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After much debate, Event Center opened 10 years ago as state-of-the-art facility

By Mike Wood

Staff writer


Wednesday, December 6 (9:30 a.m.): To many, the Event Center still seems new. While its pristine design and décor remain fresh and aesthetically appealing, the reality is that it is now 10 years old.

In that first decade, the center has hosted myriad community-wide events, from town halls, forums, festivals and fairs such as the Diversity Festival, Health Fair and the Home Show, and countless concerts and club gatherings.

What sets this facility apart is that it is a community-gathering place, GRF General Manager Jeff Matheson said.

“It can host performances where residents can laugh, sing and dance; it can host social gatherings for meals and dancing; it can host town halls; and so much more,” Matheson said. “For a community this size, it is vital to have this type of gathering facility for all these critical events.”

The grand opening of the $12.7 million, 20,000-square-foot center began Dec. 6, 2013, with a ribbon-cutting and open house, followed the next two days by a variety of shows called “Putting It Together,” which drew capacity crowds.

Well before ground was broken, there was considerable debate, controversy and even protesting about its costs, and where or whether it should be built.

Before the Event Center, many major events and concerts took place at Del Valle’s Sierra Room, a converted gymnasium that once housed sports and other events for Del Valle High School, which closed in 1979.

Building the Event Center meant that the old gym could eventually be completely remodeled into the current Tice Creek Fitness Center, which opened in 2018. Before the Event Center opened, the Recreation Department did its best to dress up the old gym for shows.

“We smoke-and-mirrored it enough; you can make a room come to life with staging,” said Brian Pennebaker, Recreation’s events coordinator. “It served its purpose.”

Former longtime Rossmoor News managing editor Maureen O’Rourke said something better was needed.

“At Del Valle, you went in there and you felt like you were in a gym,” she said. “It was not a pleasant place.”

O’Rourke spent almost 40 years with the News, serving as its managing editor from 1984 until retiring in 2019. She saw her fair share of debates, discussions and rancor over proposals. In this case, the reality proved to be a home run.

“As they say, ‘If you build it, people will come,’” O’Rourke said. “It won people over. It surpassed people’s expectations.”

When Matheson came to Rossmoor in September 2010 as the new director of resident services, the Creekside project was nearing completion, agreements with Creekside Grill were being finalized, and the new Golf Shop was preparing to open.

Buildings for Creekside Clubhouse, Communications, Public Safety and Golf Maintenance were the first part of a master plan that also included the Event Center and had been approved by the Walnut Creek Planning Department. The GRF Board then quickly transitioned to the planning and construction of the Event Center, Matheson said.

Initial controversy, he said, came from the proposed site being in front of Dollar House and elimination of what had been the original 18th green of Dollar Ranch Golf Course, which had become a practice green.

Concerns about Dollar House led to the formation of the grassroots residents group Save Our Stanley (SOS), which at one point presented a petition to the GRF Board with over 2,800 signatures against the proposed location. The group eventually worked to have the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The golf community had concerns about the loss of the practice area and the impact of additional events and congestion in that area. And some were concerned about impacting the coupon, Matheson said.

“Finally, we had various groups with competing interests in how the facility was designed,” Matheson said. “Was it a performance venue or was it a social hall? Ultimately, it had to be multipurpose.”

The GRF Board approved the plan by a 7 to 2 vote in March 2012 at a packed Peacock Hall.

“The GRF Board at the time was very persistent in the vision of this facility,” Matheson said. “They persevered despite the controversy. The need and potential were clear, and the funding was available.”

Several sides and points of view were heard in the process.

“There was significant outreach, coordination and consensus building throughout the design process,” Matheson noted. “Concerns of the golf community were heard, and new practice facilities were added. The design and eventual project were something the community could be proud of.”

The décor and elegant touches, including the Steinway D Concert Grand Piano on the stage, set the mood. A green room, separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms and storage lockers were welcomed by clubs and performers.

“The building is also a structure that sets the tone for the style facility we want here in Rossmoor,” Matheson said. “The mountain lodge feel with the wood and stone is visually appealing.”

To help with transportation and safety, a crosswalk on Stanley Dollar Drive with lighted warning lights debuted, a bus stop was added on Stanley Dollar Drive, and golf cart lanes were implemented.

Once the building opened, many of the naysayers were impressed. The timing was ideal, as the Event Center was ready in time for Rossmoor’s 50th anniversary in September 2014, O’Rourke said.

“It was one of those things where people couldn’t conceive of it, and when it opened, people went inside and went ‘wow!’ ” she said.

In discussion of plans for the facility, Pennebaker offered this advice about audio quality: “Make it sound good.”

It sure did. The capabilities and demands of a facility with a dedicated soundboard and lighting controls along with video production required GRF to invest in dedicated audio-visual (AV) staff and to quickly adapt to the new demands, Matheson said.

“The reward of seeing the facility packed for performances and dinner dances was fantastic,” Matheson said. “We quickly realized what a game-changer the facility was and that operationally we needed to adjust as well.”

Pennebaker described how dedicated AV specialists such as Javier Roman and Jerold Barr enhanced the presentation in the new facility. The center also had four built-in cameras and full theater lighting to provide an incredible presentation live and for filming for Rossmoor TV.

“The level of performances increased, and the attendance went up with it,” he said.

Suddenly, performers such as the Oakland Symphony, actor John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for “Jersey Boys,” and satirist/comedian Mort Sahl were performing at the new facility, as word got around this was a nice play to perform. It also meant a less-arduous set-up.

“We were not ‘MacGyvering it’ like we used to do,” said Pennebaker, referencing the 1980s TV character noted for his skills in fixing anything on the fly.

To mark the occasion, the Recreation Department is presenting two 10th anniversary concerts on Saturday, Dec. 23.

“It’s a bit of a reunion of that original show,” said Pennebaker, noting the concert will cost a “throwback” price of $10 a ticket.

Comedian David Studebaker will host the show. Singer Kelly Brandeburg from “Beach Blanket Babylon,” who was part of the grand opening show 10 years ago, will also perform that night.

More information on the anniversary shows can be found in next week’s edition of the News.