Does Aspen need another performance facility?
A study is underway to examine whether there is a need for the Wheeler Opera House to expand into a second facility that would be built next door on an open space parcel.
Gena Buhler, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, said her board of directors is following the direction of Aspen City Council from a year ago to do the feasibility study.
At the time, council members were discussing whether to repurpose around $1 million a year from the Wheeler fund for more arts grants and specific projects related to the arts and culture segment of the community.
The Wheeler has more than $30 million in an endowment account and is funded through the 0.5 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax that voters originally approved in 1979.
Council agreed in May 2018 that the intent of voters was for the tax to someday pay for more performance space. Fast-forward a year and the Wheeler has hired a firm to determine whether there is a need for a second facility.
Buhler doubts there is, but said she supports doing the study to get a lay of the land now and into the future.
“If it says we need this in 10 years then OK, but if it’s 20 or 30 years, then maybe we go to the voters and ask for money to repurpose it,” she said Tuesday. “Hopefully this gives them the ability to not make the wrong decision.”
It was a decade ago that then-Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton was told by council members to step away from his plan to build a $30 million, 265-seat theater in the city-owned parcel next to the opera house.
Buhler said she and the new team will look at three different Wheeler expansion studies that were conducted since at least 1998.
One element of the Wheeler’s 20-year plan has been completed, which was the renovations made to the aging facility in the past several years, Buhler said.
The feasibility study will consider other facilities that are being planned, including an arts campus in Basalt called the Contemporary, as well as Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ plans for a jazz center on the Cooper Avenue mall.
Buhler acknowledged that while the Wheeler is more busy than it has been in the past and staff is utilizing the space much better, there are plenty of times during the year that it’s not at capacity, and neither are other performance spaces throughout the valley.
Also under consideration will be the amount of staff and resources another performance space would require, Buhler noted.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion of need versus want,” she said.
The firm, which Buhler said she would name later this week, will meet with representatives from area nonprofits and the private sector at the end of the month.
Work will occur over the summer, with findings presented to council in the fall.
If it’s determined there isn’t a need for a second performance space, city officials can use the winter and spring for a possible lead-up to a November 2020 to repurpose the Wheeler funds for other arts endeavors.
Meanwhile, the open space next to the Wheeler has taken on a new look with acrylic paintings from Aspen sixth-graders to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus.
Buhler said she hopes to partner with other nonprofits in the future to place art in the parcel.
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