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Clarifying where Wheeler expansion stands

Dear Editor:

While I always enjoy talking to Carolyn Sackariason on and off the record, the article about the Wheeler Opera House that ran in Thursday’s paper gives me a little more authority than I actually have. Thus, I think it’s important to take a few minutes to straighten out the record on where the Wheeler is with its expansion plans.

Is the Wheeler expansion onto the parcel of land immediately next door to the historic venue permanently parked? That’s a decision that’s up to City Council and not the Wheeler staff or board. The indication that we have from the present City Council is that the project as we have worked on it throughout 2009 is too expensive for these economic times, and that there is great reluctance to touch what Councilman Skadron called “Aspen’s Statue of Liberty.”

Fair enough; we take our direction from City Council, and they have asked us to continue to explore other ideas, as well as allocate 2010 funds for a definitive needs assessment. We’re happy to do this, and have both of these directives under way.

The Wheeler, unlike 99.9 percent of the performing arts venues in the United States, is in a very enviable position. We have a brilliant funding mechanism in place with the Real Estate Transfer Tax, which has not only allowed us to forgo annual fundraising that would pit us against all the arts groups that we serve, but also to serve them through a grants process that allocated $400,000 per year to our own arts community. It also has put more than $28 million into a holding account that can serve as an endowment. And we own the land next to the venue, so we always have the option of revisiting a plan for expansion west of the Wheeler, if and when such expansion plans – including program and price – make sense to City Council.

However, it would be incorrect to think that the Wheeler’s board and staff have discontinued plans for a Wheeler expansion. The idea of a $30 million expansion with an underground theatre as envisioned throughout 2009 is most likely “permanently parked,” but we have alternatives to consider and explore. In order to move that from study and planning into actual initiative again, however, would indeed require real demonstrated support from our arts community and City Council, which is appropriate. We believe that 35 years of documented history proves the case for a Wheeler expansion, and that given a future opportunity that makes sense, our arts groups and City Council will be supportive. So – the search goes on.

I think it’s safe to say that the Wheeler staff and board remain upbeat about the prospects, and we look forward to coming back to City Council and the public in the not-too-distant future with some substantive alternatives. We all learned a lot in 2009, and we’ll be putting that knowledge to work in 2010.

Gram Slaton

executive director, Wheeler Opera House


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