City may buy the Mother Lode | AspenTimes.com

City may buy the Mother Lode

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen will purchase the Mother Lode Restaurant for $3.25 million to accommodate future expansion of the Wheeler Opera House if voters approve the acquisition in November.

The City Council voted 4-1 Monday to enter into a contract to buy the Hyman Avenue parcel, with Councilman Tim Semrau dissenting.

“I feel this is a foolish investment,” said Semrau, calling the restaurant parcel “overpriced.”

But, Councilwoman Rachel Richards labeled the purchase a “strategic investment” that the city would be remiss to pass up.

“Is it overpriced? I don’t know,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud. “Some things, you have to look long into the future. In the long run, I think we’ll be happy we did this.”

The purchase would be made with funds generated by a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax dedicated to the renovation, reconstruction and maintenance of the Wheeler. City voters will be asked to authorize use of those funds for the property acquisition.

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The city already owns the 6,000-square-foot, vacant parcel next to the opera house. Acquisition of the restaurant property would double the available space for future expansion of the Wheeler into a larger center for the arts, though specific plans for the parcel are yet to come.

Partners Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer listed the property for sale this summer for more than $4 million. They approached the city to ask if it might be interested in the parcel.

“We can’t think of a better entity to buy the Mother Lode than the city,” Ross said. “For one thing, it will remain the Mother Lode for a much longer time, perhaps indefinitely.”

Other prospective buyers – and there are some – would likely pursue redevelopment of the property fairly quickly, said Ross, who has worked at the restaurant since 1967 and bought it in 1970.

“We’d much rather see it go to one development that could be a real gem for Aspen,” he said. “I think it could be a real bonus for the city.”

Ross said he’s ready to move on to other pursuits after some 35 years in the restaurant business, but he’s willing to stick with operation of the Mother Lode for another year to assist the city through the transition if voters OK the purchase.

The city will not be running the establishment, Klanderud stressed, but would seek another operator for the popular Italian eatery.

While there are no firm plans for expansion of the historic Wheeler, the city expects to engage the community in a master planning process to determine the best use of the additional land if the city buys it.

“It could open up a whole lot of possibilities, certainly,” said Nida Tautvydas, executive director of the opera house.

“Voter approval will provide the Wheeler and the arts community the opportunity to pursue improvements that have been dreamed of for more than 30 years,” according to a city press release that was distributed last night after the council’s vote.

The opulent Wheeler hosted its gala grand opening in 1889 after wealthy investor Jerome B. Wheeler financed its construction during Aspen’s mining heyday. Its original auditorium was largely destroyed by a pair of fires in 1912; the city acquired the building in 1918 when taxes on the property went unpaid.

It was incrementally returned to its original lavishness over the years, culminating with a restoration and grand reopening in 1984. The Wheeler now sees use 362 days a year, according to the city.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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