Let’s share the Wheeler wealth

We are pleased to hear that the Aspen City Council is adding to the November ballot a measure to expand the use of future Wheeler real estate transfer tax receipts beyond the four walls of the Wheeler Opera House to other local arts and nonprofit organizations that benefit our community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sadly laid bare many vital community services that desperately need more funding — food lines have expanded, there has been an increase in domestic violence, and the strain on our mental health care services has been heartbreaking. There also is a desperate need for expanded child care facilities, more robust mental health services and greater teacher and employee housing. Many arts organizations also have struggled, including the closure of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a major blow to the Roaring Fork Valley arts community.

Three years ago, with approximately $20 million in the Wheeler fund account, we approached the City Council with an idea to start reallocating some of the RETT receipts to other community needs. The Wheeler now has close to $40 million in the bank, including $9.5M of RETT receipts in 2020, and approximately $10 million more anticipated from 2021.

In June, we again met with City Council members and city staff to discuss various ideas for the reallocation of future RETT receipts. We presented many ideas including allocating 50% of future receipts to the Wheeler (to ensure it remains viable for future generations); 25% to community arts organizations (including contributing to the renovation of the district theater); and 25% to support other community needs, including mental health, child care, etc.

Our reasoning behind funding the Aspen District Theatre is the opportunity to turn an existing, publicly owned facility with ample parking and public transit access, into a world-class venue, supporting theater arts at the schools and the community at large. Another benefit of directing some RETT receipts to the theater is the opportunity to free up funds currently earmarked for its renovation to go toward expanding teacher housing and increasing capacity for child care at the Cottage Preschool — a win-win.

After being informed there may be issues with allocating RETT receipts outside of the arts as provided in the existing law, we settled on a very simple structure whereby 50% of future RETT receipts would go to the Wheeler and 50% to arts organizations through a City Council grant process. While we still believe our original proposal was a good one, 50% to the Wheeler and 50% to the arts is still better than the status quo. In either case, we’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community.

We thank the City Council for their consideration and look forward to seeing these funds get put to a higher and better use in our community.

Kurt Hall, Ken Ramberg, Cynthia Chase and Raifie Bass

Board members, Aspen Education Foundation