Aspen 2A: Ballot question resoundingly passes, will mean more funding for arts community from Wheeler RETT

Mick Ireland tosses his sign into the air alongside Tom Mossbrucker as they urge passersby to vote “yes” on 2A on Election Day in downtown Aspen on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. “Arts and culture are central to the soil of Aspen and always have been,” said Ireland. “We’re grateful for the city for this tax, because we can’t function without it,” said Mossbrucker from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The ballot question seeking to divert money from the Wheeler Opera House for more community arts funding overwhelmingly won in Tuesday’s election by a margin of 71% to nearly 29%.

In the final count, 1,629 Aspen voters checked the yes box in favor of ballot measure 2A and 660 voted against the question, according to unofficial results provided by the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

The question required 60% of the Aspen electorate to approve it, per the original ballot language from 1979 when city voters passed a 0.5% real estate transfer tax to fund the historic opera house (WRETT), as well as a cap of $100,000 in annual grants to local arts organizations.

Supporters of 2A knew it would be difficult to reach the 60% threshold in a town where voters are often split evenly on issues and the short time frame in which they had to campaign.

But they overcame those obstacles for a victory for arts organizations and venues, as well as artists, musicians and performers throughout the upper valley.

“We were told we were the underdogs and we worked so hard and we never gave up,” said Cristal Logan, the registered agent for Aspen for Arts, the political issue committee that raised over $50,000 in support of 2A.

Logan is the chair of the chamber of commerce board of directors who represents local arts and culture organizations, as well as the vice president and director of community programs for the Aspen Institute.

She said Tuesday night the passage of 2A shows how important the arts are to the community and the contribution to the Aspen Idea of feeding the mind, body and soul.

“It’s a great endorsement for arts and culture in this community,” she said, adding that she and her fellow campaigners want to thank the support of volunteers and voters. “Everyone we talked to were like, ‘why wouldn’t it pass?'”

Aspen City Council on Sept. 3 voted 3-2 to approve an ordinance sending the question to voters, after spending several months discussing competing community needs that could benefit from additional revenue from the WRETT.

The majority of council landed on a question that asked to remove the $100,000 annual cap to fund more cultural, visual and performing arts, as well as cover the yearly $2.1 million operating costs of the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts.

That facility, an old school house located in the West End on Hallam Street and is home to many arts organizations and artists, currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management fund.

Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick will allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater, which is in financial straits because of changes in the film industry and COVID-19.

However, Aspen Film is still on the hook to pay the city back the $2.1 million per a lease agreement hashed out in 2007 to save the theater from becoming a different use.

Standing at roughly $40 million, the WRETT has generated much more revenue than anticipated by voters in 1979, thanks to a robust and booming real estate market over the decades.

How much to divert, how much to leave for the Wheeler and where the future revenue goes was not detailed in the question and will be decided in the future by council.

Council members John Doyle and Skippy Mesirow and Mayor Torre voted in favor of sending the question to voters despite the short campaign time frame or lack of details on how much would be diverted, arguing that after years of the community discussing a possible reallocation of money it was time to send the question to voters.

Council members Rachel Richards and Ward Hauenstein dissented on the Sept. 3 vote for various reasons, including that the question was rushed, lacked details and poling from a city-hired consultant indicated it would lose.

They argued to wait until the fall of 2022, during the mid-term election, when more voters typically come to the polls, and details could be hashed out and then explained in a more cohesive manner on the diversion of the WRETT to the community.

They both ended up supporting the question this fall, saying they agreed with the intent of it and what voters originally wanted in 1979 and again in 2016 when it was approved to be extended through 2039.

Torre said on Tuesday night after the unofficial results were tallied that this is a win for all artists, not just the big organizations like the Aspen Music Festival and School and Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

“I look at this as a community opportunity,” he said, noting that council will likely at the beginning of the year look at a possible ways of how to divvy up future WRETT dollars and develop a system for administering grants to artists and organizations. “By ordinance, the council has the ability to set up future parameters.”

Tuesday night’s results are unofficial until county officials canvass local election returns by Nov. 24 and then transmit results to the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State then canvasses and certifies election results no later than the 27th day after the election.