College amphitheater seen to serve classes, clubs, community

The COVID pandemic changed many things for the students, staff and faculty at Moorpark College. Now it may be responsible, at least in part, for a major change to the physical campus.

During the height of COVID, the college, like other institutions, made it a priority to provide outdoor venues where students could gather and learn while being socially distanced.

“We were very aware of some of the challenges that we have as far as delivering instruction to classes that are used to being indoors, in confined spaces,” Moorpark College President Julius Sokenu said. “It was very clear there was a need for an outdoor venue, performance, instruction and gathering space on campus.”

While COVID case numbers have dropped, desire for such a space has not. Similar to the general public’s desire to keeping outdoor dining open, having functional, available outdoor space remains a goal for the campus community.

To that end, the college, as reported in the Acorn last month, is considering constructing a large amphitheater in the center of campus.

“The best way to contextualize (this project) is the fact that we are known for being a college that is innovative, that serves our community well and is respected by the community,” Sokenu said. “When the pandemic happened, we had to pivot.”

To help facilitate such an undertaking, the Moorpark College Foundation has begun organizing a fundraising effort to raise money for a 4,000-seat performance space.

Building an outdoor space not only provides health and safety benefits for students, but it dovetails nicely with the desires of students in the college’s music, theater arts and America’s Teaching Zoo programs who have been rallying for a new place to hold performances, Sokenu said.

“It really came from the grassroots,” he said.

The original plan was to build a 900- to 1,000-seat amphitheater to support the college’s programs. The college has been considering moving its annual commencement ceremony to a different location, and such a facility would have been able to accommodate that.

“That was initially our intent, to keep it a campus-level facility,” Sokenu said. “Then we started to think, ‘If we’re going to build something like this, why don’t we support the community in some way?’”

It became clear to Moorpark College officials that local performance artists, High Street organizations and other community groups could use the outdoor space. The only way to do that, though, would be to build a larger facility.

Sokenu said he and those at the Moorpark College Foundation pitched the project to city officials from Moorpark, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

“They said this has potential to bring business into our communities, and keep people here for entertainment instead of going to L.A. or Santa Barbara,” Sokenu said.

Jonathan Serret, the cultural affairs director for the City of Thousand Oaks, concurred. In his role, Serret oversees the 1,800-seat Kavli Theater at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center, currently the largest performing space on the eastern side of Ventura County, and the 394-seat Scherr Forum.

“I would say having a venue of that size in our region is a good thing,” Serret said. “The reason I say that is, if we have a viable, thriving live event space where big-name headliners can occur, it brings more focus to the Conejo Valley and Ventura County as a whole.”

Serret, however, said he had a slight concern about multiple theaters competing for performers.

“Our focus is also on larger name headliners coming to the community,” Serret said. “That does concern me a little bit, but with an outdoor amphitheater, your presentations are usually happening at very particular times.”

As for noise pollution and potentially disturbing animals at the zoo, Sokenu does not anticipate that being an issue either, as the college already holds nightly events that the animals are accustomed to.

The Moorpark College president said the project is still in the very early stages and plans are subject to change over the coming months and years. Residents will also have an opportunity to weigh in on the project, which will also have to go through an environmental analysis.

“Whatever we end up doing will be a function of what we can afford,” Sokenu said. “But what we end up with will be a win-win for everyone.”