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Campus clamber

Closure of campus facilities wreaking havoc for JUCO jocks and bohemians alike

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Bakeslee Auditorium was small, old, even bordering on decrepit. Its backstage area often proved deficient, the layout hardly offered a forum conducive to theatre and, outwardly, the building appeared a more likely spot to uncover munitions stores left over from the Truman Administration than any kind of an arts scene.
 

86 FINE ARTS. :  Safety concerns prompted Cuesta College administrators to suddenly close the Blakeslee Auditorium, forcing campus performance groups to find a new venue on the fly. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • 86 FINE ARTS. : Safety concerns prompted Cuesta College administrators to suddenly close the Blakeslee Auditorium, forcing campus performance groups to find a new venue on the fly.
# All things considered, Cuesta College’s tiny little auditorium might not have seemed like much of a facility at all. However, when the building closed at the beginning of this month due to concerns over its structural integrity, the action sent local musicians and performing arts groups into a mad scramble. Some private companies, such as the Ballet Theatre of San Luis Obispo, managed to hunt down new digs at considerable cost, but many campus performing arts groups remain on the lookout a new place to move their already-scheduled shows. For the recently established Cuesta Dance program, the close of the auditorium is the latest obstacle in a short but turbulent history since the group received approval as an academic major last fall.
 
“Everybody was really upset. Most of us heard it through the grapevine—you know—from other groups,� Cuesta dancer Kristina Bennett said. “For us, performance is the whole basis for the class so it was shocking.�
 
On lease from the neighboring National Guard base, Blakeslee was one of several buildings on campus serving educational interests after being retired from military use. Coping with seismic integrity issues in some of its own older buildings, Camp SLO dropped the hint earlier in the year for the school to give the auditorium a full check-up. College officials made the final decision to shut the doors on Blakeslee in early April after a report by engineering firm Taylor and Syfan of Los Osos deemed certain aspects of the structure as possible public safety hazards. Because the campus rests in a geographic wind tunnel and just four clicks off an active fault line, administrators decided to play it safe and close the Blakeslee.
 
For performance-oriented programs like Cuesta Dance, upcoming recitals and rehearsals essential to coursework hinged on the availability of the old campus mainstay. The closing forced instructors to either reschedule or find a new venue at the last minute. Yet, performing arts facilities in the area of appropriate size are limited in number, and the little available space became all the more precious. Some programs learned of the situation at the Blakeslee as late as April 5, leaving less than a month to rebook end-of-semester recitals.

“We have a show in three weeks and we found out just now that they closed the Blakeslee,� dance instructor Jude Clark-Warnisher lamented the day after the closure became official. Just this week she managed to secure a surrogate venue across campus in the new gym for the April 28 recital. “Typically theaters around town are booked up to a year in advance.�

Adding to the dilemma, the cost of securing even a single night at a similar venue—like the PAC’s Alex Faye Spanos Theatre—can reportedly run upwards of $2,000, while a fine arts instructor could book an entire week at the Blakeslee for little more than the cost of light rental. For programs facing the reality of an on-going budget crunch, this extra expense is no trivial figure. School officials point to a possible long-term solution to this dilemma in the form of a proposed campus performing arts center put on hold for quite some time due to budgeting issues. If local voters opt to approve a $310 million bond measure attached to the upcoming June 6 ballot, plans on the new venue will finally move forward.
 
“It’s really a necessary thing,� Clark-Warnisher said. “If we’re going to have these programs like theatre, dance and music, then we need a consistent venue that is available to students and for students primarily.�
 
If constructed, the new PAC would also provide an upgrade to current rehearsal studios deemed inadequate by more than one program. For the Cuesta dancers in particular, who hold their regular classes in a make-shift studio in the physical education building, the lack of appropriate practice space presents other problems. Several Cuesta dancers complained of conditions caused or aggravated by the concrete floor of the existing studio, including injuries to the lower leg, knee and lower back. These problems, Clark-Warnisher said, tend to impact beginner and intermediate level dancers the most. The school hopes to find a solution to the problem, but a lack of funding—which already killed a half-million-dollar plan to retrofit the Blakeslee—makes a new dance studio merely a hope.
 
“It makes us feel like the red-headed step child of the performing arts community here,� dancer Stephanie Johnson said. “Personally I’m really concerned about physical injury. There are some girls who have had problems as a direct result of the floor. I think that’s unacceptable.�
 
Alicea Stewart is one dancer pointing to the floor as a cause of, in her case, an aggravated condition. Twelve years ago, she sustained a hairline fracture in her foot. The injury, she said, hasn’t caused any serious discomfort until recently, when she began spending considerable time in the Cuesta dance studio. One morning a few weeks ago, Stewart woke up to find herself almost unable to walk after spending seven hours in recital on the studio’s concrete floor.
 
“The floor is something that has needed to be taken care for a long time,� Stewart said.
 
Another situation causing problems for students at Cuesta College is the recent decision by Camp San Luis Obispo to terminate a no-cost lease agreement for the old gymnasium, a space currently used for physical education classes and athletic practices. The National Guard decided to reclaim the building in late March due to a prevalent need for more physical training space, a result of increased activity on the base. Beyond the camp’s own pragmatic reasons for taking back the building, Guard officials also believe the structure was not being maintained to the level of what Cuesta agreed to in the pre-existing lease.
 
“We feel we’re in a better position financially to bring the gym up to code,� said Maj. Mark Johnson of Camp San Luis Obispo.
 
Unlike with the Blakeslee, no plans yet exist to replace the facility, since the National Guard’s decision was made after the college drafted the pending bond measure. But the effect of the closure is similar. This time, the greatest inconvenience fell upon the Cuesta student athletes, who will have to adjust their practice schedules for off-peak hours of gym use. But the crisis will be in abeyance because the base has decided to honor the current lease agreement through June 6. Once the building is brought up to code, the National Guard says it will forge a new agreement with the school permitting access to the building on a more limited basis.
 
“It will probably create some serious scheduling problems,� said wrestling coach and instructor Joe Dansby, who estimated he used the old gym about 15 hours a week. “Right now we’re kind of left in the dark; just waiting to see what happens.�
 
In addition to wrestling practices, physical education courses used the old gym for rainy-day classes and the athletic department to coordinate the needs of the mens’ and womens’ basketball teams. Recreational sports teams also held tournaments and league games in the building. Since the closure announcement, administrators at Cuesta’s Division of Physical Education continue to struggle in reconstructing a network of schedules assembled when the old gym was still a campus resource. No timetable yet exists for the pending renovation plans, but the Guard hopes to make the gym available for public use on a space-available basis next fall.
 
“It was a heavily-used facility,� division chairman David Diaz said. “Everything has changed in the past few weeks.�

Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com or drop off some words at www.myspace.com/pmklemz.

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