Wheeler expansion steps into spotlight | AspenTimes.com

Wheeler expansion steps into spotlight

ASPEN ” Plans for a second performing arts center in Aspen are back on the table ” a notion that has been under consideration for three decades.

Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton is working diligently to convince elected leaders that a new facility should be built next door to the historic theater.

He will present a plan to the City Council in January calling for building a new facility on the open-space parcel next to the Wheeler on Hyman Avenue. It was bought in 1982 specifically for future Wheeler use.

A 21st-century master plan for the Wheeler has been in the works for several years, and a new facility will be part of that, Slaton said, adding that he is due to discuss the idea with the council on Jan. 29.

“We are building a responsible case for it,” he said. “There are positive and negatives.”

However, Slaton said he believes there are more positives than negatives. Area nonprofits such as the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Theater Aspen and Music Associates of Aspen all have indicated that they could use more space, Slaton said.

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“We want to take what everyone is doing and build a platform for them with a second, smaller house,” he said. “I think there is a need to make the best and most functional theater for the arts groups.”

The empty parcel is 60 feet wide by 100 feet deep, or roughly the same size as the space where the existing Wheeler Opera House sits, Slaton said.

The new facility wouldn’t be as tall as the historic theater, which is five stories. But a significant portion of it could be built underground ” 40 feet or deeper. An engineer has taken soil samples, which indicate that building underground is feasible, Slaton said.

A theater consultant has been brought in to help with the master plan process, and an architect has reviewed the existing building, which could withstand the development of a new facility connected to it, Slaton said.

A new facility would be smaller than the existing Wheeler Opera House, which houses 30,000 square feet of usable space. Moving some portions of the Wheeler’s operations ” such as the box office ” to a second building could improve the functionality of the existing facility, Slaton said. For example, rehearsal space could go where the box office currently is.

Slaton said he has compiled documentation dating back to the 1970s that discusses the need and possibility of a theater expansion. He has presented that information to the Wheeler Board of Directors, which is supportive of the expansion.

The City Council a few years ago asked for a master plan for the facility. Slaton has begun that process but needs guidance from the current council to move forward.

Slaton discussed the idea with City Council last month. Some council members voiced their concerns that there already is enough construction downtown, and they question whether another facility is necessary.

A facility needs assessment likely will occur as part of the master planning process, Slaton said.

As far back as 1977, officials recognized a need for more arts space, but there wasn’t enough money to get anything built, Slaton said.

Today, the Wheeler has a healthy endowment fund ” courtesy of the local real estate market, which has been strong for years.

The fund that sustains an endowment for the Wheeler Opera House’s continued operation is expected to be $30 million more than the original projections.

The Wheeler’s portion of the Real Estate Transfer Tax, a half-cent, already has generated more than $20 million since 2002, when Aspen residents voted to create an endowment for the facility. That tax revenue source will expire in 2018.

With the phenomenal growth in the real estate industry during the last several years, city officials have realized that their original revenue projections for the Wheeler were far lower than what reality has shown them.

The RETT has grown an average of 20 percent. Officials had conservatively estimated that growth to be between 12 and 15 percent.

The original estimates were $40 million by 2018, but now it’s expected that the RETT will generate $70 million by then, said city finance director Paul Menter.

Slaton said that because the Wheeler owns the land and has sufficient funds for use for the project, a multitude of financing schemes could be employed. The entire project could be funded with existing cash, or a bond could be issued that’s guaranteed and paid out of current-year RETT collections and other annual cash sources.

The Wheeler is booked between 250 and 300 days a year, and operates nearly at capacity. And as more places like the Crystal Palace close, the need for performing arts space continues to grow, Slaton said.

“This is a long-standing conversation, and it should be considered,” he said. “I think it’s the right time and the right opportunity.”

Carolyn Sackariason’s e-mail address is csackariason@aspentimes.com.

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