Bid to Save Venice Circus Arena Advances
By TERRY O'CONNOR, Correspondent
VENICE - The Venice City Council took a big step toward allowing preservation of the former circus arena north of the Circus Bridge this week when it pulled $250,000 in demolition costs out of the budget, giving restoration organizers some breathing room.
Buy photo HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE / FEBRUARY 2010
"They have a deadline this fall to give us a sense of what their business plan looks like," said Mayor Ed Martin. "At that point, council could say we're not going to hold off any more and we're vigorously going to seek other options or let this play out. If it's not possible to save it, it's not possible and we'll have to see what we can do for an encore."
Fifth-generation trapeze artist Tito Gaona swayed the council with his vision of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus museum to fill the void left when the circus departed in 1991. His quixotic seven-year quest to save the building from rotting, however, is far from assured.
When the last tenant left in 2000, city officials estimated it would cost $450,000 to rehabilitate the 5,100-seat arena. Now it is falling apart, with rusted holes in the roof, and Gaona's Circus Foundation estimates renovation costs at $10 million.
The gaping chasm between needed funding and the $30,000 raised in restoration donations so far does not discourage Gaona.
"In these times it's been hard but the city came to a moment, and saw we took responsibility, and they are giving us a chance," Gaona said. "They left it so long, why not work with us?"
Gaona said the first repair job is to fix the roof. The Circus Foundation has applied for numerous grants to pay for repairs.
"We've already cleaned it up," he said. "Our engineers and architects are looking into stopping the water from leaking and getting it into a shape presentable to people."
Renovating the circus property and preserving its history is not enough. Federal law requires any operation must be a revenue producer for the airport fund because it sits on airport property.
Martin said any arena would be challenged to make money. But he is excited about preserving the historic tradition of Venice with a functional arena that could attract tourists and be used for events.
"Since nobody else is beating on the door the city isn't losing anything by letting the foundation try to pull this together," Martin said. "They've put a lot of sweat equity into it already -- 200 people showed on a hot day to pull weeds. It deserves as much latitude as we can give."
Gaona said giving up on historic city buildings is usually followed by regret. "It's easy to take down everything," he said. "And at the end they say, 'Man, I wish they would have kept it.' "
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