The Record
By Michael Fitzgerald

Over the years, I have watched the various local initiatives of A.G. Spanos Cos., Stockton’s biggest development company, with a mixture of admiration and concern. Admiration because billionaire Alex Spanos and his family have an ingredient sorely lacking in San Joaquin Valley culture, the ambition to reach above the status quo. Concern because the family’s sometimes closed corporate culture occasionally gets an idea in its collective head that seems at odds with this city’s best interests. Such an idea is before the City Council now. The Spanos Co. is asking to change General Plan language that forbids new multiplex movie theaters outside downtown.

The company wants to build a 16-screen theater as a centerpiece of a “lifestyle center” upscale shopping center itenvisions at Interstate 5 and Eight Mile Road. Again, admiration and concern. Admiration because, from what I have seen, the lifestyle center would be a classy affair that makes for much more therapeutic shopping.

Concern because the project may kill downtown. It may kill downtown because it may kill City Centre Cinemas 16, the downtown multiplex that, more than anything, has helped downtown to revive. “That Cineplex is doing well because half their customers come from north of March Lane,” said Steve Pinkerton, redevelopment director.

“And even under the best-case scenario, where we still have half the people, we would be below the threshold that makes that Cineplex profitable,” he said.The city’s contract with the multiplex obligates taxpayers to make up losses caused by a new multiplex for 20 years. Such a fiasco is quite possible. A second multiplex would also weaken everything from the waterfront arena to debt service on the marina scheduled for construction in 2008, Pinkerton said.

Plus, potential downtown investors would be discouraged. Wait a minute, says attorney Steve Herum, speaking for the Spanos Cos. The widely held assumptions about Stockton’s movie market are opinions, not market studies. In fact, a real economic impact analysis has yet to be done. And it should be done as part of an open public process which the Spanos Cos. understands is necessary, Herum said.

If, after a top consultant’s analysis, environmental review, extensive deliberations by staff and the council – even a threatened Sierra Club lawsuit – a north-side multiplex is deemed harmful, an informed council can vote it down,Herum said. But close analysis of the multiplex’s impact should come first. Until then, “People who make it more than it is are shadow-boxing ghosts,” said Herum. He contends the two theaters won’t conflict.

“What I see evolving in downtown is more of an adult – I mean mature – entertainment,” Herum said. “In theory, if we’re going to try to put in nice jazz bars, nice restaurants, it may be that Saturday night when you have a baby sitter you go downtown,” but on other nights you might go to the lifestyle center.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily true that people will only go downtown only go out north,” Herum said. “People will go for different experiences.”

So the question before the council is whether to go with the consensus of experts such as Pinkerton or to give the Spanos Cos. its day in court, so to speak. Another issue: If it is fair to ask developers to wait, how long is fair? Former Mayor Gary Podesto suggests eight to 10 years. The Spanos Co. mentions 2012, five years.

Councilman Clem Lee may have the right answer: “As long as it takes.”The bigger issue is the need for city land-use policy to mature past decades of piecemeal development approved without regard for the city overall. It’s time to look at projects holistically, not just as a subdivision here or there.

Toward that end, the Spanos Cos. would have a stronger case if its actions over the years demonstrated more concern for downtown.