Thursday, October 12, 2000
Students who fought--and who will pay--for the $600,000 rehabilitation of the Black Box Cabaret at Cal State University Monterey Bay are anxious to meet again in the only campus venue that feels like their own.
CSUMB administrators closed the Black Box in May because of code problems. But after a hard-fought battle and some creative financing, the Black Box is on course to open again by June 2001. Some who led the charge to save the BBC aren''t satisfied, however. They claim they''ve been strung along while campus authorities changed the terms, costs and timelines for reopening the building, beloved by students as a singular forum for spontaneous creative expression.
The combination cafe, pub and event center will play host once more to popular open-mic nights and techno dance parties, as well as concerts, plays and meetings. It just won''t happen soon enough, says third-year student Aaron Bilyeu, a former BBC employee and vice president of the Coalition to Save the Black Box Cabaret, a student watchdog group.
"We were told that plans could be taken care of in the summer, and that they could begin building this semester," Bilyeu says. "When we came back this fall, in typical CSUMB fashion they said it wouldn''t open until June."
CSUMB spokesperson Holly White argues that students last spring couldn''t have been promised an earlier deadline for completing the project because, simply, there was no firm plan.
"It gets kind of complicated because there were a lot of hopes and expectations," White says. "But a deadline was lacking because there was a lack of information on how to proceed."
University officials determined in February that the school could not afford the initial estimate of $341,000 needed to bring the Black Box facilities to code. Housed in a 1941 Army building designed for short-term use, the BBC building required electrical repairs, seismic retrofitting and wheelchair accessibility.
Following the planning department''s recommendation to shutter the building, the university president''s cabinet informed the campus that the BBC would have to close immediately. This angered many students, who felt robbed of a voice in the decision and in finding an alternative outlet for BBC events, says student Kevin Miller. Bilyeu echoes that sentiment, claiming that the code violations were merely an excuse for the administration to close a money-losing venture.
"In the past, when art, music, theater, or any student asked for a place to put their work, they were pointed to the Black Box," Bilyeu says. "Where do we put it now? We don''t. It''s hard not to come to the conclusion that they are trying to limit our freedom."
Within three days of the closure announcement, organized groups of at least 120 students reacted with meetings and protests. The administration relented and allowed the BBC to remain open through the semester.
In April, CSUMB President Peter Smith charged a group of some 15 administrators, faculty members and students to look at the situation. The purpose of the Black Box Cabaret Planning Group was "to recommend a solution that would provide a venue that could offer the same services as the Black Box to the campus community," says planning group member John McCutchon, executive director for University Advancement Services.
At the same time, students created the coalition to keep tabs on the progress of the university-sanctioned planning group. The coalition was needed because students were wary about the planning group keeping its promises, Bilyeu says.
"This campus has a history of prolonging things, of saying yes and then just forgetting about it until people move on," he says.
Tax ''n'' Spend
Finally, third-year student Farah Hussain, a planning group member and financial director for CSUMB''s student government, Student Voice, introduced the idea that would ultimately rescue the BBC: a student union fee referendum. With the largest voter turnout in CSUMB history, 90 percent of 319 students elected to accept the $40 fee, which will be tagged on to each student''s annual tuition.
Since the student union will take at least two years to complete, in the interim, the bulk of the student union funds will go toward keeping the Black Box in operation. The intention is to create an independent, student-run BBC that will serve as an adjunct of the future student union, Hussain says.
Over the summer, as campus planners began working with architects on detailed plans, they estimated the true cost for improving the Black Box would be closer to $600,000. Pending approval by the CSUMB Foundation board at its meeting in November, the campus will consider applying for a special project loan from the CSU system chancellor''s office in Long Beach. As most smart borrowers would, the university intends to shop around for a loan with terms in its best interest.
Any monies borrowed for the Black Box would be repaid by the student union fund. In addition, the Foundation, which has allocated funds annually for BBC operations, set aside $71,000 this year. That money will be used to pay for planning costs until late January or February, when a loan should be secured to keep construction on schedule.
One element that should not change with the construction project is the free-wheeling spirit of the old Black Box.
"It will be exactly the same as it was before, just a little improved as far as access and safety," Hussain says. "That kind of risque aura will still be there. What the students just loved about the Black Box is that they could do exactly what they wanted. There are not a lot of rules, restrictions or red tape to go through to put on events."
White confirms that the entire project will maintain the flavor of the original BBC.
"Truly, if we don''t do that, we''ve failed," White says. "Mind you, there''s a new group of students here now who may say they want something else. The students always change. That''s the beauty of the BBC, though. Those who love it can always make changes to it."
In the meantime, students are searching for alternative locations for some of the more popular Black Box events. One option is the University Center, which many students oppose "because it represents the establishment," according to third-year student Rebecca Rosenthal, residential vice senator for Student Voice.
Do the students feel vindicated now that they can keep the BBC?
"Most students working on the group and with the coalition feel good," Hussain says. "But others who feel they have been misled by the administration in the past are not as trusting. They''re a little wary."