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Owners of Isis will sell for $12 million

Janet Urquhart

Owners of the Isis Theatre are willing to sell the building to the city or a consortium of local interests for $12 million, according to Sam Houston, spokesman for the ownership group.

That’s a non-negotiable price that is good for a yet-undetermined amount of time. But Houston assured about 125 interested citizens who gathered at the movie house Tuesday that he’d work to keep the purchase option open to the community as long as he can.

“I’m going to bend over backward to give you enough time to succeed,” Houston told an audience made up of wealthy potential donors, working-class locals and representatives of various organizations that may play a role in giving the closed theater a new lease on life.

The group munched popcorn donated by Little Annie’s Eating House and downed sodas provided by the city during a three-hour town meeting on what can be done to save the theater, which closed last month.

Houston, who took center stage for most of the evening, spoke in front of a backdrop of black sound-proofing material and metal framework. The movie screen, like the projectors and sound equipment in the five-screen cinema, has been carted away by Resort Theaters of America, which abruptly pulled its operation out of Aspen on Dec. 7, citing mounting financial losses. Fortunately, RTA left the seats, which it also owns.

“My God, the theater’s never been fuller,” said Houston, who ultimately earned a round of applause for fielding plenty of pointed questions.

Though the meeting’s organizers set aside time for audience members to express their feelings about the beloved theater, most wanted to cut to the chase and quiz Houston about the bottom line.

The theater’s owners, Isis LLC, have assessed the Hopkins Avenue property’s worth at $18 million, according to Houston. Figuring it would take $1 million to convert the ground floor into retail space, he predicted the partnership could easily find a buyer to snap up the building for $17 million.

“The partners are willing to take millions of dollars less than it’s worth to us if we converted it and sold it,” Houston said. “We would be foregoing, even with a tax writeoff, several million dollars. It would be serious money we’d be giving up.”

Though the partners will give the community some time to put together a plan to acquire the building, Houston said the owners won’t wait too long.

“I can tell you that time is of the essence,” he said. “We have a $60,000-a-month clock ticking.”

The owners have a mortgage of about $5.5 million and are facing monthly payments of close to $60,000, Houston said. He declined to reveal how much the group has invested in the property, how much of the loan has been paid off or how much the group received for the sale of a free-market condo on top of the building.

While the city and a host of organizations that could potentially use the Isis try to come up with a proposal, Houston said his partners will pursue an alternative plan – seeking city approval for conversion of the ground floor to retail space. The rent from retailers could subsidize continued operation of the three basement theaters, which may be the best the community can hope for if the building remains in private hands, Houston said.

“I am committed to doing my damndest to keep some theaters here,” he said.

Houston said he has continued to talk with other theater operators since RTA pulled out, including Dan Crown, who operates the Crown Theaters chain on the East Coast. Crown is a member of the Chicago-based family that owns the Aspen Skiing Co.

Crown expressed some interest, Houston said, but talks have gone no further than that. Nor have other operators stepped forward with proposals, he said. Houston said he doubts any commercial theater operator can operate all five screens successfully, given the high cost of the rent, though four different experts said it was possible when the Isis owners were shopping for an operator.

The Isis, formerly a funky one-screen cinema, reopened a year ago after a huge renovation that turned the building into a five-screen multiplex with two affordable housing units and a condo on the third floor.

Houston rebutted community speculation that the building’s owners won approval for expansion of the theater with plans to convert it into more profitable retail space eventually.

The group signed a 30-year lease with RTA, he noted.

“We have big structural problems to convert it. We never intended to convert it,” Houston said.

Local architect Charles Cunniffe, who designed the expanded Isis and is one of its owners, has already sketched plans for one idea – to convert the bottom three theaters into a new venue for Aspen Theater in the Park. A range of other groups, like Filmfest, the Aspen Art Museum, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, have been polled about their potential interest in the building.

The city, which has scheduled its next Isis meeting on Feb. 1, is forming a small task force to come up with a plan to save the theater.

One attendee at the meeting suggested the owners of Stage 3 Theatres buy the Isis, since it’s the better cinema, and close its Main Street movie house. The idea got a laugh from George Carisch, whose company owns Stage 3, but he assured the crowd his theater is here to stay.

If Carmike Theaters, which is in bankruptcy, pulls out at Stage 3, the owners will find another operator, Carisch vowed. “We will never close the theater,” he said.

“It seems to me this building [the Isis] is the performing arts center the community has always wanted,” said local resident Judy Royer. “I don’t just mean movies . I think it’s just a jewel for all of us. It could be, well, who knows? We’ll pull it out of the hat – we always do.”


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