Aspen’s plan to expand Wheeler gaining steam |

Aspen’s plan to expand Wheeler gaining steam

Carolyn SackariasonThe Aspen TimesAspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN Plans are formally under way to expand Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House now that $400,000 has been approved to pay for a design team and create a master plan for the historic facility.The Aspen City Council voted unanimously Monday to hire a team led by New Jersey-based Farewell Mills Gatch LLC. Included in that team is local architectural firm Rowland & Broughton, Shaw Construction and Aspen-based Bluegreen, a landscape design firm. Other local firms and national consultants will have a hand in designing the master plan for an eventual expansion of the Wheeler.The contract amount for the team is $276,350; the remaining money will be used for additional planning and consultants. The funds have been budgeted and approved by the council in the Wheelers 2009 operating budget.The projects overall cost could be as much as $30 million, and detailed plans on the expansion could be floated to voters as early as this November, according to the Wheelers executive director, Gram Slaton.How its paid for has not yet been decided, but its likely that it will be funded through the Wheelers endowment or by bond financing.We will be looking to you on how to do this and then the public, Slaton said.He said he expects construction costs to drop as a result of the recession. Now is the time to capitalize on that by putting the Wheeler expansion to voters as soon as possible and building during the economic downturn, he added.I think what weve got is a brilliant opportunity, and it wont be here long, Slaton told the council.Hiring a design team and creating a master plan does not lock city officials into constructing a new facility, Slaton said in response to council members questions.Plans for a second performing arts center in Aspen has been under consideration for more than three decades, since it was first introduced by Wheeler supporters. Construction of a Wheeler expansion has been discussed since at least 1975 as part of a renovation of the facility, which was built in 1889. Efforts to construct an expansion in 1983 were scrapped due to a lack of funds and an inappropriate design, according to Slaton.The open parcel next to the Wheeler on Hyman Avenue was bought in 1982 specifically for future Wheeler use. The property is 60 feet wide by 100 feet deep, or roughly the same size as the space where the existing Wheeler Opera House sits, Slaton said.A new facility would be smaller than the existing Wheeler Opera House, which has 30,000 square feet of usable space. Moving some portions of the Wheelers operations such as the box office to a second building could improve the functionality of the existing facility, Slaton said. For example, rehearsal space could go where the box office is currently.Area nonprofits such as the Aspen Writers Foundation, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Theatre Aspen, Aspen Film and the Aspen Center for Physics all have indicated that they could use additional space.The new facility wouldnt be as tall as the historic theater, which is five stories. But a significant portion of it could be built underground 40 feet or deeper. An engineer has taken soil samples, which indicate that building underground is feasible, Slaton said.The council a year ago directed Slaton to pursue plans for a possible expansion, and the Wheeler board of directors last month signed off on the selection of the design team.In the context of the Wheelers future, Councilman Jack Johnson urged Slaton to keep Valley Fine Art and Bentleys as existing tenants in the two city-owned spaces in the building. Starting in May, both businesses will be put on month-to-month leases.Johnson said both uses are crucial needs for the community and if Slaton wants public support, ensuring that the local businesses stay will be necessary.The Wheeler Opera Houses endowment is funded by the Real Estate Transfer Tax, which in recent years has generated more money than officials predicted. The original estimates were $40 million by 2018. But that projection likely will be scaled back now that real estate sales have fallen off as a result of the economic downturn.I think to commit to bond financing, or out of the endowment is to predict the market, said Mayor Mick Ireland.Aspen resident Don Davidson, who serves on the citys budget task force, said spending $400,000 is irresponsible without knowing what the Wheelers long-term financial health is; how the expansion will be paid for and whether it will require new taxes.Ireland and Johnson said the council is in a catch 22 situation because voters need a detailed plan to make an educated decision and that requires spending money up front on a

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