City of Aspen decides to keep its multi-million revenue stream intact for Wheeler Opera House |

City of Aspen decides to keep its multi-million revenue stream intact for Wheeler Opera House

The Wheeler Opera House and pocket park next to it.
David Krause/The Aspen Times

Aspen’s elected officials on Tuesday opted not to siphon from the tax revenue stream that funds the Wheeler Opera House to support other arts endeavors in town.

But what City Council did decide is to fund a study next year that looks at a needs assessment of a possible facility located next to the Wheeler on city-owned land.

The majority of City Council agreed that the intent of voters in 1979 when they approved the 0.5 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) to fund the Wheeler was to pay for more performance space — not to fund other outside arts organizations.

Councilman Adam Frisch championed the idea of redistributing what would’ve amounted to about $1 million a year for more arts grants, as well as specific projects like supporting the Red Brick Arts Center.

It would require voter approval; the 1979 ordinance says only $100,000 from the RETT can be used for arts grants each year.

“It’s not that I don’t love the Wheeler — I do,” Frisch said. “I just think there is enough money that some of it can be utilized elsewhere.

“My preference is focusing on the arts.”

But Frisch failed to convince his colleagues.

Mayor Steve Skadron said he didn’t feel comfortable meddling with the original intent of the voters, saying it’s a slippery slope.

“I am finding myself more reserved than I am motivated to repurpose the funds,” he said.

The Wheeler’s fund balance is at $32 million and that money should remain in perpetuity until a plan is in place to build a sister facility next door, council members agreed.

Whether there is demand for it is what the needs assessment will address.

Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler said she can’t always fill the theater and is not sure the demand is at a critical mass point yet. She would rather see a successful Wheeler Opera House as the priority.

A proposal to build a performance facility and residence for artists failed a few years ago, mostly because of its proposed size.

Councilman Bert Myrin suggested that if any money is redistributed, more should be put toward the fund balance to account for rising construction costs, which are hovering around 8 and 10 percent a year, according to city financiers.

The RETT generated a little over $5 million last year but in 2016, it was $2 million less. That’s because the revenue stream is tied to the real estate market, which can be volatile.

The tax was set to expire in 2019. Voters two years ago extended it until 2039.

Excluding capital costs, the Wheeler has required an operational subsidy of 68 percent of its total budget. Small- and medium-sized performing arts centers throughout the country cover between 41 and 43 percent of their operating expenses.

Buhler explained those facilities have twice — if not three times — as many seats in their facilities to sell tickets, and are located in places with higher populations than Aspen’s.

RETT money also has provided for $15 million in capital improvements for the Wheeler.