Wheeler Opera House deserves a chance
September 25, 2009
The 19th-century Wheeler Opera House is an architectural and artistic jewel of Aspen, perhaps the most cherished building in town. So it behooves all of us to take a careful look at the current plan to expand the Wheeler for more performance space, administrative offices, a new box office and perhaps even an affordable housing unit.
We don’t doubt that these proposed additions to the century-old venue would be wise for Aspen’s future as a center for the arts, so we’re inclined to reject the “Don’t touch it!” arguments that inevitably surface in our fearful little burg. However, this is the Wheeler we’re talking about, and any expansion plan needs to pass an exacting gauntlet of tests, from Aspen City Council approval to voter approval.
We’re happy that Wheeler Executive Director Gram Slaton intends to take the plan to a public vote, even if the law doesn’t require it. To do otherwise would send Aspenites into a collective, and justified, frenzy.
Slaton’s conceptual plan for the Wheeler expansion goes before the City Council on Tuesday, and we hope council allows the plan to move forward. Only by approving the project at this preliminary stage can we learn the details – the exact uses of the new spaces, the look of the exterior, the effects of the addition on the historic structure and, of course, how to pay for it all.
Legitimate questions already have been raised about the fact that the expansion would all but drain the existing $26 million Wheeler endowment fund. And it’s unclear to us whether future revenue from the Wheeler Real Estate Transfer Tax (which will have to be renewed in 2019) and the box office can be realistically expected to sustain the operation. RETT proceeds are unlikely to return to the high levels that Aspen enjoyed during recent years, and projected revenue from a two-theater performing arts complex, to us at least, is a complete unknown.
City Council members and the public deserve to see a detailed financial plan, not only for the expansion but for future operations and the establishment of a permanent endowment.
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And then, of course, there are all the thorny architectural questions about how to expand and renovate a 19th-century performance venue that is publicly owned, outdated in many respects, and loved passionately by nearly every voter in town.
This proposed expansion is a very big deal. In order to fully understand it, however, the City Council should allow the proposal to move beyond the conceptual stage. Conceptual approval must not be seen as an endorsement of the final plan, but merely a green light for the Wheeler staff and its advisors to continue planning – and, ideally, to get this complicated and controversial effort right.