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Musings on the Coast

Michael Ray

Arts School Survives Early Setbacks

 

A high school music teacher named Ralph Opacic founded the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) in 1987.  By the late 1990s, it had some 400 students and was at an excess school site in Los Alamitos. When the local school district needed the site and kicked out OCHSA, Opacic was desperate. Where could OCHSA go?

 

He and his board turned to my brother Walkie, who had just come off founding another cultural institution called the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center. Would he serve as the board chair and find a new home for OCHSA?   He gulped and said he would try.

 

The next part of the story is out of a movie.  A bigger-than-life guy, a literal giant of a man, Michael Harrah came upon the scene. Michael, all 6 foot 6, shaggy-bearded, 290 pounds, had been buying up high-rise office buildings along the Main Street corridor in Santa Ana, fixing them up, then renting them primarily to government agencies and making a fortune. He offered to create a school out of a midrise on 10th & Main and sell it to OCHSA.  All Walkie had to do was negotiate the “deal” and find the money.  Easy, eh?

 

No. Harrah was a loveable bear of a man, but also not exactly “easy” in a negotiation and could change his mind like a teenage girl at the high school prom.  With three dates.  In hysterics. Seemingly simple questions like, “how would the elevators be decorated?” were not. (Harrah picked a tasteful French bordello theme). Then the building had to meet state-mandated school earthquake standards.  And on and on.

 

So the negotiations dragged.   In the meantime, Harrah started construction anyway (with no written contract) because he is a riverboat gambler and riverboat gamblers take the plunge.

 

Then there was the question of how to pay for it.  When you threw in chairs, computers and all the stuff inside the school, even the stripped-down version cost $20 million. Where would we get that?

 

I called my friend, then state Treasurer Phil Angelides, for help. He found a state agency, which if one very liberally interpreted its rules, could be the source of a loan. We could borrow it at a very low rate over many years, but it was a loan, and had to be repaid, and the staff at that state agency compared OCHSA’s business plan to “fairy dust.”  Nevertheless, the loan was bullied through and I thought, cool, we’re done. Wrong.

 

Some 15 months after OCHSA opened, Walkie called a special executive committee meeting at 3 p.m. and invited me. I hate most meetings and do not “do” mornings. For Walkie to schedule at a time for my convenience was a sign something seriously was amiss. It was. The meeting was on Thursday and a $300,000 payroll for the month was due the following Wednesday. OCHSA had nothing in the bank and no prospects, nada. We had three business days to find an answer.

 

Needless to say, we did (Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido came to the rescue) and over time, OCHSA figured out how to fund itself without any crises. Today, almost 1,800 kids attend and for every opening, there are a good dozen applicants.  It is an OC success story writ large now because some graduates like the star of the TV series “Glee,”

Matthew Morrison, have become national players.   All because of the few people who made it happen. I was one of them.

 

Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits

 

 

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