A home for the arts, or the cart before the horse? | AspenTimes.com

A home for the arts, or the cart before the horse?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen voters must bring their own vision of the future for the town’s performing arts with them to the polls next month.

What Aspen does or doesn’t need in the way of additional performance venues or ancillary facilities has produced some widely divergent opinions. So has the proposed purchase of the Mother Lode restaurant to facilitate expansion of the Wheeler Opera House.

The outcome of Referendum 2E, which asks voters if the city should buy the business and property for $3.25 million “for the continued and expanded operation of the Wheeler Opera House” will determine where the Wheeler can grow. The answer to the bigger question – how it will grow – is anybody’s guess.

The Wheeler already has 6,000 square feet of vacant land at its disposal on the west side of the stately building. On the far side of that parcel is the Mother Lode, sitting on another 6,000 square feet on Hyman Avenue.

Its purchase would double the available area for any future expansion of the Wheeler, but with one wrinkle – the popular Italian restaurant occupies a historic building that can’t be demolished.

Proponents of the purchase contend the unexpected availability of the Mother Lode presents an opportunity that the city best act on now, because it may not come again.

Ideas for eventual expansion of the Wheeler run the gamut, but a versatile “black box” theater that can function as performance, rehearsal and lecture space gets frequent mention. A new building connected to the opera house could also provide other space in short supply (or absent) at the Wheeler – a scene shop, storage, production offices, underground parking, a bigger lobby and the ability to expand one wing of the existing Wheeler stage.

The restaurant operation could remain, perhaps as a cafe to serve the expanded theater complex, but the Mother Lode building was mentioned by one brainstorming elected official as a potential new home for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

Opponents of the purchase claim the city is paying too much for the property, that it will tie up the real estate transfer tax that supports the Wheeler for the next decade and that the city has no real purpose for the site in mind.

On the latter point – that the vision for future use is murky at best – there is little disagreement.

“They have no plans to do anything with it. They don’t have any plans to do anything with the lot next door,” complained Andrew Kole, a local TV talk show host and critic of the purchase.

“When you try to pin down people – what’s it really needed for – they don’t have an answer,” agreed Tim Semrau, the sole City Council member opposing the purchase.

“Have there been any definite discussions about the future for that property? No,” confirmed Mayor Helen Klanderud. “If the voters don’t support it, then there’s no need to discuss it.”

`Developer’s illusion’

When partners Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer decided to put the Mother Lode property on the market earlier this year, Ross asked the city if it was interested. Faced with the unexpected opportunity, the City Council voted 4-1 to put the property under contract and seek authorization from voters to buy it, using funds from the Wheeler RETT – a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax dedicated to the venerable opera house. The Wheeler has the resources to buy the property; no new tax is proposed.

It’s awkward to purchase the site first and then figure out what it’s for later, conceded Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who’s actively pushing for passage of the ballot measure with the fledgling Vote Yes for the Mother Lode campaign committee.

“The potentials are huge. I have a hard time not giving the voters that opportunity,” Richards said. “Accommodating the arts is a real key to our future.”

“I’m hopeful the voters will show council how to be fiscally responsible,” Semrau said, suggesting the city is gripped by “developer’s illusion – buy it and maybe you’ll need it.”

“Why are we spending all this money on something we don’t know we need, that we can’t possibly build on for 10 years?” he added.

The proposed purchase calls for the city to pay $750,000 up front and execute a promissory note for $2.5 million with interest at 5 percent, with payments spread over 10 years.

Asked one local real estate broker, who wished to remain anonymous: “Is the city the best buyer for the property or just the dumbest one?”

The purchase price is not a good deal, the broker argued, suggesting the city could offer the restaurant owners $50,000 for the right of first refusal and see if another buyer makes an offer in a year’s time.

“You really think somebody else is going to beat you to the punch for that building for $3.2 million?” the broker said.

There are other prospective buyers, for both the property and the business and for just the business, according to broker Ruth Kruger of The Fleisher Co., who listed the property in late May for $4.5 million, a price that includes $500,000 for the restaurant business.

“I have several partners that I’m working with to write backup offers,” she said.

Some other buyers are looking at additional development on the parcel, Kruger said, though part of the historic building must be retained. The historic structure occupies a relatively small piece of the property, she added.

Under new ownership, the restaurant operation itself could go away, or the Mother Lode could become another restaurant. The city has indicated it would like to lease the operation and retain the Mother Lode for the foreseeable future.

If the property is redeveloped, the city won’t be able to buy it later, Councilwoman Richards predicted.

The possibilities

Four members of the council voted to put the Mother Lode under contract, but there is broader support for the move.

The Wheeler Associates, a nonprofit group formed to help raise funds for Wheeler needs not met by the RETT, is supporting the purchase.

So is the Wheeler’s board of directors, according to chairman Larry Fredrick, who anticipates a community planning process to determine the site’s eventual use.

“The ultimate goal would be the best use for the most people,” he said.

The Wheeler had a “needs assessment” conducted several years ago to help guide the board’s long-range plans. A consultant’s report, issued early in 2000, summarized the input from 27 organizations, or about 70 percent of the groups that used the opera house in 1999.

No specific expansion plan emerged that would meet the needs of a majority of the groups, though 52 percent of them expressed interest in additional rehearsal space, given the already heavy use of the Wheeler.

Purchase of the Mother Lode property, Fredrick reasoned, simply gives the Wheeler more options.

“The real argument is not the future, it’s the acquisition. Without the acquisition, there is no future,” said Wheeler board member Brian O’Neil, stressing he is supporting passage of the ballot measure as a private citizen. “The Mother Lode opens up a whole range of new possibilities.”

“There are all kinds of ideas out there,” he added. “Some would like a convention center there to boost the vitality of town.”

There is talk, at least, of a multipurpose venue that can host both performances and conventions, perhaps with space for 200 to 300 seats that can be arranged to meet an event’s needs or be removed altogether, as opposed to the Wheeler’s 505-seat auditorium.

“What we really need is a conference facility of some sort – something that could accommodate a couple of hundred people,” said Andy Modell, an ACRA board member whose Modell Associates produces the Aspen Catalogue.

Studying the potential for a conference/performing arts center “of sufficient size” to accommodate cultural activities and provide conference-marketing opportunities was one recommendation that emerged from last year’s Economic Sustainability Committee.

The idea made the group’s final report, but without a lot of detailed discussion, recalled Klanderud. The mayor joined representatives from Aspen nonprofits, businesses and governments on the committee.

While serving on the committee, local banker Howie Mallory decried the lack of a larger performance venue in Aspen – something along the lines of Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, a summertime venue that can accommodate more than 2,000 people.

“It’s like [Aspen’s] Music Tent, but more hip – has more contemporary performances,” Mallory said. “We just don’t have the equivalent of that in the wintertime.”

Aspen’s Music Tent seats 2,050, but it’s not suited for winter use and is primarily devoted to Aspen Music Festival and School use in the summer.

Vail also has the Dobson Arena, an ice rink that can seat 2,800 people for concerts by covering the ice with a wooden floor. It also has the acoustic benefits of a wooden roof, noted concert promoter David Laughren of Aspen-based Avalanche Productions, which has produced concerts in Vail and at the Wheeler.

“We missed our chance, I think, with the ice arena. That was the opportunity to build something that was big enough and multiuse,” said Laughren, referring to the new rink at the Aspen Recreation Center. “It would be great to have a multiuse performing facility.”

With something in the 1,200- to 1,800-seat range, Aspen could see everything from off-Broadway shows to popular musical acts that don’t work financially in a venue the size of the Wheeler, according to Laughren.

“We are looking at that part of it,” said City Councilman Torre. “I think we need a large venue year-round. That’s the one disappointing thing about the [Wheeler] expansion. It doesn’t really allow for that.”

Without it, Laughren said, it’s difficult for promoters to make the leap from club acts to the next level.

“We recently made an offer to k.d. lang – a guaranteed amount of money for her to come to Aspen and play,” he said. “It wasn’t enough to entice her.”

A $40 ticket at the Wheeler means a promoter has about $10,000 to offer the performer.

To pay lang, Avalanche Productions was looking at a $75 ticket and risking the chance it wouldn’t cover its expenses if the Wheeler didn’t fill up.

“Would people pay $75 to see k.d. lang? I don’t think so,” Laughren said.

Wheeler audiences are sometimes treated to big names – Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett, to name two – but those performers are choosing to play the intimate venue because they want to.

“Those [Lovett] shows made money, but Lyle was willing to do it for a fee that made it economically possible,” said Laughren, who produced the singer/songwriter’s Wheeler appearances.

Aspen audiences anticipating the next big name on a local stage probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the new ice rink to become Aspen’s version of the Dobson Arena, but the space hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

“We are already getting requests, because it’s one of the larger spaces in town, to use it for some performance kinds of things,” said Tim Anderson, city recreation director.

Groups interested in booking the ARC for private events have expressed interest in renting flooring to cover the ice to accommodate a dance, for example, he said.

“I think we’re still learning what the possibilities are here,” Anderson said.

The ARC, however, shares one drawback with several of Aspen’s other stages – it’s outside of the town’s core.

The Aspen School District Theatre, a 550-seat venue with an ample stage, including wings and fly space for theatrical sets, has become home to the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and many of the community’s theater productions.

“It’s a fabulous space. It’s just not in the right place,” complained Bob Ritchie, a local real estate broker. “It has turned into something that funnels people out of the community. If that were downtown, we could have a performing arts center where people could be in Aspen. It would be a huge plus for the downtown core.

“It would create some of the vitality that everybody says the town is missing,” he said, adding that he supports the Mother Lode purchase if it will mean another in-town performance space. “It’s a nice match to the Wheeler.”

Acquiring the Mother Lode does not, however, mean a 1,000-seat venue is in the offing next to the Wheeler, Klanderud cautioned.

“If the assumption is, we’re doing this because we’re building a bigger performing arts facility, that’s not the case,” she said.

The Mother Lode space would, however, give the community a greater breadth of options, said Nida Tautvydas, executive director of the Wheeler.

“That’s one thing I’d be looking forward to – really determining not only what the Wheeler needs to be viable into the future, but what other needs can be met,” she said.

With the 6,000 square feet that is currently available for Wheeler expansion, “support spaces” for the opera house have been considered. According to Tautvydas, that could include a scene shop, production offices, more dressing room space and a better box office/visitor’s center.

An addition on the west side of the Wheeler could also expand the stage-right wing space, making more room for theatrical sets and, presumably, more theatrical performances.

Aspen Community Theatre hasn’t produced its annual fall musical at the Wheeler for several years, Tautvydas noted.

“Their sets are enormous. There’s no way they’d fit into our space,” she said.

Whatever the outcome of November’s vote, the city would have been remiss to dismiss the purchase without polling the voters, according to Councilwoman Richards.

“Initially, I thought the public would be very receptive. I guess I still feel that way,” Mayor Klanderud added. “Even without any plans, but thinking into the future, does it make sense to purchase it now?”

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

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