Aspen voters will get say on Isis tax | AspenTimes.com
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Aspen voters will get say on Isis tax

Janet Urquhart

Aspen voters will get their say on a proposed sales tax to save the Isis Theatre, at least temporarily.

The City Council agreed in a 4-1 vote Monday to put the tax on the May ballot, with Mayor Rachel Richards casting the dissenting vote.

“It looks like bad business to me,” she said. “I think you make the deal and then you go out for financing on the project.”

Initially, Councilman Tom McCabe, too, said he could not support the tax measure, but he threw his vote in with the majority after it was clear that it would pass.

“Let the voters at least determine the fate of the Isis,” said Councilman Jim Markalunas, echoing the arguments of council candidate Andrew Kole, who has spearheaded the sales tax proposal.

Voters will be asked if the city sales tax should be increased by 0.2 percent, generating up to $880,000 annually, to lease the entire five-screen theater. The tax is contingent on the city negotiating at least a four-year lease for the facility with the building’s owners, with extensions of at least 16 years. “If there’s no lease, there’s no tax,” Kole said.

Kole lobbied the council to let city voters decide if preserving the movie theater is how they want to spend their money. The initial four-year lease buys the community time to come up with a long-range plan to preserve the Isis, he said.

“My objective is not for the city, by any means, to own the theater, but for the community to retain the theater,” Kole said.

Councilman Tony Hershey was quick to back Kole’s call to put the matter before voters.

“I’ve never seen a question so onerous you can’t ask it,” he said. “If the people choose to spend their tax money this way, then that’s how they choose to spend it.”

Richards said she doesn’t “buy into the hysteria” that is pushing quick action on the closed theater. She suggested the community may get a better deal to buy the building down the road.

“I think they [the owners] will probably sell at some point and take a loss,” she predicted.

Sam Houston, one of the building’s owners and the spokesman for the partnership, said Isis LLC is losing $2,000 a day on the empty building and would be acting quickly to convert at least part of the cinema to some other use if Kole’s plan fails.

“I think people should have the right to vote on it, but I just want to point out we’ve never asked for help. We’ve never asked for a bailout,” Houston said.

He also released details on the partnership’s costs in buying the old one-screen theater and converting it into a state-of-the-art, five-screen venue. The project cost $10.9 million, according to Houston.

The owners’ net costs amount to nearly $10.2 million, Houston revealed. That sum reflects revenue from the sale of a free-market condo atop the theater and the losses incurred since the former operator of the theater quit paying the bills last October.

The theater has been closed since Resort Theaters of America pulled out in December.

Isis LLC offered to sell the building to the community for $12 million, plus tax credits.

Richards predicted voters would not endorse a tax measure that does not give them eventual ownership of the building.

“I think this has the potential of killing the Isis, not saving it, Andrew,” she said.

The community could gain something more tangible than a lease on a movie theater with the tax Kole is proposing, Richards also pointed out. She offered construction of a new venue for Aspen’s Theater in the Park on the city lot next to the Wheeler Opera House as an example.

It was Councilman Terry Paulson who ultimately sided with Hershey and Markalunas in agreeing to put the measure on the ballot, and who gave Kole the vote he didn’t think he had going into the discussion.

“I’m still in the hysterical crowd – about losing something we’re going to regret,” Paulson said. “I just don’t want to have my name on the list that says we did nothing.”

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