Arts Campus at Willits aims to entertain and enrich the midvalley |

Arts Campus at Willits aims to entertain and enrich the midvalley

Plans for The Arts Campus at Willits would include a large performance venue, smaller lecture/movie theater and a lawn that could host events.
Courtesy photo |

A group of Roaring Fork Valley artists, developers and a veteran of the local music scene have spent the past four years crafting a vision for a cultural hub in Willits Town Center, aiming to fill the void of nightlife and entertainment in the midvalley with a new performing-arts center.

Their hope is to build the Arts Campus at Willits on a 2.3-acre parcel in the commercial-residential development, situated on its rear upvalley corner at the intersection of Willits and Lewis Lanes. The plot was dedicated by the town of Basalt for a civic use in the original Willits approval.

Conceptual plans for the Arts Campus include a one-story building with translucent glass walls holding a 350-person-capacity performance venue, a smaller lecture and movie hall and an industrial kitchen, with an outdoor grass lawn and covered courtyard promenade.

The six-member Arts Campus board hopes to fill it with a diverse mix of hip happenings and family-friendly fare.

“We’re looking for our Brooklyn moment,” said Willits developer and Arts Campus board member Michael Lipkin.

Marc Breslin, the former longtime chief operating officer at Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the nonprofit board’s vice president, recently sketched out what programming might look like at the venue. He said they’d aim for 200 events per year, with series of films, lectures, comedy, food-centered events and cooking classes. Weekends would focus on music, dance and theater. On the music front, he’s aiming for regular Latin music nights and a mix of regional singer-songwriters, DJs, indie rock and jazz acts. He said they’d collaborate with valley arts organizations and aim to keep ticket prices between $15 and $25.

Breslin also is hoping to develop modest music, food and drink festivals — a blues and barbecue festival, for instance, or food-truck sampling or themed beer and wine tasting, or a TED conference. The Arts Campus board has already been in talks with the International Family Film Festival about bringing its smart, family-friendly titles in for a series.

Educational programming through collaborations with local schools and the Art Base, also is on the docket.

The main performance hall is conceived as a convertible space that could be set up for concerts or as a dance hall, banquet room or in-the-round theater. It could be rented out for weddings, benefits and other private events. The sloped-floor lecture hall and movie theater would hold 80 people.

The Arts Campus board, led by landscape architect Julia Marshall and also including artists Mary Conover and Richard Carter, has been meeting weekly since 2012 and was granted 501c3 nonprofit status last year. With conceptual plans in place, they’re now beginning to court donors for an $8 million capital campaign to fund the building. A local and national search for a development director — who would be the Arts Campus’ first paid employee — is underway. An assessment collected by the town of Basalt on properties sold in Willits, earmarked for the arts parcel, has totaled about $700,000 since 1998.

The Arts Campus board is expected to meet with the Basalt Town Council next month to seek a thumbs-up to move forward with its specific plans.

The board hopes to break ground in the spring of 2017 and open the doors of the Arts Campus in spring 2018, with an annual operating cost of $550,000.

“We believe we’re sustainable from the day we open,” Lipkin said.

But can the midvalley population support a year-round performance venue?

“If we build it, people will come because the need is so palpable,” Lipkin said, citing overflow crowds at talks at the Wyly Annex in downtown Basalt and the frequent waiting lists at Willits restaurants like El Korita and Smoke as proof of demand for things to do in the midvalley.

A feasibility study, commissioned by the Arts Campus board and the town of Basalt last year and prepared by Denver-based JVA Consulting, is bullish on the venue’s chances of successfully drawing audiences from the booming midvalley population. It predicted the venue would pull crowds from 10,212 residents deemed likely – based on age, income and education – to come out for cultural offerings and who live in Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. It cites theaters in small Colorado towns such as Grand Lake and Pagosa Springs as comparable successes but also predicts the Arts Campus would draw few from Aspen and Snowmass Village for events.

Lipkin expects the population of Town Center and adjacent developments to reach 2,500 in coming years, putting the Arts Campus at the center of what would essentially be a new Roaring Fork Valley town. In addition, the Arts Campus board argues, easy access from the upper and lower valley via car and bus would make it a central cultural hub, giving it a better chance of success than the recently shuttered PAC3 in Carbondale.

“We’re in a mini urban center here,” Carter said. “Accessibility is really key.”

They’re aiming to draw from the midvalley’s year-round population and not necessarily to compete for audiences against the abundant cultural offerings upvalley in Aspen. Lipkin said the Arts Campus is the midvalley’s chance to make the arts a cornerstone of the community growing around Willits, much like Aspen did at the dawn of its ski-town era.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lipkin said. “This is like what the Paepckes gave us with the Aspen Institute.”

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