Putting off the Ritz: Theater renovation stalls

With funding uncertain and construction delayed, the Ritz Theater renovation project may have broken ground, but will it ever actually be finished./The Grapevine

A much ballyhooed church project to renovate and re-purpose the abandoned, and historic, Ritz Theater in downtown Escondido will be delayed. Considering the historic failures of numerous groups seeking to re-purpose this long-abandoned historic theater over the years, the question is will it even happen.

Promoted prominently by Escondido’s then-mayor Sam Abed and his allies, New Vintage Church (NVC) received unanimous approval from Escondido council members last December to proceed with an ambitious project to renovate the long-abandoned Ritz Theater on Grand Avenue at downtown Escondido.

The so-called “Grand Project” broke ground, city officials in tow and with ceremonial shovels, in April 2019 with church leaders saying, “Residents of Escondido can anticipate ‘The Grand Opening’ by Christmas of 2019.”

New Vintage Church Pastor Tim Spivey in front of Escondido’s Ritz Theater on Grand Avenue./New Vintage Church

Led by New Vintage founder and senior pastor Tim Spivey, leaders envisioned conversion of the historic 80-year-old theater that had once shown Hollywood blockbusters, later falling into disrepute as the adult-themed Pussycat Theater, into a dual-purpose church sanctuary and theater that would be made available to the public for use as well.

“NVC has worked closely with a world-class team of architects, city planning officials, and construction experts to be intentional in honoring the historical significance of the Ritz Theater,” church leaders said on its project website, “utilizing the art-deco elements that are reminiscent of that theater’s ‘Golden Era’ and creating an exterior structure consistent with other significant Escondido buildings such as City Hall.”

The ambitious project also called for an adjacent single-story building at the southeast intersection of Grand and Juniper Street that is now home to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio and several smaller businesses will be razed, according to Harry Jones of the San Diego Union Tribune. It would be replaced with a two-story structure to house church offices and meeting rooms geared toward children’s activities, as well as a coffee house and other businesses,” Jones said.

New Vintage Church Pastor Tim Spivey told the UT said he expected construction to begin in February or March 2019. He said the theater should be finished in time for 2019 Christmas Eve service, but the adjacent building likely would not be completed until early 2020.

Not so fast, Ke-mo sah-bee

Video, above, about a Ritz Theater construction issue posted first week of August 2019 on New Vintage Church Facebook page.

Apparently, the timetable has been delayed even further, according to Mayra Salazar, community relations director for “The Grand Project.” Replying by e-mail to questions, she said, “We are extremely thrilled and pleased with the overwhelming support from our community, local businesses and elected officials. Demolition has been completed on the corner building and restoration of The Ritz Theater has begun. This week abatement is being completed on the roof as well. We are currently on schedule to be open early next year.”

When pressed on the reasons for the delay, and for details on project funding, however, Salazar said, “There have been a couple of factors all in the nature of construction. We are currently not giving a firm opening date but as soon as we have one, I will let you know. We are funding the project through the sell (sic) of our previous building, private donors and financing.”

Pressed further for answers pertaining to the project delay and funding, Salazar said, “We have plenty of money to complete the project. Due to the manner in which you have been communicating, we will no longer be working with you to provide project information.”

Some of the funding for the project, according to officials last December, would come from the sale of the church’s current building at the corner of 13th and Juniper streets. Spivey said it was likely the current church would be sold before the new one was complete, but that arrangements to hold services elsewhere will be made.

The New Vintage Church Facebook page says, “Meeting Location: 340 N Escondido Blvd 92025 Escondido, California.” It was unclear whether the church property has been sold.

The Pussycat Theater circa 1970s./Courtesy

This was a plan long in the making, Spivey told The Coast News in a July 2018 interview. He said his church’s board of directors voted to authorize paying Plain Joe Studios to help put together the proposal at the beginning of 2018.

“Spivey said New Vintage, a Church founded in 2011, has $7 to $10 million committed to pouring into the project, but said the church would prefer that the city of Escondido green light the project by the end of the year,” according to Steve Horn of The Coast News.

Although the church would own the building, religious-based content would only make up 10-to-15 percent of its total activities, Spivey said. That would include Sunday morning church gatherings. Under Spivey’s proposal, for the rest of the time, the building could be rented out to the general public, which he saw as a “gift” of sorts to Escondido, according to Horn.

Spivey has said the church imagines showing vintage movies at the theater at low cost and selling popcorn for perhaps 25 cents a bag. He said theater groups will use the full stage that will be built in front of the huge screen.

The Ritz Theater opened in 1938 with about 800 seats. The remodel likely would call for nearly 600 seats. The theater was popular until 1951, according to the website cinematreasures.org, when a fire gutted the interior. It reopened in 1954, but never again did as much business.

In 1970, it became an X-rated movie house called the Pussycat Theater that the city was able to shut down after a few years. The theater went through a couple other rebrands and remodels, but eventually closed for good in 2003. Several efforts between then, and now, to renovate, and revitalize, the property resulted in what the little boy shot at — nothing — although the site has been the scene of several lawsuits.

Alrighty then…

New Vintage Church plans to complete renovation of the abandoned Ritz Theater on the corner of Grand Avenue and Juniper Street in Escondido, as envisioned by a church illustration, have been delayed by unspecified construction issues./PlainJoeStudios

New Vintage Church seemingly has turned this project into a fundraising and publicity vehicle of the first order.

The church began its publicity outreach at least as early as August 2018 when a commercial Christian “Live Sermon Network” called AMBO TV published a puff piece on the project saying, “The New Vintage Church in Escondido, Cali. (sic) is gifting its city with a renovated theater for both movies and stage productions. The move is one that the church hopes to begin next year so that it can host services and allow people to come watch old movies at discounted prices.

AMBO TV  added: “The San Diego county (sic) church has set its sights on more than just the theater. It has plans to purchase another commercial building near the church along with build a new two-story property. The hopes are to build a restaurant or cafe along with another place to serve children and teens in the downtown Escondido community. Pastor Tim Spivey leads the New Vintage Church and considers the building to be a gift.”

Interestingly,  the church apparently got off the ground, according to AMBO TV, with a land deal as well. “In 2011, New Vintage Church leased the building from Hidden Valley Christian Church,” AMBO said. “When Hidden Valley Christian Church could no longer manage the building, they gave it to New Vintage Church to take over. After receiving the gift of their church home, Spivey believes the church has been given the opportunity to pay their blessings forward.”

Spivey told The San Diego Union-Tribune“The church was given to us and we feel we now have a chance of giving something back to somebody else. It’s a big old gift to the city. That’s how we see it.”

Who is Tim Spivey and what is New Vintage Church

In a December 2017 profile in the San Diego Reader, Spivey said he was a 41-year-old Long Beach native who had been in the ministry for 20 years following “formation” at Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University. He said New Vintage Church had 400 members.

“There is a worldview clash between Christianity and the world that is different from what it’s been,” Spivey said. “In the past, you might have been able to pick out a handful of social issues and say that, while Christianity might say one thing about it and secular society as a whole might say another thing, they could peacefully coexist. Right now, though, it’s a very anxious, volatile environment in the world. The challenge is in keeping people focused on Christianity and show how Christianity has an impact on their politics, as opposed to getting political and hoping to fit God in somewhere.”

Spivey’s Linkedin page lists himself as a pastor, professor, trustee, and author listing his specialties as “Public Speaking, Church/Organizational health, Church/Organizational growth, Church multiplication, Conflict Management, Church Finance, Church Mergers and Dissolutions.”

Spivey also lists himself as an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University from May 2012 — Present. However, Pepperdine University’s “Meet the Pepperdine Faculty” listing that includes “Pepperdine’s more than 700 distinguished faculty members” including adjunct faculty, does not list Spivey as an adjunct faculty member there.

Before starting New Vintage Church in 2011, his previous job listing was as senior minister from August 2002 to August 2008 at Highland Oaks Church of Christ, a Dallas, Texas megachurch with over 2,000 members.

Spivey’s Linkedin page omitted mention of his position as senior minister at Escondido’s North County Church of Christ (NCCC), from which he resigned in December 2010 after apparently beginning service in August 2008. At his blog spot, TimSpivey.com, through which he announced his “New Vintage leadership,” Spivey said:

“Friday morning, the NCCC Elders received the resignation of the NCCC Finance Team. That resignation was followed by my own, as well as those of Peter Wilson (Worship Minister), DJ Iverson (Youth Minister) and Randy Armstrong (Minister of Administration and Small Groups)…

“I made this decision with absolute conviction, and after roughly 18 months of observing questionable leadership and behavior as it pertained to our church’s financial crisis. I made all of the calls for repentance and course change I am capable of. In the end, the Finance Team, myself and Randy Armstrong (church administrator) called humbly for the elders to resign. They declined, while offering an option I believed would further divide and damage the church. So, the NCCC Finance Team along with the 4 ministers mentioned above, tendered our resignations with heavy hearts and yet full conviction.”

Spivey then founded New Vintage as “a non-denominational church that launched in 2011 with a vision to cultivate a healthy church environment where all people, no matter their faith background, will encounter the transforming love of God, be welcomed into authentic community, and grow into mature followers of Christ.”

Under the heading of “Where are we going now” Spivey’s church said, “NVC is currently on the move! God has given us an exciting, fresh vision to restore the vintage “golden-era” Ritz Theater on Grand Avenue.  In the historic arts district of our city, this stunning new multi-use performing arts complex will house not only our church gatherings, but everything from youth theater groups, to cinema and concerts, to a corner coffee shop and private events at the scenic rooftop lounge.

“The vision for this fresh approach to being the church is to bless our city with a welcoming space that will have multiple uses and build positive, trusting relationships with those in our community who don’t know Jesus.”

North County Church of Christ and the city of golden debt

North County Church of Christ, September 2015/NCCC Facebook

North County Church of Christ continues to meet at Del Lago Academy, 1740 Scenic Way, Escondido. But, oh, what a long and wilding road, it took to get from here to there.

The 550-member church, that calls itself the largest Church of Christ congregation in San Diego County, met at San Pasqual High School from March 2017 to November 2017. Prior to the high school, the church met at several locations in Escondido, including Woodward Avenue and 7th and Orange avenues, over the previous five decades.

Following the nation’s last economic collapse in 2007, First Citizens Bank & Trust Company purchased the church’s property debt from the collapsed Temecula Valley Bank (TVB) through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) after the FDIC was appointed receiver for TVB. The bank sued the church, claiming the loan was obtained fraudulently. The church countersued First Citizens saying the deed was not valid and therefore void.

Following a six-day bench trial, “the court found (1) the Church official who obtained the secured loan from TVB committed fraud against the Church; (2) TVB was on “inquiry notice” of the fraud and did not engage in due diligence before approving the loan; and (3) the Church failed to disclose the fraud to First-Citizens after the Church learned of the encumbrance. The final judgment imposed a new deed of trust that secured only a portion of the prior debt.”

Both parties appealed the ruling. The case finally was settled in February 2015 by the Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division One.

“We determine the court had no jurisdiction to consider the Church’s challenges to the validity of the deed of trust because the Church failed to exhaust its administrative remedies under FIRREA. (§ 1821(d)(13)(D).) We thus conclude the court erred in rejecting First-Citizens’ claim that the deed of trust was valid. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and order the court to enter a new judgment in First-Citizens’ favor on its declaratory relief claim and on the Church’s cross-complaint.”

Temecula Valley Bank employees wait inside after FDIC officials shut down operations on July 17, 2009./File

What a tangled web, the story weaves. For more information, visit the legal decision published here.

The upshot of it was the church Board of Elders around 2004 delegated many of its financial powers to Paul Winter, a long-time church leader and successful investor who donated substantial sums to the church.

Winter used the church property as collateral “in order to borrow against it and earn a profitable return,” he said, for the church’s benefit.

In about February 2008, according to court filings, a TVB senior vice president called Winter and asked if he was still interested in a loan secured by the property.

Without notifying the Board, Winter said he was interested and prepared documentation to transfer the property to his Western Christian Foundation (WCF) and obtain loan approval from the bank’s underwriting department. This documentation included a grant deed signed by Winter transferring the property from the church to WCF; an unsigned church corporate resolution authorizing the transfer; and a leaseback agreement with the church. Winter did not disclose the documentation to the Board, and TVB never communicated with any other church official regarding the proposed loan.

Several months later, in August 2008, TVB approved the loan. Without obtaining reauthorization from the Board or disclosing the transaction, Winter (on WCF’s behalf) obtained a $3.8 million line of credit secured by a deed of trust on the property now owned by WCF. At the time, the property was valued at about $6.35 million.

Winter then invested a portion of the borrowed funds in short-term high interest real estate mortgage loans. In about May 2009, the federal government took over those investment funds as part of a criminal investigation and these funds were ultimately lost.

Paul Winter, 70, with an Escondido home address, was listed by the California Secretary of State as president of American Guaranteed Investments Inc., an active corporation. That same Winter also was listed as president of the inactive Western Christian Foundation. Other inactive corporations dating to 2004 with Winter listed as president included USA Reo Inc. National Asset Guaranty Corporation, American Secured Capital Corporation, Paduga Investments Inc. and American Secured Capital Fund.

Winter could not be reached for comment.

Enter Timothy Spivey

“The Church retained Timothy Spivey as the head minister, and gave him significant control over the Church’s finances and budget,” according to the appeals court decision. “In investigating the Church’s assets, Spivey was surprised to learn WCF owned the Property and the Property had been encumbered with the Deed of Trust securing the WCF loan. At that point, Winter had withdrawn about $2.7 million from the credit line, and about $1.1 million remained.”

On September 16, 2009, Spivey notified the Board of these facts. The Board members were initially “stunned, caught off guard.” The next day the Board members had a lengthy meeting with Winter. After the meeting, the Board members told Spivey the Board had authorized the Property transfer and the secured loan “for the purpose of [Winter and WCF] being able to bring in more revenue” to the Church. They said they understood and agreed that WCF would borrow against the Property and invest the loan proceeds to further WCF’s financial support of the Church.”

When Spivey recommended that the Board remove Winter as treasurer and compel him to immediately pay back the borrowed money, the Board members disagreed, believing Spivey “lacked understanding of [Winter], his personal wealth situation, his motives.” They said Winter “has gobs of money . . . [and if] he wanted to pay it back, he could”; Winter was a powerful man and a very large donor to the Church; and Winter would “take it as a sign of distrust if they were to ask him those questions or to request that he give the money back on the spot.”

They expressed “confidence that if any money had been borrowed, it would be paid back very easily, so it really was no big deal,” and that Winter would succeed in recovering the seized funds. They instructed Spivey not to tell the Church’s finance team about the Property transfer and loan. Spivey testified that when he recommended that the Board take steps to freeze the line of credit, the Board members rejected this suggestion, stating they “felt like I was not understanding [Winter], his capacity for wealth, his motives. They felt like I was making a big deal of something that was really not a very big deal.”

The church paid off the loan for a few months after that before going into default. Then, the case bounced through courts and appeals for several years. Final judgment called for the church to repay about $1.8 million.

Meanwhile, back, back, back to the fabulous Ritz Theater past

Ritz’n it up/The Grapevine

The property at 301 E. Grand Avenue opened as a “companion building” to the Ritz in 1937 and was known as the Grand Market, which sold “fine foods” and had the city’s first grocery carts, according to a Historical Resource Report document provided to The Coast News.

Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson opened the theater on Sept. 1, 1937, with the film “Broadway Melody of 1938,” according to an undated post at Cinema Treasures and article in the North County Times. Audience members played keno between double-features through the 1940s.

It showed three different double-features a night. Wednesday nights were 10 cents. It was highly successful until 1951 when a fire gutted the interior. It reopened in 1954 with a higher ceiling and a rebuilt roof. Charred wood still can be seen on some walls and floors upstairs.

However, the rebuilt theater didn’t fare so well with television, this time, blamed for its decline.

It managed to stay open, but around 1970 became an X-rated movie house called the Pussycat Theater. The theater manager was arrested when a movie was thought to be “obscene.” The theater was reopened with family films in 1976 and renamed the Bijou Theater, but the venture failed. The theater was remodeled again in 1981 and featured Spanish language films.

The theater was renamed once more in 1993 as the Big Screen Theater and showed art films, but that did not last long. According to Steve Horn of the Coast News, the Historical Timeline and City Review Proposal published in July 2010 said the last films to play at the Ritz were a double-feature in 1998, screening the films “Mortal Kombat” and “Star Kid.”

It was listed for sale in 2003 as a 8,400-square-feet building with 800 seats, and “closed.”

The theater opened briefly again in 2003, once more called by its original name, the Ritz Theater. However, the double bill only format lasted all of nine days and the theater closed again.

The last major action at the Ritz took place in October 2003, when a utility company truck, crashed through the walls of the building during an accident. The driver, who suffered a heart attack at the wheel of the truck, died.

Other proposals considered during the early 2000s included turning the Ritz into a cabaret dinner theater and events venue. Some residents during this time claimed the theater was haunted, but no concrete proof of that rumor could be found.

The Ritz stands as one of only two single-screen movie theaters in North County. The other one, La Paloma Theatre, is still open for business on a daily basis in downtown Encinitas.

The Chuck and Leona Borough era: 2003-2006

Chuck and Leona Borough, who owned the Ritz 2003-2006 and unsuccessfully tried to develop it./File

Chuck and Leona Borough bought the theater in Summer 2003.

Borough, 62 at the time, was a computer programmer and retired Navy physicist who lived just blocks away from the Grand Avenue theater with his wife, Leona, according to Gary Warth of the North County Times.

Seeing the abandoned and neglected theater sparked something in Borough, who suggested to his wife that they buy the building after his retirement. She balked, and they instead invested in a couple of houses.

Leona Borough warmed to the idea after realizing its potential for children’s plays. The couple had been married 38 years and had five children and 13 grandchildren, including triplets born in January 2003. They sold the houses and paid $475,000 for the theater.

Estimated cost to refurbish the vintage single-screen theater was between $1 million and $2 million.

Having put $90,000 of their own money in improvements, Borough didn’t think he could continue to finance all the work that the theater still needed, Warth said. “The building has gone into and fallen out of escrow twice, with potential buyers envisioning converting the building into a combination theater and nightclub or restaurant,” Warth said.

Borough said he had not sought out buyers, but had a long list of people who had contacted him with interest.

“My little dream is that Escondido ends up owning the theater,and the people know they own it,” he said. “Just the people’s theater. I think that’d be really cool.”

Until then, Borough said, he would keep cleaning up the building, getting it in shape for the day when somebody took the big plastic letters out of storage and spelled “Grand Reopening” on the marquee.

Spoiler alert: Never happened.

In 2010 and 2011, another proposal to convert the Ritz Theatre into a three-story cabaret performance dinner theater also fell by the wayside because it would be too costly to update the outdated sewer and water pipe system housed in the octogenarian building, according to The Coast News. For the proposed developer in that case, Janie Maguire, the costs were already climbing above $2 million.

Maguire ended up suing her real estate agents at Superior Court of San Diego County in 2011, alleging they had misled her on the “obstacles to develop the property,” according to a ruling made by the California Court of Appeals in 2016. The Court of Appeals agreed with Maguire, awarding her over $180,000 in damages.

She had originally purchased the property for $950,000, with $875,000 in financing, according to the Appeals Court ruling. Yet, after the offer was accepted by the seller, the deal was reneged because the seller said she was an “uninformed buyer” and did not realize all of the additional costs she would incur to revamp the building going forward.

Which brings us to the latest New Vintage new venture proposal

Enthusiasm for the project amongst the New Vintage Church flock seems unbounded.

However, the fact that so many attempts to revive the Ritz have ended in spectacular failure raises serious questions about whether this latest incarnation ever will reach fruition.

New Vintage Grand Project officials being so tight-lipped about their plans, construction schedule, opening date and financing also raise far more questions than they answer.

Only time will tell whether Spivey and his congregation ever finish the project. Send them your thoughts and prayers.

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