Aspen Science Center says it is missing link to civic space

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Library patrons use public computers upstairs at the building that the Aspen Power Plant hopes to occupy and remodel. The upstairs area would be used for generator-style office space.
Jeremy Wallace |

If not them, give us a shot.

That’s the plea made by the Aspen Science Center in a letter sent to City Council on April 10, with the nonprofit trying to position itself for top priority if lease negotiations with the Aspen Power Plant collapse.

Written by David Houggy, who is president of the Science Center, the letter says the organization is willing to take the ground level of the civic building while generator-type office space would occupy the top floor.

The riverfront structure is located off the Rio Grande Trail at 590 N. Mill St. It currently is home to the makeshift Pitkin County Library until it opens its remodeled and expanded facility next month. The Aspen Art Museum had been the previous tenant since 1979 before relocating to downtown two summers ago.

That vacancy led to a multitude of applications for the space that came predominantly from nonprofit organizations, including the Aspen Science Center.

The Aspen Power Plant proposal was not nonprofit but still mustered enough City Council votes in March 2015 to win approval for the space.

The proposal, which has evolved somewhat since its blessing, now encompasses four components: studio space for Aspen 82 television station, a business called 82 Events, a tavern run by Aspen Brewing Co., and space used for 65 desks and/or offices for entrepreneurs and business people.

The office space would consume 3,000 square feet upstairs. The remaining three enterprises would be located on the ground-level floor, which takes up 3,500 square feet.

The near-three page letter by the Science Center says, “While it is not the mission of the ASC to run an incubator space, we would partner with the people who are experts in entrepreneurship and incubator space operations. And while there may be advantages to having a beer in an incubator, we believe there are more obvious synergies between an incubator space and a science center.”

Lease negotiations between the city and Aspen Power Plant are to continue in June. They will be held in public, city authorities have said.

But the financial status of Aspen Power Plant has been a sticking point for the project’s critics.

It remains unclear if the office-space portion of the project, which Aspen Power Plant organizers say would be the building’s anchor tenant, will be nonprofit or for-profit. The other three business are for-profit.

In order for the Aspen Power Plant to satisfy the city’s regulations for what is now said to be publicly zoned space, the organization likely would have to show that it serves a community use under a nonprofit, tax-exempt umbrella. If it can’t, one alternative is to create a zoning overlay, which would require the City Council to pass an ordinance. Another option is to completely rezone the property, a process that could be a drawn-out affair.

Some residents of the Oklahoma Flats neighborhood, which is located in the immediate vicinity of the building, have come out against the project in its totality because it will serve alcohol and includes for-profit ventures in city-owned space.

“There are a couple of moving parts and we’re committed to continuing to talk with the neighbors,” said Gordon Bronson, who is in charge of the project’s office-space feature. “Hopefully we will find common ground on some of the issues that we’ve been talking about.”

Bronson said he is “comfortable with having the generator being a nonprofit.”

Obtaining tax-exempt, nonprofit status would require approval from the IRS.

“There are a lot of moving parts and we’re waiting to see what happens with council,” Bronson said.

Bronson would not discuss the Aspen Science Center’s pitch to City Council.

“I’m not in a place to comment on that because basically at this point, we are continuing on the path that was laid out by the direction of council a year ago,” he said. “I’m not going to speculate on a plan that does not exist.”

Houggy said the Science Center won’t weigh in on the merits of the Aspen Power Plant’s proposal.

“We have not taken a position about the brewery or the current proposed use of the space, but should that not work out, I just want to make clear that we would be happy to take the lower half of the building,” he said.

The Science Center is currently homeless, but Houggy sees vast potential for the organization.

“My position is we agree that an incubator would be a great space, it would be a great thing for Aspen,” he said. “Let’s see if the millennials can make it work upstairs, with our science center downstairs.”