MARTINEZ -- On the hook for two more years of rent for the Campbell Theatre, city leaders are trying to buy property abandoned by the defunct Willows Theatre Company so they can reopen the downtown performance venue.
"I'm just interested in the sound (equipment), the lighting, the tables and chairs," Mayor Rob Schroder said. "I would like that facility to remain a turnkey operation that isn't going to cost us or some operator $100,000 to retrofit."
The 35-year-old Willows folded abruptly in August, and three months later the board of directors filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the Northern District of California U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The court filing reveals the Willows had few assets, a mountain of debt and a slew of creditors.
The Willows didn't own any real estate. The company's main stage was in a rented building in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord and its administrative offices were in a building owned by Martinez. The cabaret operated out of the Campbell, on which the city of Martinez paid the rent.
At the direction of the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, the Willows has turned over all its property -- including office furniture, props, costumes, scenery, tools, computers, and sound and lighting equipment -- to the Bank of the West to satisfy a lien of more than $200,000.
Under the terms of a 2009 lease agreement, Martinez must pay the rent for the Campbell, currently about $4,400 per month, through December 2014. To avoid having it sit empty for the next two years, the city is negotiating with Bank of the West to buy the property inside the Campbell, according to Michael Chandler, senior management analyst for the city.
Although Schroder said he only wants some of the Willows' former possessions, it appears that Bank of the West won't allow cherry-picking. A bank representative could not be reached for comment.
"The bank made it clear they're in favor of bulk purchases, as opposed to auctions," said Chandler, adding it's possible the two parties will reach a deal in the next month.
Schroder said several theater groups have expressed interest in staging shows at the 160-seat cabaret.
"I would like to see it available to many different theater companies as opposed to just one just because I think it's a great venue and we could use it for all kinds of things," he added.
The bankruptcy case is the final chapter in the Willows saga. Years of struggling to overcome falling ticket sales, rising production costs and declining donor and foundation support finally came to a head in August. After failing to raise at least $40,000, the board of directors canceled the remainder of their performance season and closed the doors for good.
The end of the Willows has left lots of people in the lurch. The bankruptcy filing lists 174 pages of creditors who are owed a total of about $526,000. The roster includes vendors, season ticket holders, credit card companies, utilities and Willows board members who gave the company five-figure personal loans, none of whom will see a dime, according to Dennis Woodard, board president.
"No, they won't be paid. There's nothing there to pay them with," Woodard said.
However, the board did pay about $67,000 in back payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service and the California Employment Development Department, Woodard added.
Federal tax returns show that the Willows ran deficits from 2007 through 2009. When the Willows was unable to raise $350,000 in late 2009, the board closed the Concord theater and subsequently lost about 1,900 season ticket holders. When the board reopened the Concord venue in early 2011, many former patrons didn't return and the company never recovered.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.