Work on Wheeler Opera House in downtown Aspen will shutter bar, restaurant in fall |

Work on Wheeler Opera House in downtown Aspen will shutter bar, restaurant in fall

Project manager Christa Gaffigan, the partner in charge of the project Michael Mills and structural engineer Dan Doherty ride in a cart connected to a crane to perform stone mitagation work on the outside of the Wheeler Opera House in September of 2019. The crew at the time was looking at the overall stonework to help with the preservation of the building. Aspen City Council agreed on Monday to allow the highly impactful project of restoring the exterior to occur this fall, forcing Aspen Public House and Valley Fine Art in the building to temporarily close from September to December. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Work on the exterior of the Wheeler Opera House will force a three-month closure this fall of a bar and restaurant and possibly an art gallery, which are both located in the historic city-owned building.

Aspen City Council on Monday agreed to waive the rent for both Aspen Public House and Valley Fine Art from July through December, equaling a loss of almost $88,000 that would normally fund local nonprofits through the annual Wheeler grants program.

Because the entire building will be covered in scaffolding to grout in between the sandstone and replace some of the bricks, project managers recommend that both businesses close to expedite the project.

Mia Valley, owner of Valley Fine Art, has not decided whether to close yet, and will work with project managers on whether it’s feasible to keep an opening to her storefront on Mill Street.

Regardless, she will be offered a two-year lease extension beginning next year when her lease expires in November 2021, based on the suggestion of Councilwoman Rachel Richards.

“We’re the ones making the business model untenable given the noise disruption,” she said.

The lease was extended because of the impact of the exterior project, and the sidewalk in front of the Wheeler is scheduled to be torn up next spring into mid-summer, on top of COVID-19 economic considerations.

Bill Johnson, owner of Aspen Public House, has agreed to close from Sept. 8 through mid-December.

He said the additional savings of not paying July and August rent will help him cover fixed costs like payroll, overhead and insurance while he is closed.

Council members declined his request for a 50% rent reduction for the first six months of 2021, saying there are too many unknowns and they will revisit it at the end of the year.

Aspen Public House’s monthly rent is approximately $10,635.

Valley Fine Art’s monthly rent is almost $4,000.

Valley had requested a five-year lease extension but council was not comfortable going that far out without issuing a request for proposals for the space she has occupied since 2006.

Due to COVID-19, public health orders limiting gathering sizes to 50 people, the opera house has been shuttered since March and will continue to be through the end of the year.

The exterior work, along with other projects, were scheduled to be done over years but council agreed in June to take advantage of an empty building and approved a condensed construction schedule for the Wheeler Opera House.

While initial staging and masonry mock-ups for the stone repairs on the Wheeler will begin in August, the major impacts due to scaffolding and construction activities will be delayed until closer to Labor Day, according to Rob Schober, project manager in the city’s asset management department.

In addition to the building being wrapped in scaffolding, there will be sheeting, debris netting or printed banner wraps to help manage the dust and reduce the visual impact of the project, according to Schober.

The contractor will need to custom fit stones on site, and it is expected to be loud at times because there will be heavy machinery.

Jersey barriers will be placed around the entire building, on Hyman Avenue and Mill Street, impacting traffic and pedestrian flows.

One hundred percent of tenant rent goes into the Wheeler grant fund. Had 2020 been a normal year, rents would have contributed $172,893, accounting for over half of the $350,000 in annual grant funding, according to a memo to council written by Assistant City Manager Diane Foster and Schober.

“While staff is currently booking the theater for the December 2020, January 2021 and February 2021 timeframe, it is impossible to forecast production revenues for this timeframe, as reopening depends heavily on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic locally and nationally,” the memo reads.

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