The Arts Campus at Willits holds a 99-year lease on land in Willits and hopes to break ground on the first phase of a performing arts center this fall. 

The Arts Campus at Willits moved one step closer to building a permanent facility during Tuesday’s Basalt Town Council meeting, as elected officials voted unanimously to approve the first reading of an ordinance that would grant final site approval for the arts organization’s new home.The nonprofit holds a 99-year lease on the land and hopes to break ground on the first phase of a performing arts center, to be built on a town-owned parcel in Willits, this fall. The proposed 10,000-square-foot venue, called The Contemporary (a nod to The Temporary, the group’s home until last May), would include a theater space that could accommodate up to 400 people standing, a lobby area with a bar and café, a commercial kitchen, office space and a community room.

Phase 2 of the project would call for a larger theater/concert hall to be added, and phase 3, while currently undefined, could be used for something like a digital arts center. In the meantime, the portion of the parcel set aside for the second and third phases is slated to be a fenced-off area not intended for public use, a decision that didn’t sit particularly well with the council.  

“I’m concerned about the fence and what that represents,” said Councilman Gary Tennenbaum. “Unless you’re proposing something really hazardous, I don’t understand why we’re trying to keep people so far out of it that the fence has to be six feet tall.”

According to Ryan Honey, executive director of the nonprofit arts group, “Whatever we do, I want to assure everyone it’s going to be tasteful and appropriate.

“As far as the need to have it be semi-private, we want the opportunity to explore what could happen there and what is the right thing to do there … in terms of outdoor programming and access. We want to preserve the opportunity to make sure we get it right.”

Honey’s response failed to fully sway the council, and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt expressed a sentiment that the fence was counter to what she perceived the parcel to be all about.

“I guess my feeling about what this was going to be like was more open, public space, like the Music Tent in Aspen, where people are welcome to come,” Whitsitt said. “I’m disappointed that (the semi-private area) would even be a consideration. I think our conversation with other folks in the past has been that if it’s a phased type of situation you’d have it open until it’s not open anymore or unable to be open because it’s a structure. I think this is going to be a little bit of a slap in the face to the public. If we put a six-foot fence around this, it would turn people off big time.”

Despite her reservations about the fence, Whitsitt said that she really liked the direction of the project and lauded some of the changes that have been made to the plan since the last step of the review process. 

Among the changes are an expanded canopy and covered patio near the entrance and a small park space along Market Street that could be utilized when the street is closed for outdoor public events.

Those changes and the other facets of the sketch plan were presented by arts campus board member and local developer Michael Lipkin, who has been doing pro bono architectural work on the project. Lipkin called the possibility of building the campus a “once in this town’s lifetime opportunity.”

“It’s such a unique opportunity we should make sure we get all the art and culture we can on this parcel,” he said.

The rest of the council shared concerns about the fenced-off area, but expressed optimism that those issues could be worked out by the second reading of the ordinance. Overall, they were openly enthusiastic about the project in general.

“You never expected to be raising all the money and breaking ground, hopefully, later this fall, so congratulations on a job well done,” said Councilman Bill Infante. “Thank you Ryan and Marc (Breslin, the nonprofit’s artistic director) and your whole staff for demonstrating over 12 or 18 months that we can make Basalt a destination for arts and culture. I look forward to seeing this become The Permanent.”

Mayor Whitsitt added, “I think we’re all super excited. I think you’re thinking all the right things about climate and energy and all that (with the design of the building). I personally would like to see this come back and see the fence thing figured out because if it’s a gut instinct for this many of us, I guarantee you that the community would have that feeling.”

Honey said he would be willing to work on the fence issue, but asked the council for some kind of assurance that the parcel would be available for phases 2 and 3 in the future even if people come to view the space as a park. Council members seemed willing to make such a pledge and add the appropriate language to the ordinance for its next hearing.

That seemed to strike an accord that all could agree on, and Infante moved that the council approve the ordinance with the expectation that the fence issue will be clarified for the second reading. Councilman Ryan Slack seconded the motion, and all present (Katie Schwoerer was absent) voted in favor. The ordinance will now move to second reading at the council’s Sept. 24 meeting.

Todd Hartley writes for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.