City, Jazz Aspen Snowmass start talks of public-private partnership

Location, location, location.

That was one of the most pressing issues for Aspen elected officials at a work session Tuesday addressing the potential public-private partnership between Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the city.

JAS’ top-ranking executive said it is on the brink of securing a contract to buy a downtown commercial building the nonprofit would use as a venue for live music and educational programming. JAS also is courting the city for a partnership that would include the city taking $4 million from the Wheeler Opera House real estate transfer tax funds to help fund the purchase of the building — purported to have a fair-market value of $15 million — and another $1 million to help subsidize community events at the venue for a period of a decade. Because the transfer tax and its extensions have been voter approved, the electorate also would have to decide whether to earmark another $5 million for the proposed partnership between JAS and the city.

For now, the identity of the building is a mystery that JAS President and CEO Jim Horowitz cannot divulge because of the level of negotiations taking place.

“We’re in the final discussions,” Horowitz told City Council members, explaining why he cannot publicly identify the building. “It could be 48 hours, it could be 72, it could be next week. We have a case with a very interested seller and a very interested buyer, and you know how that goes.”

Until that detail comes out, some members of council said they could not immediately commit, though they expressed preliminary support, for preparing ballot language by August in time for the November elections.

JAS previously had the Wheeler Square Building, which is located across from the opera house on East Hyman Avenue, under contract to buy, but the deal fell through earlier this month. That would have been an ideal space, said Councilman Bert Myrin, noting he also would support the undeveloped, city-owned space next to the Wheeler for JAS.

“To me, location is going to be a deal breaker,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said.

Replied Horowitz: “You’ll like the location. I’ll make a gentleman’s bet with you.”

Horowitz’s concept has the support of city staff, including Gena Buhler, executive director of the city-owned Wheeler Opera House, which has $32 million in transfer-tax funds that are designated for arts and cultural purposes.

Both the council and Buhler have been discussing long-term plans for a possible Wheeler expansion, most likely in the open space next to the opera house. Under the JAS proposal, voter approval would result in a 200- to 250-person capacity venue that would be used at least 40 days annually for community events, meeting space and rehearsal space under the public-private partnership. The other days would be used for JAS’ independent programming and educational efforts.

The work session resulted in the council’s directive to the Wheeler’s board of directors to analyze the opera house’s $1 million subsidy for community events. The board plans to take up the matter this week and in coming weeks, board Chairman Chip Fuller said.

“I have a lot of questions,” Fuller said. “For example, obviously, where is the space? Is the $4 million real estate investment a better investment than what the $4 million is doing right now? Does it meet our short-term goals, and does it meet our long-term goals? Which of these items are negotiable?”

Fuller added that public-partnerships “can be huge successes but can also be huge disasters.”

The board is expected to return to the council in another month to disclose its findings. Also in the meantime, the city plans to do public outreach about the possibility of an alliance between JAS and the city.

The financial aspects of the partnership would include the city getting 30 percent equity for its $4 million investment in the mystery building valued at $15 million. The city also would have right of first refusal on the building were JAS to sell it, while JAS would have the right to buy out the city’s investment. Under the latter scenario, the city would still be afforded community events at the JAS Center.

“We’re going to make a great partnership,” said Horowitz, who noted that if the public-private partnership does not materialize, JAS will still move forward with having its own venue downtown. “We think we can do it.”