Aspen planning to expand Wheeler hits brakes | AspenTimes.com

Aspen planning to expand Wheeler hits brakes

Carolyn SackariasonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Plans for a $30 million Wheeler Opera House expansion have come to a halt after members of the Aspen City Council on Monday told the design team to back off on its pursuit to build a second facility.Some council members said the price tag is too high and questioned whether there is a real need to build a new 265-theater on an empty parcel located next to the historic venue.The council directed Wheeler Executive Director Gram Slaton to hire an independent consultant to develop a needs assessment of all arts-type facilities in town to determine if they are at capacity throughout the year.Slaton and a team of designers hired to create a conceptual design for a new theater presented a financial pro forma of the facility to council on Monday. But at the end of the presentation, they were told to slow down the effort, come up with alternatives to a new theater and regroup.The council earlier this year agreed to spend $3 million in 2010 on conceptual and detailed designs so they could be presented to voters in November 2010, when a possible election would occur to authorize bond financing.While the money has been budgeted, it has not been appropriated. City officials leading the effort have been asked to request the funds at incremental times during the process.Steve Bossart, the city’s project planner, on Monday requested $728,000 to carry the design team through May with its conceptual plans.But a majority of the council wouldn’t approve the expenditure, saying they weren’t comfortable moving forward with the plans as presented.Instead, council members approved $50,000 for a needs assessment and asked Slaton to find alternative sites that could possibly be purchased in lieu of constructing a new building. They also asked that Slaton come back early next year with a scaled-back version, a phased project and other alternatives that could solve the Wheeler’s space and operational challenges.Councilman Steve Skadron said he was reluctant to approve any further funding because as the proposal advances, he philosophically disagrees with it. He added that the Wheeler is a historic structure that should be left alone, and building more in downtown Aspen creates unnecessary growth, and ruins the scale of the resort.”I think the Wheeler should stand proudly, singularly and iconicly,” he said. “At some point Aspen has to live within its means … at some point we have to identify what makes us special.”Councilman Dwayne Romero said the project’s price tag makes him “gag.”The Wheeler has about $26 million available in its endowment to build the second facility. The endowment is funded by the real estate transfer tax (RETT), a 0.5 percent tax on real estate sales for the purposes of renovating, reconstructing and maintaining the Wheeler Opera House, according to the ballot language when it was first passed in 1979. The endowment is accruing interest and by the time the building would be constructed there may be enough money available to construct it but not necessarily operate it.It also means the endowment would be depleted, and Romero said that concerns him.He said he wouldn’t draw down his family’s savings account for something that wasn’t completely vital for its existence. “I still struggle with taking my entire savings account and spending beyond it,” he said, adding that many Aspen residents have shared that same notion with him. “I’m not the only one that possesses these thoughts.”Mayor Mick Ireland appeared more supportive of the project than his colleagues. He argued that having a strong arts presence is a draw for visitors and if Aspen is going to return to a sustainable tourism economy, facilities like the Wheeler are important for the future of the resort.”I try to keep my eye on the big picture,” he said, adding that an expansion is a big risk but one he’s willing to consider for the benefit of the town’s future.”What concerns me is that the community hasn’t come to a consensus on what it wants to be and this is a piece of that,” Ireland said. “We have to ask, how does this serve the long-term sustainable economy? I think there is a lot confidence building to be done.”The price tag and financing concerns Ireland as well, which is why he said he supports potentially buying an existing building for a second facility.Councilman Derek Johnson said a third-party analysis of current and future operations is needed.”I like the slow-down approach,” he said. “We do need to take time and think about it carefully … step back and decide what we are trying to do here.”Slaton – who presented the financials and the project’s next steps with his design team – which included representatives from New Jersey-based architects Farewell Mills Batch LLC, and local architectural firm Rowland & Broughton, appeared to have the wind taken out of his sails during the council’s comments.When asked by the council if he understood his next steps, Slaton replied, “I got religion on this.”When the council meeting ended at approximately 11:30 p.m., Slaton huddled with the team to discuss what had just occurred.On Tuesday, Slaton offered no comment except to say that over the next month, the team will regroup.csack@aspentimes.com