walker explained that the building is owned by the Opera House board and anyone who purchased the building would be subject to deed restrictions for community arts; no one could buy it and turn it into a hotel or office space, she said.
“The Board has a loan from the City that is forgiven at $100,000 a year,” as long as they provide 75 days of community programming each year. “We have done this over the last six years and now have a remaining balance of $900,000. The City would have to approve any assignment of the loan.”
The Opera House, which opened in 1880, went dark in 1914 after earthquake damage was compounded by the demise of vaudeville. In the 1970s, the building was saved by a group of residents who raised funds to restore the building, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The renovated downstairs cafe theater opened in 2002, followed by the upstairs theater in 2003.
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The city lent the board the funds to pay off its renovations costs, but still the building ran into financial difficulties. In 2013, the late Bob Almeida, president of the board at the time, announced a plan to lease the downstairs to City Winery of New York, which wanted to open a West Coast venue in Napa. This entailed extensive renovations that removed the seats and the raked floor in the upstairs theater and built a restaurant downstairs. City Winery Napa opened in April 2014 and closed in December 2015.
Subsequently, the board negotiated a new plan to lease the downstairs to Blue Note, the jazz club that began in Greenwich Village, New York, and expanded to venues worldwide. Napa became their West Coast outpost when Blue Note opened in 2016.
“Blue Note consistently pays rent, our historic preservation fees, and our percentage rent on the upstairs,” Walker said, adding, however, that “in Bob Almeida’s projections, we had anticipated a larger income stream from the use of the upstairs.”
Installing the flat floor and removing the fixed seats in the upstairs theater allowed for more flexibility in rentals, she said. Although it has been rented for concerts, fundraisers, a high school prom and a reunion, “unfortunately, the upstairs is not used as often as we hoped,” she said.
“The rental income is not sufficient to do the kind and diversity of programming we envision and believe would benefit the Napa community. Certain members of the board believe a strategic partner alliance with other organizations could bring us that ability.”
For those partners, Walker speculated that it could be an arts organization that wanted to present a regular series of performances, or lecture series like San Francisco’s City Arts and Lectures.
“What we’re looking for enough money to create an endowment,” said DJ Smith, the current board president who added that the board has already heard from interested parties. “We want a partner for community programming. There’s a whole lot of options. I’m optimistic that we can bring the strategic partner or owner who knows the community and cares about the community.”