City Council takes up Isis tax | AspenTimes.com
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City Council takes up Isis tax

Janet Urquhart

Suspense and drama worthy of a big screen at the Isis Theater may play out Monday night in the Aspen City Council chambers.

That’s when citizens hoping to save the theater must convince the council to put a new sales tax devoted to the Isis on the May 8 ballot. The deadline to approve ballot questions regulated by the state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights is Monday, according to City Clerk Kathryn Koch. The TABOR amendment limits government taxing and spending and requires voter approval to establish new taxes.

Local television talk show host Andrew Kole is spearheading the proposed tax. He now envisions a 0.2 percent sales tax to generate sufficient funds to lease the entire five-screen cinema for up to five years, with options to extend the lease up to 15 more years.

The move preserves the theater and buys the community time to come up with a deal to buy the Isis if it so desires, Kole reasoned. His proposal met with cautious optimism Wednesday from a task force of citizens charged with coming up with a plan to save the theater, which closed in December.

Sam Houston, a member of the partnership that owns the building and spokesman for the group, said the lease could contain various options, possibly including a multiyear purchase plan.

Further, Houston said the Isis owners are now willing to reveal their costs in purchasing the building and converting it from one screen to five in a massive renovation project. He promised to share the numbers with the city on Monday.

Community discourse about buying the Hopkins Avenue theater cooled considerably after the ownership group, Isis LLC, set the price at $12 million, plus tax credits for another $5 million.

“You’re going to see we’re not being unreasonable when you see what we spent on the building,” Houston said. “We have over $10 million in the project.”

Kole said he is not necessarily interested in pursuing purchase of the building, but wants the city to give voters the opportunity to preserve the cinema for the near future.

He believes a city-subsidized theater could be subleased to a commercial operator and used for other community events, as well. The potential for the Stage 3 Theatres operation to move into the Isis is but one possibility, Kole said.

A 0.2 percent tax would add 20 cents to the cost of a $100 purchase.

“I personally would be willing to spend that. I don’t know if anybody else would,” he said.

Leasing the building, Kole said, is a way to save the venue and give the community some breathing room. It is not, he stressed, a way to rescue a failed business venture.

“I don’t think this is bailing out Sam Houston at all,” he said. “I think they could do better by converting it to retail.”

Mayor Rachel Richards questioned the wisdom of proposing a lease without an option to purchase the building. “I hate to pay rent when you can buy,” she said.

A sales tax that would generate bonding capacity of $10 million-plus over 10 years means taxpayers are putting up enough money to buy the Isis, she pointed out.

“I think it comes down to whether the community thinks it’s a good value for the dollar,” she said.

Richards suggested putting an offer to purchase in the ballot language for Houston and his partners to consider, along with a lease arrangement. “I guess I think the community should name their price,” she said.

Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest, voiced fears that the push to get something before voters this spring, before all the details of how the Isis will be operated can be worked out, may doom the proposal.

But waiting until the November election will be too late, Houston warned the group. The Isis partners will soon start pursuing options for converting the building to another use, he said. “If it gets converted, it’s lost,” he added.

The wording of the ballot question that will be up for council consideration next week will be drafted in the coming days. Kole said he is working with city attorney John Worcester on the wording of the measure.

The Isis closed late last year after Resort Theaters of America, which leased the building, closed its Aspen operation, citing mounting financial losses. The company filed for bankruptcy last fall.

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