When Rhonda Pope Flores purchased the 100-year-old church building at 201 Main St. in December 2020 she had high hopes of making improvements and opening a performance arts center.
One year and many thousands of dollars later, she has still not received the city’s okay to open her doors to the public.
A Facebook page for the Grand Prince Odeum has chronicled the highs and lows of Pope Flores’ efforts to bring the building back to its glory and open it to the community.
Pope Flores fell in love with the building the first time she saw it and wanted to bring it back to life. She contacted then Winters Contract Planner, Dave Dowswell, who she said told her she would need to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) and that the process would take about 90 days. Ninety days is now turning into over seven months.
Last March, Pope Flores started the process and submitted her CUP application in June and then a revised application in August. She is still waiting and working with the city to finalize the application.
The Express sat down with Pope Flores after touring her 8,000 square-foot-building where she pointed out numerous restoration endeavors and building improvements: from fresh paint inside and out, refurbished original wooden panels and railings, colorfully decorated themed rooms to a new state-of-the-art sound system.
The naming of the performance arts venue, Grand Prince Odeum, was made by Pope Flores. “Grand” was selected, she said, because the building is “grand.”
“Prince” was selected because she is a die-hard fan of the performer Prince and “Odeum,” is another word for theater and assembly. Together they embrace her vision of it being a performing arts center and a community resource.
The City has required Pope Flores to provide additional information in support of her CUP application. She questions the point.
As for Pope Flores’ message to Winters: “We are trying to do something good here. We are trying to help you accomplish the goals that you have, even in your own general plan. I would hope that you would embrace us as you now have a native American owned business here that is trying to bring resources to the community.”
Contract Planner Kirk Skierski, who took over after Dowswell retired, wrote in a Nov. 9 email to the Express, “The applicant here is proposing events and activities that could impact the surrounding residential neighborhood, and it is our responsibility to evaluate any potential impacts to noise, parking, traffic, etc … This process has taken some time, but we are getting closer to what we need to complete our evaluation.”
The building is zoned R-1 for residential use; however, Pope Flores pointed out that during its 100-year existence it has never been used as a residence and asserts that when it was a church the city never required it to obtain a CUP.
According to city code, running a Bed and Breakfast Inn is the only commercial activity permittable in R-1 residential areas, also conditionally permitted through the CUP process.
From Pope Flores’ perspective, the building was used for many years as a church that held religious services and hosted non-religious events. At one point, the church rented out the basement to a dance studio, she said.
The building’s occupancy capacity is almost 500 and in its heyday the church held events approaching capacity, she said. Pope Flores has offered to set her occupancy limit at 150. However, the city is concerned that multiple and overlapping events could cause that number to far exceed 150 and is seeking clarification.
Pope Flores told the Express that she wanted to be proactive in her CUP application. Before submitting, she went through the City’s general plan to see what factors it proposed for community space and cultural areas and remarked, “we’re providing all those things.”
Skierski met with Pope Flores on Nov. 10 to gather additional information. She said she was encouraged in that meeting, but later learned there were additional concerns the City wanted addressed before the matter could go before the Planning Commission.
The fact that the November and December meetings of the Planning Commission have been cancelled only added to the delay and to Pope Flores’ frustration. The next commission meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2022, at which time she is hopeful her application will be on the agenda for discussion, public comment and closer to approval.
In an email to Pope Flores after their Nov. 10 meeting, Skierski referenced three areas where more information was needed: parking, calendar of events/event management, and noise control.
On Dec. 2, Skierski informed the Express by email of two areas that could still cause delays in issuing a CUP if not appropriately addressed: calendar of events and noise. Parking, he said, “is not necessarily an issue at this time.”
As to the first concern, Pope Flores obtained and submitted to the City a list of events the church had held. After making a side-by-side comparison of the church’s events and those she has proposed, the only difference she noted under her management would be that she would present Native American spirituality.
“I’m not going to try to justify what our culture is to the city. That should be something that should be respected,” Pope Flores said.
Pope Flores is a member and chairwoman of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California.
For noise control, she confirmed they are willing and prepared to abide by the City’s noise ordinance.
Pope Flores said she’s been approached by several Winters businesses to hold functions at her venue.
Asked what she would like to see happen next, Pope Flores said, “Let’s make it happen.”