Campaign being formed around Wheeler money ballot question
Proponent of question 2A are organizing; ballots will appear in voters’ mailboxes in just over two weeks
A campaign is shaping up to promote the passage of ballot measure 2A, which asks Aspen voters to repurpose a portion of the real estate transfer tax revenue that is dedicated to the historic Wheeler Opera House.
An issue committee called “Aspen for Arts, Arts for Aspen” has been filed with the City Clerk’s office by Cristal Logan, chair of the chamber of commerce board of directors who represents local arts and culture organizations.
Logan said last week that the committee will fundraise and campaign on behalf of local arts and culture groups who stand to benefit from the diversion of funds from the Wheeler because the question asks to remove a $100,000 annual cap in grants to them.
“We are all banded together as a team and working 1,000% to get this passed,” said Logan, who is the vice president of Aspen Community Programs and Engagement at the Aspen Institute.
Aspen voters in 1979 originally approved and then reaffirmed in 2016 with the extension of the tax to 2039 that Wheeler real estate transfer tax (RETT) revenue goes to the opera house, along with the annual $100,000 to local cultural organizations.
A divided Aspen City Council voted 3-2 on Sept. 3 to send the question to voters, which 60% must approve for passage, based on the 1979 ballot language.
The Wheeler RETT fund currently has $40 million in it and council members agree that more funding should go to a broader base of cultural, visual and performing arts.
This fall’s ballot question also asks that a portion of the RETT be repurposed to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management fund.
Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater, which is in financial straits due to changes in the film industry and COVID-19.
How much to divert, how much to leave for the historic opera house and where the future revenue goes will be decided in the future by council.
Rachel Richards and Ward Hauenstein, the two council members in the minority in the Sept. 3 vote, said the details are not ripe enough to send to voters.
Richards pointed to a city-hired polling consultant that determined the question is likely to fail at the ballot box, and Hauentein said he wants to ensure that adequate funding is secured for other pressing needs like affordable child care and mental health.
Council members John Doyle and Skippy Mesirow, along with Mayor Torre, said the question, which has been debated in the community for years, should be decided by voters now.
They have a short window to convince an electorate who historically is evenly divided on issues.
A look at some key numbers for the Nov. 2 election:
There are 5,788 active registered voters in Aspen and 13,889 in Pitkin County.
Ballots will be mailed out Oct. 8.
Overseas ballots were mailed Sept. 17.
Early voting begins at the Pitkin County administration building Oct. 25.
Ballots can be dropped off at town halls in Snowmass Village and Basalt, as well as the county administration building on Main Street.
For more information, go to http://www.pitkinvotes.com
Election Day is Nov. 2, although ballots will be mailed out Oct. 8 with the expectation that they will land in voters’ mailboxes within a few days after that.
Doyle, Mesirow and Torre said they plan to promote their support for the question in the form of letters to the editor, guest commentaries, on their social media platforms, as well as helping the Aspen for Arts, Arts for Aspen campaign.
Logan said a website, aspenforarts.org, is being built where campaign information can be found and the committee will be sending mailers to registered voters.
She said supporters will make phone calls to residents, and the committee plans to hold virtual forums to educate voters on the issue.
The executive directors and presidents and CEOs of organizations including the Music Associates of Aspen, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Theatre Aspen and Aspen Film have publicly given their support for the ballot question.
Logan said those organizations, along with other local arts and culture nonprofits, have not seen increased grant funding for years, but their costs have gone up and their operations are still reeling from COVID-19 economic losses.
If more funding comes their way from RETT revenue, increased programming is possible.
“We are committed to our community and programming year round for locals,” she said.
It’s unknown yet whether there will be organized opposition to ballot question 2A, but there is a group who is disappointed in council’s decision and are contemplating it.
They are part of a group of citizens who in July tried to put a citizen referendum on this fall’s ballot that would’ve removed the $100,000 cap and approved a $10 million grant to the Aspen School District to upgrade and renovate the 550-seat Aspen District Theater and 150-seat black box space.
The group was unsuccessful in getting the required amount of signatures from Aspen voters, but the effort made some elected officials nervous, and it forced their hand to make a move now.
Doyle said he plans to write a letter to his supporters who helped him win his seat this past March explaining why he backs 2A.
“I honestly think we can push this through and get it done, and it quells any groups from trying to claim this pot of gold,” he said, adding this fall’s question honors the intent of the original ballot language.
Torre said he realizes that it’s a challenge to get 60% of the electorate on board, which is why he intends on campaigning hard.
“I plan on talking to people every chance I get, and I intend on broadening the scope and message as much as I can,” he said, adding that he’s considering spending his own money on yard signs. “It’s full on, and I am excited about the opportunity and I believe in what we are doing.”