NTC Foundation director Alan Ziter, a leader in San Diego arts and culture, retires
Before leading development of Liberty Station’s Arts District at the old Naval Training Center in Point Loma, Ziter created many programs with the San Diego Performing Arts League.
A boots-on-the-ground approach, combined with creativity and vision, is what Alan Ziter has been bringing to San Diego’s arts and culture scene for almost 40 years.
But as his legacy continues to grow, Ziter, executive director of the NTC Foundation at Point Loma’s Liberty Station commercial and cultural destination for nearly 20 years, is retiring Wednesday, June 14.
The NTC Foundation oversees the restoration of buildings in Liberty Station’s Arts District on the grounds of the former Naval Training Center San Diego.
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“I’ve come to learn that NTC means ‘Now That’s Complicated,’” Ziter quipped. “Taking those old Navy buildings and transforming them into a new mission ... 20 years and $110 million later, the results speak for themselves.”
Ziter was hired as the foundation’s executive director in December 2003 with the role of restoring the 26 historic buildings at the former naval base, which closed in 1997. To date, work on 17 of the buildings has been completed or started, and plans are in motion for the remaining structures.
The USS Recruit helped break in sailors at the Naval Training Center in Point Loma between 1949 and the base’s closure in 1997.
Toni Robin of TR/PR public relations and marketing has worked with Ziter for years. They met while both were working for the San Diego Performing Arts League in 1996. When Ziter was asked to go to NTC, she happily followed and has been on staff and worked as a consultant, she said.
“You have to imagine what we started with,” Robin said. “There were no roads, no landscaping, big empty buildings and no one had really seen the place since its Navy training days. Getting people’s interest in the project wasn’t going to be easy.”
She recounted how rain poured the night before potential board members were to walk around the space. “It was all mud. Everywhere,” Robin said.
But Ziter was undeterred and quickly came up with a plan.
“We bought everyone boots,” Robin said. “We must have bought at least 30 pairs of white rain boots. We called it ‘boot camp’ and had everyone walk around in the mud and empty buildings.”
The plan worked.
“It really spoke to his creativity and commitment, that he could spark the imagination of those people as to what could be,” Robin said.
From its humble, muddy beginnings, Liberty Station has become a campus with 105 galleries, dance companies, civic groups, nonprofit organizations, artists, designers, restaurants and retail businesses.
For the past five years, Ziter and his team have been working with San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre to develop the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center.
Planning and designs have been completed to turn Liberty Station’s long-vacant Building 178 into a performance venue with two theaters. It will be Cygnet’s new home and will meet the needs of several dance companies and performing groups. More than $38 million has been raised for the project, and groundbreaking is planned for late this year.
The planned $38.9 million Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center will turn the long-vacant Building 178 into a performance venue with two theaters.
“The theater project is near and dear to my heart,” Ziter said. “My first job 38 years ago was at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, so getting the Jacobs Performing Arts Center to this point as I retire is full circle.”
Lisa Johnson, president and chief executive of the NTC Foundation, said she not only will miss Ziter’s work contributions but also his sense of humor and positive attitude.
“We started working closely together in 2015,” Johnson said. “Since then, our project has changed with the times and so has Alan. Sometimes when people work on a project for years, they become set in their ways. But he can really pivot. He’s extremely resilient and has the ability to change as the needs of the project change.”
Ziter’s biggest contribution, she said, is “his ability to envision all that we can be” at the Arts District, as well as being able to keep people focused and continue to develop the creative aspects of the various projects.
“He’s a caring person and he’s really one of the kindest, most sincere individuals I’ve had the pleasure to know,” Johnson said. “I am confident he will continue to impact our community in positive ways, and I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement.”
Ziter and his team haven’t stopped with restoring the buildings — itself a massive undertaking. They also developed community programs at the Arts District, including what is now known as First Friday Arts District Open Studios, the Liberty School Arts Education Program for Underserved Youth, and “Installations at the Station,” which commissions local artists to create temporary works on the Arts District grounds.
Artist Cat Chiu Phillips is tying together naval legacy with culture in one of her latest pieces, a recent addition to Liberty Station’s public art.
Ziter said he decided to work in the arts as early as his college days at Northwestern University near Chicago.
“I can’t sing or dance or act, and I knew when to get off the stage,” he said. “So I’ve always worked quietly behind the scenes, doing what I could to help the arts.”
As one of California’s leading arts advocates, he founded California Arts Advocates/Californians for the Arts, as well as the San Diego Regional Arts & Culture Coalition. He also has been involved with the California Confederation of the Arts, San Diego Tourism Authority, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Naval Training Center Citizens Implementation Advisory Committee.
In 2013, he received the Advocate of the Arts award from Bravo San Diego and in 2016 won an Artie Award from ArtWalk.
Ziter was hired by the San Diego Performing Arts League in 1986 and while there created several programs that developed new audiences for the arts, increased community access to underserved audiences and lowered operating costs for arts organizations.
One such program, the Arts Tix half-price ticket booth, continues to this day.
“I’m pleased to have created a program that allows so many to enjoy entertainment at a price they can afford,” Ziter said.
Before coming to San Diego, he expanded a half-price ticket program while marketing director for the League of Chicago Theatre and launched a discounted tickets-by-mail program there.
Ziter said one of his most rewarding moments came during his time with the San Diego Performing Arts League.
“I was around during the AIDS crisis and we founded the Creative Response of the Arts, a nonprofit which used our performances to increase awareness of and raise money for local AIDS organizations,” Ziter said. The group raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now, at age 65, “it’s a good time for me to step aside and let others make their mark on San Diego,” he said.
His plans include traveling, continuing to be involved in civic opportunities and “enjoying San Diego like a tourist.”
“I can’t sing or dance or act, and I knew when to get off the stage. So I’ve always worked quietly behind the scenes, doing what I could to help the arts.”
— Alan Ziter
Ziter has lived in the same downtown Park Row location the entire 37 years he’s been in San Diego, and he has no plans to change.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, but it still feels like a small town in a good way and I love that,” Ziter said. “It is more progressive, and we see that in our stages and galleries and museums and the many more voices that represent diversity. I give credit to all the people who have lived here their whole life and their willingness to embrace newcomers and new ideas.”
Judy Nora, an NTC Foundation board member, said she will miss Ziter’s love of the former Navy base’s history. “He knows everything and more about what the base was, who went through it and so much more,” she said. “He has such great stories from years of speaking and meeting with people.”
Everyone loves to go on tours with Ziter, she added, as “we always learn something new. Even to this day, his enthusiasm has never wavered.”
Robin said a recent experience sums up her years of working with Ziter.
“I was driving around Liberty Station and couldn’t find a parking spot. ... And instead of being upset, I realized we’ve done it!” she said. “And Alan has done it. He didn’t do it alone, but he is the one who kept at it and it’s always been his ability to help people envision what might be.”
Nora expressed similar sentiments. “I hope that in the coming years Alan continues to visit Arts District Liberty Station and see firsthand how far his contributions have grown. We will miss him, and the foundation is forever grateful.”
Ziter said he’s confident the Arts District, and the San Diego arts community in general, have much more to come.
“I think the reward is always going to be what I see whenever I come back, not what I am leaving behind,” he said.
For more information about Arts District Liberty Station, visit artsdistrictlibertystation.com.
Arts District Summer Music Series
The NTC Foundation is partnering with Beer, Food & Music to present the 2023 Arts District Summer Music Series with free outdoor concerts on the North Promenade at Liberty Station.
Performances will be from 4 to 7 p.m. the second Sunday in July and August.
Guests are welcome to bring blankets and lawn chairs.
The concerts are:
• July 9: Sabrosas Latin Orchestra, all-female salsa band
• Aug. 13: Kimmi Bitter and the Westside Twang, old-school country with a West Coast twist
The North Promenade is at 2848 Dewey Road, Point Loma.