Jazz Aspen Snowmass, city in talks over public-partnership
Still optimistic that it will have a music and education venue to call its own, Jazz Aspen Snowmass might ask voters to weigh in on its future.
The Aspen government on Thursday released details of a private-public partnership that would include using $4 million from Wheeler Opera House coffers to help fund the $15 million acquisition of a downtown building. Another $1 million would account for subsidies for “community nights” at the venue over the course of a decade, according to a memo from Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler to City Council.
For now, however, first things first.
JAS CEO and President Jim Horowitz is scheduled to make his pitch to Aspen City Council at a work session Tuesday. It would be to up the council to decide whether it is on board to craft ballot language for the midterm elections in November. If it is, in August the city would finalize the question seeking voters’ approval of using $5 million of the Wheeler’s $32 million funds, which are supported through the real estate transfer tax.
“We have a plan that we think dovetails with the city’s goals,” Horowitz said Thursday, saying the new JAS Center could achieve the City Council’s previously stated goal of providing an additional arts and nonprofit spot on the open space next to the opera house.
The financial aspects of the partnership would include the city getting 30 percent equity for its $4 million investment in a 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, according to the memo.
“City of Aspen will be a capital investor and does not intend to participate in further building maintenance expenditures,” the memo says.
Horowitz said JAS is deep in negotiations with the owner of a downtown building for purchase. He said the identity of the building will be revealed in the near future.
It won’t be the Wheeler Square Building, which JAS had under contract to buy for $11.5 million, with another $3.5 million aimed at a remodel, until the deal fell through last week.
That outcome doesn’t change what Horowitz envisions as the JAS Center, a 200-person capacity venue that would play host to jazz shows and music-education offerings, as well as city and community events.
JAS has a preliminarily agreed to allow the opera house to use the venue for at least 14 days a year to present events in conjunction with the Aspen Laugh Festival and the Mountain Film in Aspen Festival, workshops and master classes, according to Buhler’s memo. The city also use would the space “for a mutually agreed upon rate,” the memo says, for public meetings and open houses.
The memo from Buhler, who is out of town this week and unavailable for comment, also notes the JAS Center would provide at least 40 days annually to be used for community events, meeting space and rehearsal space.
That agreement would sunset after 10 years but could be renegotiated, according to the memo.
“Jazz Aspen has a desire to be in the Aspen core, and that was sufficient for developing these parameters,” Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said.
Recognizing that if the City Council is on board with bringing the issue to voters, Horowitz said he is ready to go into campaign mode.
Part of his pitch is that community groups such as nonprofits could use the JAS Center for gatherings and events, as opposed to the big ballrooms at Aspen’s larger hotels. Horowitz also said the city could realize large financial savings through the JAS Center, chiefly because it would serve a community purpose the city envisioned through a Wheeler expansion with building costs pegged from $18 million to $27 million.
But what really gets Horowitz, an accomplished jazz pianist, giddy is what he foresees as an intimate music venue with world-class artists, as well as the expansion of the nonprofit’s educational program.
He also recognized the hatching of a public partnership will take buy-in from the Wheeler’s board of directors, City Council and, ultimately, the electorate.
“If the voters, the city, the Wheeler board, or any combination of them say ‘we don’t like this deal for whatever reason,’ we’re not going to do it,” he said.
Even without the support, Horowitz said JAS would find a way to purchase the building. JAS announced in March its five-year capital campaign to raise $25 million.
The Wheeler staff supports the partnership, the memo says.
“Staff recommends that the funds required for this partnership come from the current WRETT fund balance. Use of the funds would require voter approval. Further, this partnership option would delay the construction disruption and cost of an expanded Wheeler for at least the initial 10-year period.”
Tuesday’s work session is set for 4 p.m. in the basement of City Hall. The JAS Center discussion will follow a talk about expanding bus service in August.