Which does the city need more — a fire truck or a performing arts center?

A pesky new wrinkle appeared as the Susanville City Council contemplated spending $2.6 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds during a Special Meeting held Tuesday, April 24 when the city revealed it needs a new fire truck that could cost more than $1 million.

After much discussion and public comment, the council unanimously approved Resolution No 24-63094, authorizing expenditures of $75,000 for interior repairs at Susanville City Hall; $520,000 for repairs and replacement of the roof and heating system at the Susanville Fire Department; $250,000 for interior and exterior improvements and roof repair at the Susanville Police Department; $159,000 for a marketing campaign to promote economic recovery and tourism in Susanville’ and $200,00 (half the cost) for an update of the General Plan, a document guiding the future development and growth of Susanville.

That expenditure of about $1.2 million leaves about $1.4 million for other projects and ideas for ways to use the unspent ARPA funds, including a $1 million request for the Susanville Symphony Society to purchase and remodel Sierra Theatre as a performing arts center on Main Street in Uptown Susanville.

Supporters of the performing arts center and other projects appeared before the council to pitch their ideas.

Carolyn Smith, the owner of the theater and Uptown Cinemas, said the theatre has never recovered from COVID, in part because people can stream so many movies at home. She said she has a $360,000 loan on the theatre building, and her family has been making the payments by selling real estate they own. She said the theatre has lost $100,000 per year for the last two years. She hopes to sell the theatre, pay off most of the USDA loan balance or she may have to close the historic theatre by the end of August.

Local musician Thomas Braun said the council should consider the value of art to a civilization. Singer Julie Anne Pepetone said she grew up in the performing arts community, and she would be willing to volunteer 5 years of her time to help run the center. She said finding volunteers and raising funds wouldn’t be a problem. She said if the center got started, a bigger ball would get rolling. “The only thing we don’t have,” she said, “is a venue.

Abby Datema said the arts are not a luxury item and that art is the language of the soul. She said while most of us spend a lot of time consuming art, a performing arts center is a place where art will be created.

One person opposed to the performing arts center pointed out that Susanville is not Ashland, Oregon, and the council should invest in advertising and social media. He also said the decision to combine the leadership of the police and fire departments was bad, and he also called on the council to suspend the recently voter-approved sales tax increase.

Larry Rogers said the council directed staff to consider helping the Elks Lodge, but that decision was not noted in the city’s plan. He said that discouraged him.

Lassen County District 1 Supervisor Chris Gallagher.

Lassen County District 1 Supervisor Chris Gallagher said the performing arts center project was not about the organization, but it is about economic development and bringing people to the community.

Dr. Ray White said the Susanville Symphony would purchase the building and remodel it and when they were done, we could be better than Ashland.

“We have lots of ideas,” White said, “we just have to get them started.”

Sysanville Symphony Maestro Ben Wade.

Susanville Symphony Maestro Ben Wade offered perhaps the evening’s most emotional comments.

“The symphony does not want the Sierra Theatre,” Wade said. “I want to be the first to say that. We don’t want it. OK. The community wants it.”

He said he supplied the council with a list of all the performing arts groups that formed a “task force” to support a performing arts center.

“This will not survive with just the symphony having it,” Wade said, “so we wanted to encompass all the performing arts groups to have and to use and to make Uptown into a vibrant, light-filled street and a couple of blocks … This community has something incredibly special and unique … Make no mistake about it, you guys have a very difficult task ahead of you. There’s a lot of people asking for a lot of money. That’s a difficult position to be in. As a leader I know if you make everyone happy, you’re not doing your job. You’ve got to make people, unfortunately, upset. Why are we here? Are we here to do the status quo? Are we here to say we checked all the boxes and say, ‘I did my job?’ … You’re here because you want to change Susanville. Everyone here sitting in those chairs wants Susanville to be great. How can we achieve that? How can we achieve that together?

“The symphony is asking on behalf of the entire city of Susanville, the entire county of Lassen to so something truly great … If you can change one person’s life, you lived a life worth living. If you change a group of people’s lives, then you’re beginning to leave a legacy. If you change the entire trajectory of the history of a town by having its first performing arts center dedicated to culture and the arts and the vibrancy of youth, then you are writing history.”

Following public comment, the matter returned to the council and councilmembers asked about the marketing plan, the need for a fire engine, other projects to be considered including repairs to the tennis courts, a mower for the golf course, upgrades to the golf course’s irrigation system, bathrooms at the Little League Park, storage for the museum, code enforcement, the pool and abatement and the city hall debt.

City Councilmember Curtis Bortle.

Councilmember Curtis Bortle said the one question the council should be asking regarding the ARPA funds is, “How do we protect the public interest?”

He said if the city gave money to the Elks Lodge and the club goes broke, does the city own the building?

Councilmember Patrick Parrish followed that line — “Do we get our money back, and the taxpayers get what?”

Mayor Mendy Schuster said she wanted to provide storage for the historical society and that the tennis court area needs to be cleaned up, supported improvements at the Little League field and the golf course and the city’s debt, but a fire truck may be a bigger need. She said she’d like to help save the theatre but she wondered how the taxpayers would benefit.

Parrish said he wants to see a more developed business plan from the symphony before he makes up his mind.

City Administrator Dan Newton added that the city has other funds that could be used to purchase a fire truck, including $580,000 from PG&E.

He said city staff would gather more information and put together projects for the council to consider.

The council also approved the council’s committee list.