FREMONT — Movie house or performing arts center? That is the question hanging over the Center Theater.

City officials want to use the 1940s single-screen movie house as an engine to bring more business into the heart of the Centerville district, but they still haven't decided how to go about it.

Later this year, the City Council is expected to choose between competing visions: either a nonprofit community theater and cultural center, or a for-profit second-run movie theater that also serves dinners and drinks.

The Center Theater Preservation Group has been working for years on a plan to turn the venue into a roughly 400-seat performing arts theater that could provide a venue for lectures, films and plays. It also would be a rehearsal space for local arts groups and include offices.

"The whole idea is to try to develop the arts," said John Lind of VenueTech Management Group, the San Francisco-based firm that was hired to develop a theater plan. Council members learned about the preservation group's plan on Tuesday.

Lind envisions the theater hosting events put on by smaller outfits that might not be able to afford Ohlone College's Smith Center or the theater being built at James Logan High School in Union City. Performances would occur 120 nights a year.

The theater also would serve as a cooperative for performing arts groups, which could collaborate on projects and have a home base from which to expand their operations, Lind said.


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The Center Theater has gotten little use in recent years as single-screen theaters have become money losers. The city is so eager to do something with the theater that it has invested more than $100,000 on two studies even though it doesn't own the property.

Earlier this year, the council received a recommendation from AMS Planning and Research that touted the theater's potential as a food and film venue — a concept that has proved successful in Portland, Ore., but less so in the Bay Area. Two such venues — in Oakland and El Cerrito — closed earlier this year.

Once the council chooses a plan, it still will have to buy the theater from owner, David Siddiq, who didn't attend Tuesday's meeting. Siddiq also hasn't returned calls from The Argus, but Mayor Bob Wasserman said Siddiq is willing to sell.

Wasserman prefers the performing arts concept, which he thought had a better chance of success than the movie theater-and-restaurant idea.

Councilmember Bill Harrison said he was undecided.

The movie option likely wouldn't bring as many people to Centerville, he said, but it wouldn't require as big an investment from the city, which doesn't have funds to subsidize the theater's operation.

It would take an estimated $7.4 million to renovate the theater into a performing arts center with space for nonprofit arts groups, Lind said. That doesn't include the cost of buying the theater from Siddiq.

The preservation group is seeking a commitment from the city to go with the theater option so its members can start working with performing arts groups and fundraising to set up a $3 million endowment for the theater's operation.

Reach Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002 or martz@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog posts at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat/.