No opposition to prospecting the Mother Lode |

No opposition to prospecting the Mother Lode

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It’s not every day that the city of Aspen buys a restaurant, but its proposed purchase of the Mother Lode has failed to stir up much debate in the waning weeks before voters head to the polls.

A smattering of letters to the editor in favor of the purchase is about all the community has seen so far.

“I think there are probably people who do oppose it,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud. “My feeling all along has been, if the facts get out, it’s a ballot issue that people can support, but I could be wrong.”

Referendum 2E seeks authorization to buy the restaurant property on Hyman Avenue for $3.25 million “for the continued and expanded operation of the Wheeler Opera House.”

Advocates contend the additional property opens up a whole new range of possibilities for the venerable Wheeler’s future. The purchase would double the amount of land at the Wheeler’s disposal for future expansion, but with one wrinkle: Part of the Mother Lode building is historic and must be retained.

Expansion of the Wheeler will be the focus of a future planning effort, city officials and the Wheeler’s board of directors promise, but ideas are already floating about. A versatile “black box” theater that can function as performance, rehearsal and lecture/conference space gets frequent mention.

So do the Wheeler’s other needs, including a scene shop, storage space, larger lobby and box office, and even more wing space off its stage, should an addition connect to the west side of the building. The Mother Lode could remain as a restaurant/cafe to serve the complex.

“You start talking about what could be – you talk to 20 people and you’d probably get 20 different ideas,” said Nida Tautvydas, executive director of the Wheeler. “Taking off my official hat, I do just see it as an incredible opportunity for the community to explore.”

“The potentials are huge,” agreed City Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who supported putting the purchase before the voters. The city would be remiss if it did not at least ask the question, she reasoned.

But the lack of a definitive vision for the parcel, and its price, trouble some.

City Councilman Tim Semrau cast the sole vote against putting the property under contract, calling the parcel “overpriced.”

An appraisal conducted for the city placed the value of the Mother Lode at $2.9 million. The purchase price was the result of negotiations, according to City Manager Steve Barwick.

“Why are we spending all this money on something we don’t know we need, that we can’t possibly build on for 10 years?” Semrau said.

The proposed purchase calls for the city to pay $750,000 upfront and execute a promissory note for $2.5 million with interest at 5 percent, with payments spread over 10 years.

That will tie up the Wheeler’s ability to do anything with the property for a decade, he said.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Tony Hershey, a former city councilman. “It’s just not a good deal for the citizens of Aspen – not at this price.”

Unexpected opportunity

The city wasn’t actively seeking additional property for the Wheeler when the restaurant partners, Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer, decided to put the Mother Lode parcel on the market earlier this year, noted Mayor Helen Klanderud.

It was listed for $4.5 million – $4 million for the property and $500,000 for the business, according to Ross.

One restaurant operator expressed interest, but couldn’t come up with financing, he said. Another potential buyer wanted to put it under contract for $3.5 million, but with no money down, and spend a year exploring its redevelopment potential.

Ross asked the city if it was interested.

“The city could develop something that could be such a gem for Aspen,” he said.

If the city buys the property and leases the restaurant operation, the Mother Lode stands a better chance of continuing its run as the Italian restaurant its patrons have come to know, Ross reasons.

Another buyer might convert it into another restaurant or some other commercial use altogether. The parcel is also being looked at for additional development by interested parties, though the historic building must be retained, he said.

If someone else redevelops the property, it’s not likely the city will be able to buy it down the road, Richards predicted.

The Wheeler fund, supported by a real estate transfer tax dedicated to the opera house, contains a current balance of $8.8 million – enough to buy the Mother Lode property outright.

A purchase by the city has tax benefits for the parcel’s owners, Ross conceded. The interest payments would be tax-free if the municipality buys it, he said.

Because the city doesn’t need to borrow funds for the purchase, and no new tax is proposed, next month’s ballot question isn’t mandated by state law, according to City Attorney John Worcester.

“This is a method to make sure the voters have a say,” he said.

It’s a way to make sure the voters are OK with using the Wheeler RETT for the purchase. The funds have already been used for one land acquisition – the empty lot next door to the opera house.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is

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