Jazz Aspen and the Wheeler Opera House
The Wheeler Opera House Transfer Tax was passed by the voters in March 1979 for half of 1 percent to fund and support the preservation, ongoing maintenance and repairs of this iconic building and provide funding for myriad events held in the opera house. This tax was renewed by voters in May 1997, and was renewed again for 20 years in 2016. There is an amount set aside each year by the City Council from the Wheeler fund, which is given to valley-wide arts groups. The Wheeler is the essence of two of the three legs of the Aspen Idea: the mind and the spirit. Inclusive in both of these two legs is the world of culture, arts, music and the world of ideas. The Wheeler is an integral part of our community’s quality of life and lifestyle.
The Wheeler has its main auditorium, but there is no Black Box Theatre or smaller venue. There is no space for smaller performances and smaller audiences for films, plays, lectures or community get-togethers. The Wheeler board has explored extensively the idea of building such a smaller venue in the open space adjacent to the opera house. The major drawbacks for using this site have been twofold: First, the open space serves as a vital vest pocket park in the downtown core, adding to the open feeling of the downtown Cooper, Hyman, Galena and Mill street malls, and second the board (with good reason) is deeply concerned that any construction in that adjacent park would severely compromise the structure and integrity of the Wheeler’s supportive foundation. Any such construction for a smaller venue on that park could truly deplete the Wheeler’s financial resources, ergo its “endowment.”
In my view the Jazz Aspen proposal to partner with the city to provide a smaller venue makes so much sense. This venue would be very close to the Wheeler, right in the downtown core. It would be close enough to be viewed as an extension of the opera house itself. It proposes to make the city a partner in the ownership of the JAS Center for a modest investment of $4 million in exchange for a 30 percent equity stake in the JAS Center, and an option at sometime in the future to acquire the facility through a “right of first refusal,” should JAS choose to sell the real estate.
Additionally, the city of Aspen would pay a separate $100,000 per year subsidy for 10 years to assure that JAS would program this multipurpose space for a minimum of 70 nights each year. A key condition of this subsidy is that JAS provides the JAS Center for these 70 nights to community and not-for-profit users at the identical subsidized rates the Wheeler currently offers. This public-private partnership would give the community many more events that will fit perfectly into the space proposed by the nearby JAS Center. The intimate scale of the future JAS Center will fill a niche in Aspen’s core that is sure to attract wide-spread usage by residents and visitors alike.
It would give the Wheeler staff so much flexibility to sponsor more events that will fit perfectly into the space proposed by the nearby JAS Aspen space. That is why this proposal for the city to partner with Jazz Aspen is so profound. It does not stretch unrealistically or unreasonably the idea of using Wheeler funds to expand its horizons and do something it has wanted to do for a long time. The purpose for the use of this new space is exactly in line with the opera house’s mission, and its artistic and community goals.
There are various groups, who view using funds from the “Wheeler endowment” in different ways: 1. One group night be the most cautious and conservative, and not allow any Wheeler funds to be spent anywhere but in the Wheeler, except for the modest contributions to other arts groups. 2. Another group, who sees the “Wheeler endowment” as very enticing, would stretch the purpose of the Wheeler funds to apply to the Black Box Theatre at the high school, the performing theater with the big stage in the elementary school, or for any other artistic and cultural endeavors, mainly associated with the schools, though supporting myriad shows, events and gatherings from other non-school groups. 3. There are some who might want to apply the Wheeler fund to augment the affordable-housing program. This is laudable, but the second 1 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax is precisely and solely for affordable housing with a small portion devoted to child care and, therefore, this notion seems redundant. 4. There is another group in sync with my point of view, who would be careful, thoughtful and wise and would be supportive of using Wheeler funds to further the Wheeler goals and would be enthusiastic about a city of Aspen partnership with JAS for such an intimate space in the core, right around the corner from the Wheeler.
If the City Council, Wheeler board and city staff, after gleaning feedback from citizens in the weeks ahead, decide to support the Jazz Aspen proposal now on the table and/or with modifications approved by the City Council, then such a proposal would need to be a ballot issue in the November election so the people can weigh in. Because this Jazz Aspen purpose is so in line with the Wheeler mission statement, and because it is an extension — a new tentacle of the Wheeler Opera House — it would make wonderful sense, and I believe would be in the long term best interest of the city of Aspen.
Bill Stirling is a former mayor of Aspen.