Art or sandwiches in Wheeler tenant’s future?
On Tuesday evening, the Aspen City Council decided that Valley Fine Art’s current space in the historic Wheeler Opera House will go to a request for proposal (RFP) process for future tenants once its 10-year lease expires in November.
The council also specified what they imagine its future tenants to be — either an enterprise in the arts or an affordable, fast casual food model, or a mixture of both.
Mia Valley, raised in the Aspen since she was 5, has operated her art gallery for over 24 years. In 2006, she moved Valley Fine Art into its current space at the city-owned opera house.
The Wheeler Opera House, built in the 1890s, is a landmark on East Hyman and South Mill Street. In 1972, it became the first property in the city to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and only the second in Pitkin County.
The building has had numerous reiterations throughout the decades. There was an arson fire in 1912 causing much interior damage, and the theater eventually went dark. In 1947, the Aspen Company leased the old opera house from the city of Aspen for 20 years.
The city then became the property owner due to default taxes decades later.
Valley signed a ten-year lease extension with the city, now set to expire in November.
“Ten years ago, when we created this lease, there was no way I could have predicted the current retail landscape and economic situation in Aspen,” she said. “What was semi-affordable then is no longer even existent in today’s market. We are getting priced right out.”
Instead of renewing her lease, the City Council recommended in the work session that a RFP is created to attract more opportunities for different types of business in the space.
“I think it’s part of our due diligence to put this space up for an RFP,” said Councilman Sam Rose.
Councilman Bill Guth wanted an affordable grab-and-go food option for the space and was very adamant that type of service and “community-need” be in Valley’s current 497-square-foot space.
“I do not think we should maintain gallery space. I’d rather see grab-and-go, a sandwich counter, to-go sushi — some kind of quick food service,” he said. “Maybe it’s some combination of the two that we haven’t even thought of with art and a food and/or beverage component.”
“I have been so grateful and appreciative to be in this historic building with this opportunity,” said Valley. “It was such a fete to be selling these historic Americana paintings in such a significant and iconic building.”
Valley Fine Art is a bit of a rarity in a town that represents itself as an arts-focused community. The gallery is one of the longer-running, individually-owned galleries with continuous operations in Aspen.
Valley testified in front of City Council’s work session on her commitment to the lease and opportunity.
“I’ve never been late on one month’s rental payment. Even through the building’s restoration and COVID, we didn’t shutter with lack of foot traffic or default on any payments,” she said.
“I just want to applaud Mia. She is a wonderful tenant for the city,” said Councilman John Doyle. “I appreciate her business very much.”
Mayor Torre said, “We need more discussion. I’m not positive a grab-and-go will work. I still feel a gallery co-op or arts for the community would be the best use of this space.”
He personally addressed Valley as both a neighbor and mayor: “These are the hard decisions I have to make.”
The petite space is causing a large fuss among what the city thinks, desires, and demands.
“I don’t want anyone to think we are subsidizing business with this RFP,” said Guth. “However, we need to advertise this very well and get a good response. We need to get people in the space and tour it.”
In one of the most historic buildings in the entire county that already houses an eatery next door, a question is what does Aspen need more: affordable food options, especially during evening hours, as Rose pointed out, or a business such as Valley Fine Art that established the arts and culture-center mountain hamlet?
This November, Valley is looking forward to submitting her RFP.
“I know this space,” she said. “I know how to make 500 sqaure feet in Aspen profitable and still be community-minded. This building was intended for the arts and culture, and I truly hope the city council is able recognize my long-standing reputation to this commitment.”
They RFP will be created and available on the city’s website in the future. Salty snacks, sandwiches, or sublime art, the council will decide.
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