Wheeler to pursue expansion plan
ASPEN ” A plan to expand Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House has enough money and political will to now take center stage.
The City Council gave unanimous approval on Tuesday to allow Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton to move forward with plans to build a second facility on the empty piece of property located next door.
The cost of the overall project could be as high as $30 million, if the expansion occurs within the next three to five years, Slaton said.
Plans for a second performing arts center in Aspen has been under consideration for 33 years, since it was first introduced by Wheeler supporters. Slaton has compiled documentation dating back to the 1970s that discusses the need and possibility of a theater expansion. As far back as 1977, officials recognized a need for more arts space, but there wasn’t enough money to build anything.
Slaton has presented that information to the Wheeler Board of Directors, which is supportive of the expansion and now, the council is as well.
“I think we can afford it, and I think the community can get behind it,” said Mayor Mick Ireland. “This is a good plan and people love the opera house. … It has a long history.”
The open-space parcel next to the Wheeler on Hyman Avenue was bought in 1982 specifically for future Wheeler use. The property 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.
Slaton will initiate the preliminary planning stages of a new facility ” which will include residents’ input ” before a formal plan is devised. Slaton stressed that the concepts considered are only working ideas and nothing is set in stone.
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 new facility would be smaller than the existing Wheeler Opera House, which has 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.
Area nonprofits such as the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Theatre Aspen, Aspen Film and the Aspen Center for Physics all have indicated that they could use additional space, Slaton said.
“You have world-class arts organizations in this town and they deserve a world-class facility,” Slaton told the council, adding the new facility could house a theater, a stage, as well as provide housing for visiting artists and full-time employees. Leasable commercial space could be added to the mix to create revenue to support arts grant funding for local nonprofits.
Slaton also suggested that additional space in the Wheeler could provide for expansion of recording studios for local public access television and radio stations.
“I think you propose a workable plan and we should move forward,” said Councilman Jack Johnson.
Ireland said whatever project is finally approved should take into account the impacts created such as construction, dirt and traffic. He added that the project should serve as a model for other developments.
“People are really tired of monumental, pyramidal construction projects,” Ireland said.
How the project would likely be paid for is through the Wheeler’s endowment fund, which has substantially grown as a result of the local real estate market.
The fund that sustains the 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 has already 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.
ASPEN ” The future of the two businesses in the historic Wheeler Opera House are in limbo while elected officials contemplate the future revamping of the facility.
The leases for Bentley’s at the Wheeler and at Valley Fine Art, both located on Mill Street, expire in May 2009. The city owns the historic opera house and leases those spaces to private business owners.
As part of a discussion about a possible second performing arts facility next to the Wheeler, its executive director, Gram Slaton, asked City Council members on Tuesday what they would like to see in those commercial spaces. While council members agreed that a pub or affordable restaurant should remain, some agreed that an art gallery might not be the best commercial use in a public facility.
Council members said they want businesses that create vitality and serve as a place for opera house patrons to go after performances.
Mayor Mick Ireland said with the loss of the Mother Lode restaurant ” that was next to the Wheeler ” and other local restaurants around town disappearing, it might end up being the role of government to ensure some watering holes remain.
“This a rare opportunity to create public space that the market doesn’t provide,” he said.
Councilman Steve Skadron agreed and said he can’t comprehend losing a pub like Bentley’s.
“Creating public spaces that the market doesn’t provide is absolutely critical,” he said.
Slaton also told the council that Bentley’s will have to temporarily shut down for between three and six months next year for renovation. The aging building has water leakage problems and old kitchen equipment that needs to be replaced.
“It’s had 24 years of heavy use,” Slaton said.
The bar and restaurant likely will be closed during the fall offseason.
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