Wheeler tenants see a year’s worth of rent abatement

Masonry project has kept building and its businesses behind the scaffolding

A man utilizes the pedestrian access while the Wheeler Opera House is under construction in downtown Aspen on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The city of Aspen is forgiving nearly $200,000 in rent for two of its tenants that have been living under scaffolding at the Wheeler Opera House for months and therefore have not paid their landlord for nearly a year.

Aspen City Council agreed earlier this month to relieve Aspen Public House, a bar and restaurant, and Valley Fine Arts, an art gallery, from paying rent through at least June.

That’s when the scaffolding and the impacts of a nearly yearlong renovation of the historic building’s sandstone facade will be completed.

Council agreed in July to forgive the rent for the locally owned businesses through the year, and again made that decision in January through May.

The tenants have requested rent relief through the remainder of the project.

That’s because the $2 million masonry project, the most extensive that’s been done on the building’s exterior in decades, has been extended past its original completion date this spring.

The project slowed because of the damage to the stone and the supply chain to replace it, according to Rob Schober, the city’s project manager.

The scaffolding along Mill Street is scheduled to be removed after a building wash in June, Schober told council at its May 3 work session.

Due to their size and weight, a lift will do the largest stones being replaced, and that will complete the project impacts along the Mill Street right of way, which is expected to be in July.

“They’re extremely large stones and are going to come in two pieces, and they can’t hoist those up and install those from the scaffolding so they are going to be using a boom, fork truck and man lift to do that,” Schober told council. “The remaining schedule for the south side of the building has the scaffolding coming down in a September timeframe, we’re hoping to have that down by Food & Wine.”

Mike Schultheis, general superintendent of Summit Sealants and Restoration, points out the areas replaced on the arches at the top of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The sidewalk on the Mill Street side of the building will be intermittently closed to allow the stones to be lifted, which will impact outdoor dining for Aspen Public House.

“(Owner Bill Johnson) is going to have to work with us. We’ve talked with Bill extensively about how he’s going to be able to get tables out there, but he’s going to have to work around it and us around him,” Schober said. “But the egress in and out of Valley Fine Arts and the Aspen Public House will be open at that time.”

The project schedule last year was to complete as much work as possible on the east side of the building before Christmas. It was planned to demobilize before the holiday season with a re-mobilization in the spring to complete the remaining work.

The original project schedule, which was planned to be phased in 2021 and 2022, was accelerated since COVID-19 shuttered the Wheeler Opera House operations in March.

The accelerated project has impacted Valley Fine Art and Aspen Public House, which pay monthly rent of almost $4,000 and $10,635, respectively.

While council agreed during its May 3 work session to abate their rent through June and possibly prorate July depending on the status of the project, the total combined rent that has not been collected amounts to $190,700.

The rent that Valley Fine Art and Aspen Public House pay funds the city’s arts and culture grants for area nonprofits.

City Manager Sara Ott said the rent abatement in 2020 affected grant dollars for this year, which were made whole from the city’s general fund.

The rent relief for 2021 will impact grants for next year and that deficit will likely also be back-filled from the general fund, she noted.

“Given that the earned revenues we expect at the Wheeler to be below normal, not as bad as 2020, 2021 will still be down,” Ott said. “There’s certainly an impact to the grants; however, we are trying to be cognizant of its major disruptions still to these two tenants to finish up construction.”

Johnson said it’s been difficult to operate a restaurant during COVID-19 and construction, so he has been appreciative of the city’s understanding.

“There are times over the year I’ve thought about how grateful I am to have the city as my landlord,” he said.

Aspen Public House was only open for about six months of the past year, due to capacity restrictions and allowing construction to move more rapidly.

“It was best to give them free rein of the building,” Johnson said.

Scaffolding surrounds the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen during a restoration project on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

He added that not having outdoor tables on the south side while that scaffolding remains up through September puts him at a disadvantage.

“In a perfect world I want rent paid for while the scaffolding is up,” Johnson said, adding he is ready to get back open in June. “We can’t wait to get open.”

Council will review the project in June to determine whether rent needs to be relieved or prorated for the two businesses in future months.

Meanwhile, after 14 months of being closed, the Wheeler is scheduled to open next week to the Aspen Country Day School for its spring play in which children only will be allowed to attend.

It will be the Wheeler’s first rental since COVID-19, with the next one later this month by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

The first event will be the Fringe Festival in June, according to Lisa Rigsby Petersen, executive director of the Wheeler.

She said capacity restrictions limit the venue to between 112 and 120 people, depending on who’s performing on stage.

But those numbers can change depending on what local public health orders dictate and what the city as an operator feels comfortable with.

“Like everybody, we will be watching the board of health,” Rigsby Petersen said.