Billionaire a major investor in the Isis |

Billionaire a major investor in the Isis

Brent Gardner-Smith

Will a billionaire with close ties to Aspen play a role in getting the movie projectors rolling again at the dark Isis Theatre?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Billionaire David Koch, of Koch Industries, is a significant investor in the Isis Theatre building and is being apprised of the range of options the investor group is considering for the recently renovated theater, which was shut down right before Christmas.

Those options include finding another theater operator to come into the building; converting the street level to retail space and leaving the theaters downstairs; or converting the building to a performing arts center that could be used by groups such as the Aspen Art Museum, Aspen FilmFest and Aspen Music Festival.

“David is an investor in the group,” said Jay Rosser, a spokesperson for Koch Industries, a $35 billion oil conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan.

“He’s a significant partner, but all the partners are significant” said Sam Houston, spokesperson for Isis, LLC, the group that owns the building. And Houston confirmed Koch is being informed about the options that are being explored for the building. “All of the partners are aware of the situation.”

“He has a major stake in it,” said Charles Cunniffe, the Aspen architect who designed the renovation of the Isis and a member of the ownership group. Cunniffe said he talked with Koch at a recent holiday party about the situation at the Isis.

“We chatted about the theater,” Cunniffe said. “But I don’t think it is my place to tell him to belly up to the bar and pay for everything. “

It’s unclear whether Koch has an emotional attachment to the Isis remaining as a movie theater or becoming a local performance arts center, or whether his involvement as an investor is strictly economic.

Cunniffe said Koch’s attachment to the Isis was a “pure investment.” However, Koch has shown significant interest in the past in creating a significant civic amenity in downtown Aspen, which some think the Isis could become.

In the early 1990s, Koch proposed spending $3 million to build an ice rink at Wagner Park. He then hoped to donate the Olympic-sized rink to the city of Aspen.

He spent at least $50,000 on planning and designing for the rink, which was to be converted back into a playing field each summer.

Part of Koch’s plan included setting up a nonprofit foundation with a citizen board to operate the rink. The proposal generated lots of discussion, but in the end the City Council rejected the plan by a 3-2 vote and the idea died.

Koch was said to be frustrated by the experience but he has remained a visible member of Aspen’s community of part-time residents. He is on the board of the Aspen Institute and is well known for his lavish New Year’s Eve parties and the well-stocked wine cellar at his West End home.

But is he willing to help “Save the Isis” by using a portion of his reported $3.1 billion fortune? Does it make sense to create the “Koch Isis Center for Performing Arts?”

Sam Houston thinks it is a “totally unfair” question.

Koch’s spokesperson would only say it was a “group decision” as to what happens to the building.

Former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, who voted for Koch’s ice rink proposal in 1992, said Koch was motivated by his passion for an ice rink, and not a general notion to give money to the city.

“He was not interested, 10 years ago, in donating a large amount of money just to be donating the money,” Bennett said. “He made it clear that he was not offering the possibility of free money for any endeavor that came along. He was particularly interested in an ice rink in that central position in downtown Aspen.”

And while Koch and his wife Julia have been big supporters of the American Ballet Theatre, there is no telling yet whether he will play a key role in shaping the future of the Isis as a cultural amenity for Aspen.

But time, and more information, may tell.

“The partners have not looked at all the options yet,” said Houston. “And they are not aware yet of all the details.”

And Houston said of Koch, “He’s the best partner I’ve had in my life. He doesn’t have to do something because someone asked.”

When asked if Koch had an emotional attachment to the Isis, Houston said, “I couldn’t answer that for David.”

But he added, “In the future, maybe people’s attachment to it as a theater will become more apparent.”

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