Arts center angels waiting in the wings? |

Arts center angels waiting in the wings?

John Colson

A group of wealthy donors has offered to help pay for a new performing arts center in downtown Aspen, according to sources familiar with ongoing talks between the city and local arts organizations.Aspen resident David Cornell confirmed Monday that he and other local residents have been talking about contributing and raising an undetermined amount of money to help the arts center become a reality.He declined to identify the other individuals involved in the talks, preferring to wait until the negotiation process is a further along.Local arts groups and city officials have been discussing a performing arts facility attached to the Rio Grande Parking Garage for some time now. The entrance to the facility would open onto the Rio Grande Plaza, a large city-owned open space on the east side of the Pitkin County Library.These talks have dovetailed with the city’s ongoing planning for city-owned properties in the center of town, known as the Civic Center Master Plan.The arts groups involved in the talks include Theatre Aspen and Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet; Aspen Filmfest also has shown an interest in being part of the discussion.”The timing is there” for a performing arts facility in downtown Aspen, Cornell said in a telephone interview from Houston. He noted that Aspen’s economy is “in good shape” and the town is home, either part time or full time, to a number of potential donors with a passion for the arts.”There is a keen interest … in the performing arts in Aspen,” he emphasized, adding that city officials he has talked with “like the idea of having … an anchor down there,” and in particular the idea of a performing arts facility.”That would really begin to open up the area down there,” he said.Cornell, a businessman with interests in Houston and around the United States, has been a regular visitor to Aspen and Colorado since the 1960s. He now spends most of his “residential time” at his home on Castle Creek.Cornell and other parties interested in the performing arts facility idea were to be part of a public discussion with city officials at a recent meeting, but other pressing city business got in the way. The discussion was tabled until a later work session, perhaps in May.According to Aspen Planning Director Chris Bendon, very preliminary plans call for the performance facility to be built on the northern side of the Rio Grande Parking Garage. The facility would sit on land currently used for outdoor parking spaces in front of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association office, which is on the ground floor of the parking structure facing Rio Grande Park.He said the stage area would be at the north end of the building, with stadium seating climbing back up toward the lobby, which would open onto the Rio Grande Plaza space.David McClendon, director of Theatre Aspen and a participant in the talks, said he envisions a facility with at least “two performance venues, one larger and one smaller, more flexible,” perhaps with seating capacities of 300 and 150, respectively.He said he hopes the facility also will contain classrooms and rehearsal halls, all of which he believes could be of use to the groups now taking part in the talks and other organizations, especially organizations that work with children.According to a city official familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, there has been some skepticism about the arts groups’ ability to come up with the cash necessary to both build and operate a performing arts facility. Such facilities often run into financial trouble because ticket sales are not sufficient to pay for operations.For example, the city-owned Wheeler Opera House operating budget dips into the red every year, and requires an annual subsidy. That subsidy comes in the form of a city-sponsored real estate transfer tax, created for and dedicated to the Wheeler. Any of the tax proceeds not used for operating expenses go into the Wheeler’s endowment fund.In 2005, the Wheeler generated roughly $1.5 million in ticket receipts, lease payments and internal budgetary transfers. The operating expenses for the year were $2.23 million, meaning the RETT made up the difference of approximately $700,000.Cornell said the group has not gotten far enough in its planning to determine the cost of building a performing arts facility, or how much would be needed for operating or endowment funds.According to city officials, the only similar scenario regarding construction of a large public facility was the Aspen Recreation Center, where plans initially did not include an ice rink. A group of donors stepped forward with offers to raise the money needed for a rink, but it was not an easy task.In November 2003, the group had to hustle to complete an $8.6 million, two-year capital campaign to build the rink. The fund drive received a boost in the form of a $1 million challenge pledge by Jonathan Lewis, which the fund-drive organizers matched through a last-ditch phone bank effort.John Colson’s e-mail address is

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