More than 30 people filled the seats of the Sonora High School Library Thursday night to declare to the district that the historic Sonora Dome must be saved, but as those guests left two hours later, the future of the structure still lacked direction.
The vast majority of the public seemed to agree with Tuolumne Heritage Committee Chair Sharon Marovich, who appealed to the board to do whatever they could to impede the decay of the iconic dome.
“You are the stewards of one of the most magnificent structures in the Mother Lode, and I hope you keep that in mind,” Marovich said. “We firmly believe in the mantra, Save the Dome.”
One person, who said he was the president and pastor of three nonprofits in Bakersfield and San Ramon, addressed the Sonora Union High School Board with a specific proposal to reimagine the structure for a community purpose.
Kurt Johnson said that over the Thanksgiving holiday, his 10-year-old stepson, Caiden, had died in a car accident near Flagstaff. But he believed he had a purpose to be at the Dome workshop Thursday night, he said.
“I am here because I want to see this building saved,” he said.
Johnson proposed a community care center at the Dome site, featuring a food distribution center and an adult day health care unit for the elderly and disadvantaged.
His organizations, which included “Love Out Hunger” and “Operation Reach” would be interested in a long-term lease instead of a purchase, and partnerships with local arts and philanthropy groups.
“For a 67-year lease at a dollar a month, we’ll put a few hundred thousand into it,” he said.
The board has not yet declared the Sonora Dome or any of the adjacent district-owned land surplus property, which would allow it to be put up for sale, but Board President Kathy Ankrom said after the workshop that the board would likely make a determination on that subject at the next meeting on Dec. 12.
The board was not inordinately receptive to Johnson’s proposal.
More than a dozen people talked to the board, offering ideas about how to repurpose, refurbish and reimagine the Dome, but many chastised the district about their role in the degeneration of the structure.
Incoming Tuolumne County Arts Alliance Executive Director Lisette Sweetland asked board member Rob Lyons to reconcile a past school board’s intent to protect the Dome from destruction with the current board opinion that it was no longer their responsibility to maintain.
“I need some clarification about what that means for Tuolumne County,” she said. “I want to impart to you that this is more than just a building and a surplus building that can be used for storage.”
Lyons said, “We’re not using it any more there, and we’re not in the business of historical preservation of buildings.” Later, he said he appreciated the comment, because each of the board members was committed to passing the dome to an entity that would be dedicated to preserving it.
Sonora Dome and Wildcast Ranch Advisory Committee members Ty Wivell, Connie O’Connor and Connie Williams attended the meeting.
The advisory committee recommended that the board declare the Dome and two adjacent buildings as surplus property, which would allow the property to be sold, leased, or donated to a private organization, a public entity, or a partnership between the two.
Tuolumne County Arts Alliance Executive Director Connie O’Connor seemed to speak for the public when she noted that the room was filled with enthusiasm, but lacked a specific direction or guidance.
“Were waiting for the train but were not sure which one we should get on when it comes through the station,” O’Connor said. “Let everyone in the community know what the actual steps are… about what you really have to do and what you are legally bound to do.”
Following an introduction from Ankrom, the meeting began with a presentation from Superintendent Pat Chabot, who related the history and use of the Dome since its construction in 1909.
In a series of photographs, Chabot identified the various buildings throughout the property used by community organizations and Cassina High School, noting that only the Dome and the adjacent buildings would be eligible to parceled off as surplus property.
Each of the board members expressed concern about how the Dome could be reappropriated as a community center while lacking available parking, ADA compliance, and in dire need of structural repairs.
But alternatively, most of them also expressed an openness to a solution that would cede responsibility of the Dome from the district, but also provide stewardship for the property.
Ankrom noted that the conversation between the board was nothing more than speculation, but that declaring the structure surplus property could invite official proposals from public or community organizations.
Her “fantasy,” she said, would be for governmental stakeholders from the city, county, state and at the federal level would provide a “super generous amount of money” to refurbish the structure.
“To bring it up to code, to use it as an education facility, there is no way we can come close to the numbers,” Ankrom said. “Unless we have someone who can offer us a land swap or they have the resources to fix it so that it can be appropriate for public use, I would just hate to see it stay vacant and continue to deteriorate.”
Lyons said that, according to the district’s attorney, that a stipulation could not be included in a potential sale that forced a buyer to keep and maintain the structure.
“The trouble with selling it is you give up the rights of controlling it,” he said.
The board also entertained the idea of declaring the entire district-owned property, including Cassina High School, as surplus property to incentivize a potential buyer. The conversation was stymied however, as some of the board members speculated about what it would cost to establish the alternative education campus at a new site.
Jeanie Smith said she supported the idea of establishing the entire district property at Cassina High School as surplus property, noting that parking was the primary issue with the structure, and despite the Dome’s ADA shortcomings, some of the stringent codes could be avoided by declaring the building a historical structure.
Cassina High School Principal Roy Morlan asked board members to remember the students in their discussions, touting the graduation of hundreds of students from the alternative education site during his tenure.
By the conclusion of the meeting, many members of the public offered well-wishes to the district’s potential plan for sale, but many cautioned them that, unless they put up the entire property as surplus, they will have great difficulty finding a buyer.