Aspen to gauge public interest in Wheeler expansion
July 8, 2009
ASPEN – Before Aspen voters are asked to authorize $30 million to build an expansion onto the Wheeler Opera House, the Aspen City Council wants to hire a public opinion firm to gauge the public’s interest on whether the money should to be spent.
That was the sentiment at a council work session Tuesday with Wheeler officials, who propose a 265-seat theater to be built underground on the vacant parcel next to the existing opera house. Above-grade floors would house a new box office, administrative offices, an expanded lobby and bar area, housing for visiting artists and employees, and other community space like a multipurpose room. The new facility also would serve as the main entrance to the opera house.
Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, asked the council for direction on a few key elements of the plan before moving forward, including whether Aspen voters should be asked in November to approve funding for the expansion.
The expansion and remodel would deplete the Wheeler Opera House’s endowment, which is funded by Aspen’s real estate transfer tax (RETT). There is currently about $26 million available; another $6 million would have to be raised or borrowed.
Council members agreed that the RETT fund is an appropriate revenue source from which to draw to build the facility. However, if donors or patrons can be found to finance it with their name attached to the new building, council members said they are open to the idea.
Slaton said if a 2009 ballot question is the route to go, his planning efforts need to be stepped up and a public information campaign has to get into full swing.
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Like his council colleagues, Mayor Mick Ireland said he thinks an approval this year might be difficult because of the economic climate and the fact that this fall’s election is mail-in ballot only. He added that he doesn’t want to lose the election and have the public view it as a mandate not to build a new facility.
Council members agreed that 2010 might be a better time for a ballot measure but this November isn’t out of the question.
“I don’t think it’s an impossibility,” said Councilman Steve Skadron.
Councilman Torre said he is supportive of the overall plan.
“If we charge ahead, I’ll probably be right behind you moving forward,” he said.
Being that the city owns the property, Ireland said he thinks a formal survey of the electorate is prudent.
“As an owner, I think we’d be insane not to engage a public opinion firm to see what the community thinks,” he said.
The concept of having a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the top floor of the new building for visiting artists didn’t sit well with council members, who said that might be a luxury that the public might not support.
If some existing functions are moved into the new space, it would open up commercial spaces within the historic building, prompting a question to council members about what they’d like to see in the empty spots in Wheeler Opera House, which also houses Bentleys and Valley Fine Art Gallery.
All of the council members said they would like to see more affordable commercial spaces, and keeping the current tenants in place is a priority.
Councilman Dwayne Romero said he wants to make sure public access to the new facility, as well as usage by local performing arts groups and nonprofits, remains a priority.
Representatives from New Jersey-based Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects LLC (FMG), which has been hired as the lead architect and design firm for the new building, told the council that the new facility would be a “respectful addition” to the iconic and historic opera house.
Some members of the public asked the council to consider other places for additional performances instead of building a new structure – like the now dark Crystal Palace at the end of the street on Hyman Avenue.
Others asked the council to be cognizant that the opera house might arguably be Aspen’s most important historic structure and a large addition attached to it might ruin the original design.