Aspen City Council wants Wheeler board to remain advisors |

Aspen City Council wants Wheeler board to remain advisors

historic Wheeler Opera House
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times file photo |

wheeler board swot

In January, the Wheeler Opera House board completed an analysis of the facility called the SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threats). Here is a summary of the key points:


Building — Its facility, history, location and condition

Funding and subsidy model (supported by a .5 percent real estate transfer tax)

Focus on community access and affordability


• Gap in community education and knowledge about Wheeler programs

• Facility limitations — Stage size, historic elements, no fly space, limited back of houses space

• Staff — Housing and turnover


• Wheeler is a leader of Aspen cultural arts community as performing arts center and an arts hub in the center of Aspen.

• Growth potential for facility expansion via land ownership and real estate transfer tax funding.

• Population growth and arts based economic drivers.


• Ability to keep up with changes in the community and industry.

• Perception and ability to be wasteful of real estate transfer tax funds and subsidy.

• Programming and community access balance of “quality, quantity and diversity.”

The citizen board that advises the city of Aspen on the Wheeler Opera House’s operations was initially met with major pushback from elected officials Tuesday when it asked for additional responsibilities.

The Wheeler board met with Aspen City Council to go over a broad list of topics, including its work plan for the year, its mission and goals, the facility’s long-range financial plan and a review of the board’s current powers and duties.

In a memo to council from Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler, the question from the board to council was: “Is the Wheeler board’s role to focus on the facility of the Wheeler with attention to programs and operations that are within the four walls of the building; or is it a performing arts department with reach outside of the four walls, where the Wheeler board is tasked with big-picture leadership?”

The board also is interested in being involved in a discussion regarding the need, purpose and value of establishing a cultural arts commission.

Mayor Steve Skadron told the board he was “stunned” by the memo and to think that it had any role beyond its original core mission of being advisory to council.

“I’m somewhat unsettled by the aggressiveness of this memo,” he said.

Council members Ward Hauenstein and Ann Mullins had similar reactions.

“I was disturbed by this too,” Mullins said, adding she likes to discuss big-picture ideas but she was shocked by the board’s proposed expansion of duties and responsibilities.

Hauenstein said it was an overreach by the board to suggest anything outside of its current role as set by ordinance.

Board Chairman Chip Fuller said it wasn’t the board’s intent to take over management of the historic facility or control arts and culture activity outside of the Wheeler as some council members may have thought. It’s a matter of asking council to allow it to revisit the board’s mission statement, which contradicts its defined role.

“In no way are we saying we want to be in charge,” Fuller said. “We don’t think we can redefine it on our own.”

The board’s mission and goals were established in 2009 and say in part that it should “support the cultural assets of the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Currently, the board’s responsibilities are regulated to recommending policies on scheduling and rates for theater operations as well as policy and rental prices for the commercial space in the Wheeler.

The board wants to hire a consultant to help refine and clarify the Wheeler’s mission and goals over the next nine months. As part of that process, the board wants to have more than an advisory role on in-house operations and policy.

No specifics have been identified but staff wants clarity on whether the board should advise on setting annual goals for growth and development for outreach and education programs, according to the memo. Also, board members want to know whether they should act as ambassadors for Wheeler programs by volunteering at events and encouraging ticket sales.

Skadron and his colleagues walked back their previous comments once they heard from board members that they simply wanted direction on their role now and in the future.

“At this moment, it’s important to me that your role is to advise council,” the mayor said. “We need your expertise, … we need your help” to ensure that programming at the Wheeler continues to be successful.

The facility is at 80 percent capacity, with 300 days booked with events each year, Fuller said.

The broader question of how the Wheeler board would participate in a community- or valley-wide conversation to collaborate with other arts organizations and nonprofits will be addressed in the future.

Most council members agreed that the Wheeler board should be involved in that effort, but it ought to remain focused on programming within the building.

The concept of an arts and culture commission is scheduled to be discussed April 3 with council and people involved in the local arts industry, Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said.

That is when the question will be posed on whether it’s viable and valuable for arts and culture organizations to collaborate with the city, and if that should be guided by a newly established commission. Ott added that it doesn’t necessarily have to be run by city government.

She said the goal is to support the phenomenal arts community here and recognize how it contributes to the overall economy.

“I see such a robust passion around the arts in this community,” she said prior to Tuesday’s council meeting. “The question is, ‘What makes sense for these organizations?’”

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