Land sought in Willits for Basalt performing arts center |

Land sought in Willits for Basalt performing arts center

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

A group that wants to build a performing-arts facility in Willits Town Center made an impassioned pitch to the Basalt Town Council last week to lease two parcels the town is holding for public purposes.

The council majority was receptive to the idea of making a three-quarter-acre parcel available for the arts center, but council members said they want to explore what other uses could be accommodated on an adjacent 2.3-acre parcel.

The Arts Center at Willits, a nonprofit organization, has a conceptual plan for a 350-person multipurpose space, an 80-person film room and lecture hall as well as a lobby and courtyard.

It envisions hosting music and dance performances, comedy shows, film screenings and lectures. It hopes to start construction in 2016, according to Julia Marshall, president of the board of directors of The Arts Center at Willits.

“We would like to be opening the doors as soon as possible,” Marshall said.

The town’s cooperation is vital to the plan. When Willits Town Center was approved by the town government, original developer Michael Lipkin agreed to give the town three-quarters of an acre for a town park or arts center and an additional 2.3 acres for a “civic parcel” with the use or uses to be determined.

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said he was “totally in favor” of leasing the small parcel for an arts facility. The town needs to look at all possible uses for the larger parcel, he said. Tennenbaum noted there is a great need for affordable housing and child care.

Councilman Bernie Grauer agreed that the town shouldn’t earmark the larger property for any use without thorough investigation of needs.

The arts are important, Grauer said, and he has been on record promoting more public art and facilities. However, he said the town government also has a fiduciary duty make sure The Arts Center at Willits can deliver on its promises.

“We have had some experiences with nonprofits that make us cautious,” he said. Grauer specifically mentioned a nonprofit that failed to build an assisted-living center after getting approvals and a nonprofit that failed to relocate residents of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park as planned. The town was forced to take over the relocation.

Members of the art group’s board of directors countered that Basalt has a golden opportunity to boost the arts and add some vitality to the town.

Marshall said the conversion of the Red Brick school building in Aspen passed by only a handful of votes when it went on the city of Aspen ballot several years ago. Now, “nobody would oppose it” because it’s a thriving home for arts groups and other nonprofits.

Lipkin, who is on the art group’s board, said Basalt probably won’t have an opportunity like this to build facilities for the arts. If land must be acquired, it would add immensely to the cost. The arts group is proposing long-term leases of the town property.

The entire 3 acres is needed to pursue the vision, Lipkin said. He urged the council to be bold and have the same foresight that led to the creation of the Aspen Meadows campus in Aspen.

He said studies of The Arts Center at Willits show there would be a high demand for the various events it would host. By the second year of operation, the center would host an estimated 240 events and be in the black. The expertise on the center’s board should give the council confidence that it can succeed, Lipkin added.

“I don’t think we’re being naive about what we’re doing,” he said.

The group wants to tap into a fund created by a real estate transfer assessment on property sales in Willits to help build the arts center. The fund was created at the time Willits was approved. Half the funds raised from property sales are broadly designated for spending on the arts. That amount is currently about $700,000.

Council members said another group promoting an arts center is exploring the possibility of acquiring the former Clark’s Market site, where a Habitat for Humanity ReStore is located downtown. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she believes the facility at Willits Town Center has a better chance of moving more quickly because the land is already in public hands. The former Clark’s site is privately owned.

“That’s in the hands of a private property owner who’s not budging,” she said.

The council and arts center advocates didn’t reach a conclusion about use of the 2.3-acre parcel. They agreed that they would keep the process moving by reviewing a proposed predevelopment agreement June 23, which will define the possible property uses and responsibilities that both sides must undertake to reach a deal.