Ector Theatre costs soar; venue could be torn down

Projected costs of renovating the Ector Theatre doubled in the past year to about $10.8 million, prompting the Odessa City Council to consider finding a way to pay for the project anyway, scale it back, or tear down the venue and replace it with a new facility.

Whatever the City Council decides, they need to move quickly if they want the Ector Theatre to open around the same time as the rest of the hotel and convention center in summer 2019. A redesign aimed at saving money could take months.

City staff told the City Council about the greater costs during a Tuesday committee meeting, saying a city-hired architect whiffed on earlier estimates that were already greater than the $5 million that the elected officials reserved for the project in early 2016. For years, city officials described the theater renovation as a key piece of the city-supported downtown hotel and convention center that is under construction today.

Mayor David Turner blamed the difficulty now facing the city on San Antonio-based Killis Almond Architects, which specializes in historical theater restorations. Last year the city awarded a contract to the firm for design and management of the Ector Theatre project expected to cost about $800,000.

“The incompetence of this guy infuriates me,” Turner said about the architect. “If this is your industry, by god do your homework.”

Killis Almond declined to comment Wednesday through an associate at the San Antonio office.

As recently as June 2017, city officials expected to spend about $31 million on the downtown hotel and convention center. That did not include a public fountain across the street that city officials planned to build later, but it did include the Ector Theatre costs that have since risen.

By that time, the city had already seen its costs for the downtown hotel and convention center climb by about $1.8 million, attributed to parking and convention space added since the initial design. The City Council also accepted a projected increase in costs of the theater rehabilitation, totaling about $900,000, to expand the stage area so the venue could draw bigger acts and allow for productions like plays.

But city officials say the latest overage of about $5.8 million would be more difficult to absorb, even with sales tax revenue exceeding what the city budgeted for this point in the fiscal year by millions of dollars.

District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, who described the news as “my worst nightmare,” said that he worried the city would be forced to forgo other necessary projects such as a new fire station if the City Council decides to cough up the extra money for the theater.

“If we are going to do it, we’ve got to spend the money, $10.8 million,” Gonzales said. “If not, it’s going to be an embarrassment to associate it with something so nice.”

Gonzales said he had preferred to tear down the Ector Theatre from the beginning and now wants to explore scaling back the project. He said the city needs to include Toby and Sondra Eoff, the private developers in the hotel portion of the project, because the theater supports their investment.

“They are spending over $50 million of their own money with the anticipation that we are going to do this,” Gonzales said. “But we were told … $5 million and now it’s $10.8 million. And we are going to have to answer to somebody about that money eventually. We need firehouses, fire stations. What’s a priority? To me the priority is the fire station.”

Sondra Eoff said Wednesday that she and her husband know the city needs to be prudent with the public money and seek to lower costs of renovating the theater so it’s more feasible.

“We feel confident that they are committed to the downtown project,” Eoff said. “They’ll just make sure — that being part of the project — that it will stay the same quality as the rest of the project.”

But the couple hopes the City Council will opt to renovate the theater instead of tear it down and replace it, even if that means scaling it back.

“We definitely counted on the hotel revenue that would be generated from people attending the Ector Theatre,” Eoff said.

Adding to the challenge of renovating the theater is a tightening construction market amid the latest oil boom.

City officials said construction firms cited housing and labor costs of subcontractors as a major issue.

“We couldn’t be asking for a worse time to be building anything in the City of Odessa than right now,” District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant said.

But Interim City Manager Michael Marrero said the theater plans do not include frills that could be easily scrapped for a cost-savings.

Marrero said new, more realistic estimates for critical parts of the project such as air conditioning and the electrical systems accounted for a significant portion of the increased costs. Expected costs had also spiked for materials such as concrete, masonry and steel.

“The question really becomes: What sort of theater would we like to have?” Marrero said. He said the city could try to scale back the project, but investing in quality sound and an audio/visual setup would still cost significantly. “If you pare it down some, you really lose what you intended to deliver.”

Two separate San Antonio contractors who recently bid on the project estimated almost the same costs — $8.8 million and $8.9 million — supporting the idea that there was little room to save money without redesigning the project, Marrero said. Those bids were lower than the total estimate because the city officials excised other planned work such as restoration of the theater’s sign and chairs because of difficulty finding subcontractors.

Instead, a meaningful savings might lie in making the theater smaller by reducing the stage area. But that would also limit the sorts of performances that the theater could draw.

“I think this bid has prohibited us from properly utilizing the Ector Theatre,” Bryant said, suggesting the city consider tearing the theater down and replacing it with a new free-standing venue.

Demolishing the theater and building a new one would likely cut costs but not down to $5 million, said Tom Kerr, the city’s director of public works and utilities.

“The original projections and estimates of the project were wrong — as clear as that can be,” Kerr said.

A view from the rear balcony walkway that would connect with the new hotel and conference center via an area that currently contains the projection booth. Also shown are stairs from the walkway that go down to seating in the balcony.

Rendering via Killis Almond Architects, P.C.

A rendering view looking at the north wall of the Ector Theatre showing the new seating, balcony and technical spaces.

cEctor Theatre remodel renderingsKillis Almond Architects, P.C.