Carolyn SackariasonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

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January 7, 2010
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Plans to expand Aspen's Wheeler 'parked permanently'

ASPEN, Colorado - Plans are dead for the proposed $30 million Wheeler Opera House expansion in Aspen, executive director Gram Slaton said Wednesday."The thing in the hole is parked and parked permanently," Slaton said of the planned 265-seat theater envisioned on the empty lot next to the Wheeler. "The project is suspended."Slaton has decided to stop the project after he was directed last month by the Aspen City Council to back off on the planning of a second facility and hire an independent consultant to determine if there is a need for one.At the time, Slaton said he and the design team hired for the project would regroup and then determine their next steps.As it turns out, there are none when it comes to a second facility."I got tired of looking behind me and not having any support," Slaton said of various arts and nonprofit groups who have indicated they want a new performing arts facility but didn't show up at public meetings for conceptual review of the project.Contracts have been put on hold with the project's design team, which includes New Jersey-based architects Farewell Mills Batch LLC, and local architectural firm Rowland & Broughton.Phoenix-based Pfocus, which last year was selected as the project manager, no longer has a contract with the city and no contractor at risk will be chosen.About $414,000 has been spent on the planning effort since 2004, when the Wheeler "21st Century Master Plan" was initiated by the City Council. That figure takes into account consultants, engineers and architects involved in seeing if further exploration of the concept was feasible, plus various searches and field work, and all the costs once it officially became a conceptual project in January 2009, Slaton said.In addition to directing Slaton to conduct an outside needs assessment and allocating $50,000 toward the effort, the council in December asked Slaton to consider existing facilities that could be purchased and converted into performing arts space.Since the Dec. 7 meeting, the Given Institute, owned by the University of Colorado, became available for sale. The university wants to sell the 2.25-acre property, located at 100 East Francis St., because it can't afford to continue operating the scientific think tank.Slaton said there might be an opportunity to buy that land and build a second theater there, or use the existing facilities for arts programming."We'll look at all options," he said.The Wheeler has about $28 million available in its endowment, which includes accruing interest. The endowment is funded by the real estate transfer tax (RETT), a 0.5 percent tax on real estate sales for the purposes of renovating, reconstructing and maintaining the Wheeler Opera House, according to the ballot language when it was first passed in 1979.The 1982 voter-approved purchase to buy the empty lot next to the Wheeler was bought with RETT funds with the purpose of a new facility."I'm happy with $28 million in the bank ... and we own the land next door," Slaton said, adding he now is considering smaller endeavors like a possible renovation of the existing theater and stage, or facility upgrades to the leased spaces in the building, which are rented by Bentley's and Valley Fine Arts."I don't think we stop but we re-deploy our energies," he said.Slaton said he was surprised by councilmen Dwayne Romero, Steve Skadron and Derek Johnson's about-face on their positions for the proposed facility. In October, they appeared supportive and directed Slaton to continue moving forward.The council also earmarked $3 million for conceptual and detailed designs so they could be presented to voters in November 2010, when a possible election would have occurred to authorize bond financing.But then Skadron said at the Dec. 7 meeting that he was reluctant to approve any further funding because as the proposal advanced, he realized he philosophically disagrees with it.Romero said at the time that the project's price tag made him "gag," and he didn't feel comfortable depleting the endowment.Johnson was supportive of the slow-down approach to allow time to reconsider what is trying to be accomplished.Mayor Mick Ireland appeared more supportive of the project than his colleagues, although he said he had concerns. But he argued that having a strong arts presence is a draw for visitors and if Aspen is going to return to a sustainable tourism economy, facilities like the Wheeler are important for the future of the resort."Mick was the only partial advocate I had," Slaton said.This year a comprehensive usage study of all arts facilities in town, a needs assessment of their programming and other economic indicators will be done to make the case for a second Wheeler facility, Slaton said.But, he noted, it's not a priority anymore."We don't have this as a burning issue anymore," Slaton said.csack@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 7, 2010 04:04PM Published Jan 7, 2010 04:01PM Copyright 2010 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.