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The Cheech gets a green light

City Council approved a 25-year management agreement between Riverside Art Museum (RAM) and the city during Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting, establishing a future for The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture, or the “Cheech.” 

Tuesday night’s approval concludes a nearly four-year process developing a contract and authorizing a construction agreement to begin renovations at the former downtown Main Library on Mission Inn Ave. The Cheech is set to become the nation’s first museum dedicated to Chicano art.

Some public commenters voiced concerns by phone regarding the city’s financial obligations outlined in the deal. According to the agreement, the city of Riverside will be responsible for an estimated $1 million in utility payments, landscaping costs and annual management fees due to RAM, who will operate the museum.

Councilman Chuck Conder, recused himself from the vote on Tuesday, and said during an interview Wednesday that it was because he wants the Cheech in Riverside, but he believes a better arrangement could have been made. “When this was brought to us by the former city manager, we were told this was going to cost us nothing,” Conder said.  

Former City Manager John Russo, who was terminated from his position in April 2018, presented City Council in early 2017 with the opportunity to reuse the Main Library and turn it into the Cheech. 

“At the time, they emphasized over and over again it was not supposed to cost us anything,” Conder continued. “It was all supposed to be privately funded.”

Drew Oberjuerge, executive director of the RAM, said in an interview Wednesday that the longtime understanding between both the city and RAM was that the city would contribute a management fee. “It was always understood that [the city] wouldn’t pay a cent toward the building’s renovations,” Oberjuerge said. 

According to the memorandum of understanding presented to City Council in May 2017, an annual management fee, contracted for no fewer than 20 years, would be decided upon between both parties. The MOU also states that the cost of renovation to convert the Main Library into the Cheech would be fundraised by RAM. 

Since 2017, RAM has raised $13.3 million in private gifts and federal funding in the form of grant awards from the California Natural Resources Agency. 

Deputy City Manager Moises Lopez said in an interview Wednesday that the annual amount the city will pay reflects the minimum resources necessary to operate the facility successfully. “It pays about two thirds of the total operating budget,” Lopez said. “But the goal is for the Cheech to be self-sustaining.” 

The agreement also stipulates that after 10 years, both the city and RAM can renegotiate the terms of the contract. “Before that time, the revenue sources collected at the facility would go toward building an operating reserve,” Lopez said. “Within that five-to-ten year horizon, we will have a better look to see how [the Cheech] will stand on its own.”

Councilwoman Erin Edwards made the first motion to approve the agreement Tuesday evening. “This means investing in Riverside and in a vision for more representation in our city and I think it really puts Riverside on the map,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

The Cheech is expected to open in late 2021, Oberjuerge said, contingent upon the facility’s renovation schedule.