Wheeler Opera House needs balcony remodel job, officials say | AspenTimes.com

Wheeler Opera House needs balcony remodel job, officials say

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Though the city of Aspen last year authorized nearly $3 million in renovations to the Wheeler Opera House, the facility’s executive director says there’s more work to do.

Gram Slaton, who has been at the helm of the historic facility for nearly seven years, told City Council members on Tuesday that improvements are needed soon in the areas of technology and the balcony. He estimated that the work could cost $2 million but asked the council for permission to hire a firm to conduct a feasibility study.

The balcony sorely needs to be remodeled, Slaton said during the council work session. He reminded the council members that he brought the matter to the council in 2006. Through the years, the project has remained on the back burner.

“Nothing has been done with that balcony in 28 years,” Slaton said. “And you can argue nothing’s really been done with that balcony since 1889 in terms of making it compatible with contemporary bodies.” The opera house first opened in 1889, a decade after silver miners flocked to the area and established the city.

Last year, the city embarked on numerous renovations to the building’s basement and first-floor restaurant and retail spaces. The work also required extensive repairs to the heating and cooling system.

Slaton said a technology upgrade is in order because two years from now, 35 mm film prints will be obsolete. The movie industry is rapidly switching over to digital, he said.

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“By Christmas 2013, 35 mm print won’t exist anymore,” he said.

Mayor Mick Ireland and some council members agreed that a feasibility study is warranted and directed Slaton to proceed. Councilman Derek Johnson said he would like to see a long-term plan for opera-house capital projects so that he won’t have to wonder “what’s next.”

Council members had been expected to discuss recent steps that Slaton and his staff have taken to reduce city subsidies for Wheeler operations. That discussion got bogged down in confusion over financial figures and processes related to box-office surcharges on ticket sales for local events at the Wheeler and elsewhere.

The Wheeler’s board of directors has suggested higher ticket surcharges to raise an extra $51,000. As the discussion got under way, Councilman Adam Frisch expressed frustration while asking Slaton to explain how the charges would be applied. Mayor Mick Ireland asked Slaton to return to the council at a later time with easier explanations for the surcharges and suggested increases.

“Before I can accept a recommendation, it’s incumbent upon me to understand what the recommendation is,” Ireland said. “The way it’s being presented to me right now, it’s confusing.”

Ireland said that he needs to know if the increase represents an attempt at “cost recovery” or “deficit reduction.”

“It’s a relevant consideration,” he said. “I don’t think the public would have a problem if you said, ‘It costs us X dollars to process all of this stuff, so we’re charging you X dollars,’ as opposed to, ‘We’re going to charge more just because we can.'”

Assistant City Manager Randy Ready said a more understandable format would be prepared.

Slaton added, “We’ll make it as easy as we can.”

Last year, some council members expressed displeasure over how much the city subsidizes the Wheeler for festivals, one-night shows and other operations.

asalvail@aspentimes.com