A Ronald Erickson: Guest Opinion
July 20, 2009
I am responding to a recent article raising questions about the financing plan for a prospective expansion of the Wheeler Opera House. A former city staff member suggests that perhaps we’re “putting the cart before the horse like they always do.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s why:
Expansion of the Wheeler onto the two adjacent lots has been a community goal for more than 30 years already. When Aspen voters approved the 1979 0.5 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax, they did so in order to fund the adopted renovation Master Plan for the Wheeler Opera House. That renovation plan called for remodeling the historic building and constructing an addition to “meet the most pressing needs of a great many performing arts groups and needs for many years to come.” The Master Plan is clear, and its recommendation has been borne out in the community’s experience over the past 30 years: “Not all of the most pressing needs and wishes of the community can be accommodated within the existing square footage of the Wheeler.”
A detailed and thorough needs assessment and program plan have been developed with full participation of local arts groups to determine the best ways that expansion space can be used. In a nutshell, the most pressing needs include a smaller, flexible performance space; expanded box office and lobby; centrally located offices; multipurpose space for rehearsals and small gatherings; onsite employee housing; space for artist housing and public receptions; and increased availability of local-serving, high-vitality restaurant and retail space on the ground floor.
Not only did the renovation plan expressly include the need for expansion, but the City Council followed the voter approval of the 1979 RETT ballot measure with the 1982 purchase of the two lots adjacent to the Wheeler for the renovation and expansion of the opera house.
Over the years there has been an ongoing discussion about how and when to construct expanded performing arts facilities, but recognition of the need has remained constant. In 2002 the Aspen City Council approved an ordinance to set aside RETT funds not needed for the annual operation and maintenance of the Wheeler in an endowment fund. At that time, the Wheeler board of directors felt that it was premature to discuss the details of any addition, but they realized that it was an important component of the Wheeler’s long-range plans. Council approved an endowment ordinance in an effort to maximize the investment interest that the reserve funds could earn and to provide for the Wheeler’s long-term financial needs.
Current design and planning efforts are proceeding in a very transparent fashion with a highly qualified design team that is being extremely responsive to local arts groups’ needs, and the community mandate for an expansion that fits the site and respects the historic Wheeler building. In keeping with the Budget Task Force and Construction Experts Group recommendations, the design team will soon be expanded to include an owner’s representative with extensive theater construction expertise and a contractor-at-risk who will be involved in the development of a very cost-effective building and a guaranteed maximum price for the project before construction gets under way. The community will know what they’re getting and how much the project will cost well in advance.
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It’s the intent of the Wheeler board and City Council to get voter approval to extend the RETT beyond its current 2019 expiration date and to use a combination of Wheeler funds to cover about 80 percent of the project cost and a loan or bond issue to pay for the remainder, while leaving an appropriate balance in the Wheeler Fund to cover operating and maintenance needs. The city’s citizen Financial Advisory Board has begun to review and make recommendations on the project’s overall financing plan. Those financial experts’ oversight will continue throughout the planning, development and operation of the expansion.
It’s easy to see that the design and financial planning processes for possible expansion of the Wheeler to meet local arts groups and community needs are proceeding in a very participative, thorough and responsible manner. The horse is in position before the cart on this one. We invite continued community input on this exciting project in order to help make it fulfill as much of the long-held vision as possible while continuing to honor the iconic place that the historic Wheeler Opera House has as a community treasure and beloved home for the performing arts.
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