Wheeler Opera House’s future subject of dueling consultant reports as facility remains shuttered

An analysis of the internal operation of the Wheeler Opera House by an outside consultant suggesting staff is underpaid and overworked may have little bearing on how the city of Aspen-owned venue moves forward when it reopens and a new executive director is hired.

A separate report by a different consultant commissioned in July by the city pokes holes in the methods and described lack of analysis conducted by Denver-based consultant Theater Projects’ work, which recommended more positions be added to the Wheeler operation and salaries be increased, among other suggestions.

Theater Projects’ department analysis conducted earlier this year and presented to the Wheeler board of directors in September cost $28,500. It was commissioned in January by then-Wheeler executive director Gena Buhler, who under her tenure grew programming significantly and was not only pushing for a higher salary for herself, but also recognized the toll more shows was taking on her staff.

She resigned in February, and took a job with Theater Projects as the head of new business development for North America and Denver.

Assistant City Manager Diane Foster, who came on in May from the Park City, Utah, municipal government, commissioned her own study by New York-based consultant Duncan Webb to determine the validity of Theater Projects’ draft report released in June.

When asked last week if she was concerned about the objectivity of Theater Projects’ report, Foster declined to comment. However, she added that she did not know until July that Buhler had gone to work for the consulting firm.

The Aspen Times obtained the reports, along with contracts for a search firm and a team-building consultant for current Wheeler staff, under the Colorado Open Records Act.

Since 2019, the city has spent almost $150,000 on outside consultants related to the Wheeler Opera House, according to the documents.

Foster said consultants typically provide multiple recommendations, which wasn’t the case with Theater Projects’ recent departmental analysis. And even with further conversation with the consultant, she didn’t understand the report, so she sought a second opinion from Webb.

His review, which cost $6,000, concluded that Theater Projects’ “report is a valiant effort to guide the city on the operations of the Wheeler. However, there was insufficient information provided to the consultants to do their work, and it seems clear that they were under some level of duress to focus their recommendations on the priorities of Wheeler management.”

Duncan wrote in his three-page report that Theater Projects’ recommendation for adding staff positions and increasing compensation is problematic because it lacked detailed financial analysis to effectively judge the mix, level and financial contribution of programming at the Wheeler.

The Theater Projects’ analysis was an addendum to a $55,000 study conducted in 2019 to determine the Wheeler’s operating financial needs and the feasibility of a second performing arts facility.

The report found that a second facility was not necessary and the capital needs of the historic Wheeler building for the next 20 years would require just over $38 million.

That would exhaust the Wheeler’s $30 million endowment, which is fueled by a real estate transfer tax.

That report has not made it in front of Aspen City Council yet, but some elected officials have reviewed the recent department analysis, including Mayor Torre.

He said last month that it is relevant to short- and long-term planning, but not the only source of information on how to proceed with Wheeler operations once a new executive director is hired and the venue resumes programing in a post COVID-19 world.

In September, the city contracted with the Boston-based search firm Arts Consulting Group for $46,000 to find a new executive director by the end of February.

It takes almost eight months from the time a departing leader leaves a nonprofit arts organization until a successor is in place, according to the group’s scope of work and timeline, citing time for advertising, recruiting, interviews and negotiating an agreement with a candidate.

In the case of the Wheeler, it will be a year before Buhler’s replacement will be in place.

“March or April is more likely,” Foster said. “We expect to have really good candidates, and the reason we expected it internally was looking at what’s out there, a lot of theaters are closed and they’re not paying staff and some let them go altogether.”

Meanwhile, roughly a half dozen people have left their positions at the Wheeler since February, representing nearly 50% of the team.

Those who remain are under the management of interim executive director Nancy Lesley, who also is the director of the city’s special events and marketing department.

The city has contracted with Front Range consultant and founder of the Impact Institute, Christie Ward, for $10,636 to help with team building for the existing staff and Lesley.

Ward’s work includes conducting a series of personality profiles, including DiSC, Wiley Five Behaviors for Personal Development, Gallup and Core Clarity team training.

The programs are designed to help staff members understand how to work and interact with each other and the public, as well as leverage their talents and work more effectively.

Ward acknowledged in her July proposal that the Wheeler and its people are at a crossroads.

“The Wheeler team has been through a lot of change in the last several months,” she wrote. “The previous manager was well liked and left, and the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place has forced staff out of the building and to work remotely.

“The biggest impact to this team has been the cessation of all productions and interaction with the public through their jobs at the Wheeler,” Ward continued. “Nancy Lesley has been appointed manager over the group and has a very different management style to the previous manager.”

Foster said Ward’s assistance will be beneficial to a staff who has been uprooted in reassignments to other departments because of the Wheeler shut down and the city needing help in other areas.

“This is hard for this team because they always work together and they’re always all in the building, … so not only are they not seeing each other but they’re also doing different jobs, so this is something we can do to bring them together,” Foster said.

Analysis paralysis?

The Theater Projects report, which had the assistance of Keen Independent Research, had gone through different iterations since the work began in February. By the time it was completed, it had some cursory references to Buhler’s departure, her new role at Theater Projects, that she had no input in the report, and COVID-19 impacts to the Wheeler.

“This report isn’t that relevant post-COVID,” Foster said, adding that Daniel Ordower, general manager at Theater Projects, effectively said as much to the Wheeler board in September.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some takeaways for city officials to consider for the future.

“There are lots of what I call ‘gems’ in that report,” Foster said, referencing the analysis of the types of events held at the Wheeler in the past five years and the revenue and expenses that came from them. “I’m not willing to throw it out the window. … There is good data gathering that they did that was really helpful.”

Foster said one way to avoid staff burnout is reduce programming, rather than hire more people.

That will be a policy decision that will be decided by the board, City Council and a new executive director once COVID-19 is over, Foster said.

“I think it can be reduced a little bit, I don’t want to cut it in half but there’s some happy medium in there that creates a level of sanity and reality,” Foster said.

Wheeler board chairman Chip Fuller said Buhler did a great job booking the venue with quality performers, and Theater Projects’ report made it clear that level of activity was putting stress on the staff.

He acknowledged that the timing of the report is unfortunate due to COVID-19, but it provides some context for future decision-making.

“The board agreed that the document is one of the templates that the new executive director will use,” Fuller said.

Wheeler board members expressed concern to City Council during a work session in January about the sustainability and strain on staff, according to the Theater Projects report.

The consulting firm said in its executive summary that it conducted a thorough review of financial statements, event settlements, utilization reports and ticketing data.

“Overall, we believe that the utilization of the Wheeler Opera House is in line with our expectations for a thriving civic performing arts center,” the report reads. “Total days used averages about 260 days per year with just over half of that time given over to community-based rentals.”

However, increased programming has resulted in frustrations from the staff with overtime and pay, according to the report.

The report cited as much as a 300% increase in overtime pay and a 20% increase in hours among Wheeler staff in 2019 over 2016.

“Our interviews with the staff exposed a collective feeling of overwork and underpayment,” the report states.

Theater Projects recommended approximately $225,000 in additional expenses for 20% salary increases across the board.

Webb’s report questions Theater Project’s analysis of staff time and the resulting recommendations for adding positions and increasing compensation.

“Despite the fact that activity at the Wheeler has not returned to levels seen since 2014, the report asserts that staff hours are now higher than ever … but is unclear why staff time is increasing,” his report states. “There was a 9% increase in activity from 2016 (141 events) to 2019 (154 events). But in that same period of time, there was a 19% increase in total hours worked and a 307% increase in overtime hours. Why did that happen?”

Theater Projects also states in its report that under the current structure, too many people are directly reporting to the executive director, and that could make recruitment for the next one difficult.

Theater Projects recommended that the Wheeler hire an operations director and a programming and events director, along with a restructuring of current positions in a new organizational chart.

Theater Projects estimated that an additional $300,000 would be needed to support the new positions, and the report makes suggestions on how to increase revenue and reduce expenses.

Foster said some members of the Wheeler board have expressed their desire for a reorganization of the staff.

“I just look and say the size and scale of that team and the fact that we are in the middle of COVID, let’s wait for the new executive director,” she said, adding that the city will replace one of the staff positions that was recently vacated, but the rest will remain vacant for the time being. “You want to leave space for the new person.”

In total, the city, through the Wheeler, has spent $89,500 on consultants regarding its operations.

Foster acknowledged that’s a significant amount of money, but that they are living documents that will guide future decisions.

“Neither of those are throwaway products,” she said. “I read through the capital needs report and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good road map.’”

At the Jan. 28 meeting between City Council and the Wheeler board, they discussed the new Theater Projects report that was about to begin.

“When asked what their priorities were around programming and mission and everything else, they said, ‘We want to see the report,’” Foster said. “And then COVID hit.”