Wheeler plan nixed by voters | AspenTimes.com

Wheeler plan nixed by voters

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen voters rejected the city’s proposed purchase of the Mother Lode Restaurant by a healthy margin Tuesday.

Referendum 2E failed by a 753-585 vote, as voters apparently reacted to the $3.25 million price tag for the property, the lack of a clearly defined plan for the parcel, or both.

The purchase was proposed with future expansion of the Wheeler Opera House next door in mind, but there were no firm plans for an addition to the Wheeler in place.

About 56 percent of the vote went against the proposal, surprising City Councilman Tim Semrau, a vocal opponent of the purchase.

“That’s amazing,” he said after yesterday’s votes were tallied. “That really surprises me. I’m surprised hard-nosed fiscal responsibility carried the day.”

Semrau was the only council member to vote against putting the property under contract and taking the proposal to the voters.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards, a staunch proponent of the purchase, concluded the price of the property was probably a concern for some voters. And, supporters of Referendum 2E were slow to get information about the purchase out to the public, she said.

“I think it was important that the question was asked,” Richards added.

Mayor Helen Klanderud, who also supported the purchase, suggested the current economy probably left some voters wondering why the city was looking to buy a downtown commercial property.

“Part of it may have been the price ” maybe we were paying too much,” she said. “Not having a plan ” maybe that was the key issue.”

Others simply want to see the Wheeler left as it is, Klanderud said.

Pat Fallin, exiting the Precinct 1 polling place yesterday, said she voted in favor of the Mother Lode purchase. She is president of the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

“I think in the future, this can be very beneficial to all the arts organizations,” Fallin said. “I think if we don’t do it, in 10 years we’ll look back and wish we had.”

But Karon Lundy voted against the purchase.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate,” she said. “I just don’t think the Wheeler should be this mega-thing.”

It’s a lot of money for a vague plan to expand the Wheeler, complained another voter.

The Wheeler already has 6,000 square feet of vacant land next to the building available for expansion; the Mother Lode would have doubled that space, though part of the restaurant building is historic and would have to be retained.

Other prospective buyers of the Mother Lode are waiting in the wings, according to real estate broker Ruth Kruger.

Partners Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer, who own the restaurant property, put it on the market earlier this year for $4.5 million. The city put it under contract after Ross asked if it was interested.

An appraisal prepared for the city put the value of the property at between $2.75 and $3.1 million and pinpointed its market value at $2.9 million.

The proposed purchase required no new tax. The Wheeler fund, supported by a real estate transfer tax, currently contains a balance of about $8.8 million.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is Janet@aspentimes.com]

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