At capacity: Wheeler Opera House busy 300 days a year
The number of days the Wheeler Opera House is being used for community purposes has grown in the past few years, and so has the city’s subsidy to keep it operating.
At a recent meeting with Aspen City Council, Wheeler board chairman Chip Fuller reported that the city-owned facility hosts an average of 300 events a year.
That may seem high given that the theater is dark during a portion of the offseasons and in the summer when the Aspen Music Festival and School takes it over. In actuality, it’s the usage days that matter, said Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler.
There is something happening in the historic building 300 days a year, putting it at 82 percent capacity. Buhler said it was at 57 percent when she took over in 2015.
“I think it shows how much of a benefit that we are to the community, and that we are doing our best to maximize for the community the access and openness of the facility,” she said via email. “While these days might not be performances, they are days that the community is in utilizing the space.”
There are 138 days projected this year that the Wheeler will be used for community uses, like the upcoming plays performed by local school children, a Theatre Aspen School production, or physics lectures. It used to be only 70 days dedicated to community access.
“It’s a part of our mission,” Buhler said. “For us it’s not just about getting audiences in day after day, but to also provide this experience as well, which a lot of roadhouses do not allow for because they are losing money by not having ticket revenues daily to keep the lights on.”
And that is where the city’s subsidy, via a real estate transfer tax (RETT), has come more into play lately.
Councilman Adam Frisch said about 85 percent of the Wheeler’s operations are subsidized by the RETT and the rest comes from ticket sales.
“The lights are on a lot more than they were in the past,” he said. “It’s better utilized than it was before without a doubt, and I’m very supportive.”
Buhler said the council’s directive has been that Wheeler events should generate 15 percent of the annual revenue in order to accommodate community access in the overall programming.
The Aspen Music Festival and School takes over the theater for 79 days in the summer as part of a decades-long agreement. As a result, it limits summer performances.
So Buhler said she plans to bring more performances to the lobby space this summer. From mid June through August, there will be 11 “Sunset shows” that will feature local artists, actors and musicians.
“Where we have room to grow is in the lobby performance space program, where we can begin overlapping community usage,” she said. “This allows us to maximize the access in a time frame that would otherwise not be available because of the 70 to 80 usage days with AMFS and the opera each year.”
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