East of Excalibur
Steinbeck Center finds a white knight – the city of Salinas – to pay its rent.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
While Saturday night attendees to the fantasy-themed Steinbeck Festival were treated to a medieval feast, the National Steinbeck Center, in reality, is rationing its food. Museum visits are down more than 20 percent compared to this time last year. Donations and grants have dipped, and at the center’s request, the city of Salinas is now covering the nonprofit’s rent.
President and CEO Steve Hoffman says the organization has never shifted from a start-up to a stable nonprofit. “Its been operating for 10 years, and it’s been surviving,” Hoffman says. “We would like to really figure out how best to stabilize the organization.”
Part of the plan includes debt relief. For two years, the city will shoulder the building’s $180,000-a-year bond payments; the money will come from the Redevelopment Agency’s budget. “Some redevelopment projects will get put on hold,” City Manager Artie Fields says.
In September the council will review the details, Fields says, when the city grapples with how to fill a $3 million budget deficit this fiscal year. The city has already cut $13.2 million, including freezing 15 police positions.
“We need every cent to be able to maintain services for the community,” Councilman Sergio Sanchez says. While the majority of the council didn’t hesitate to help the literary museum, which is the keystone of Salinas’ downtown revival, Sanchez voted against the plan, in part because he didn’t want to subsidize the center, but says he has mixed feelings because he understands it’s a city asset worth protecting.
Mayor Dennis Donohue agrees that the Steinbeck Center is too important to let fail. “It’s just a critical part of the future of the city and we are going to work with them,” he says.
The Steinbeck Center has a break-even $1.4 million budget this year. In January, the center announced a 20 percent cutback, including laying off five staffers. But this hasn’t stopped the center from offering quality programs and growing membership by 25 percent, Hoffman says.
Vinegar in the Valley, a Steinbeck Center-produced documentary about Salinas Valley labor struggles that premiered at the museum in June, will be shown in film festivals across Canada, Hoffman says. The center has also boosted its collaborations, he says, partnering with SpectorDance and Monterey Jazz Festival on events.
“It’s a struggle for all nonprofits to either be perceived as extraneous or of value or of necessity,” Hoffman says. “We are a necessity from an aspect of an economic impact in the community, as an attraction for Monterey County.”
For the center’s flagship festival this past weekend, Hoffman says, the organization was successful in appealing to a broader range of people – not just white-haired Steinbeck nerds – by giving the event an Arthurian theme with a Renaissance Faire vibe. “We had more people coming that didn’t know a lot about Steinbeck,” he says.
Hoffman estimates 1,000 people attended the four-day festival, adding that passport sales doubled compared to last year. The museum is looking ahead to next year’s theme – Steinbeck Around the World – and hoping to ride out the famine.