As the Wheeler Opera House hits a programming high note and executives contemplate what’s next, the city is exploring the possibility of expanding into the vacant parcel next door to the historic venue.
The city of Aspen, which owns the 130-year-old opera house, purchased the adjacent property in 1982 “with the intention of expanding at some point in the future,” said Gena Buhler, executive director of the Wheeler, in an interview Monday.
In late May, the Wheeler hosted an open house to solicit feedback on Aspen’s performance space needs and the prospect of developing onto the 60-by-100-foot plot of land. The following month, the Wheeler released a survey aimed at addressing the question. Open for a two-week period from June 22 to July 6, the survey asked:“Do you think Aspen needs more event and performance space?” A blurb that read, “The Wheeler Opera House is asking for community input to help the city assess the feasibility of expanding the Wheeler onto the adjacent parcel for event and performance space” followed.
The city distributed the survey to every email in its ticket database with a Colorado address, which totalled about 20,000, and promoted it via its social media, Buhler said. About 30 people attended the open house in May and 44 completed the online survey. The city and Wheeler executives also held a number of stakeholder meetings from May to July.
“We had a really great response. I was very surprised by that,” Buhler said. “I think it’s been a really inclusive process so far.”
Although the Wheeler’s consultants, Theatre Projects, are still determining the survey results, Buhler said that, based on preliminary findings and discussion, “We’re finding somewhat of a need of a 100-to 200-[person] flexible event space.”
“We’re digging into what exactly does that mean, but we’re definitely hearing that people need rehearsal space, meeting space, space to produce their own performances,” she continued.
While a number of local art organizations use the black box at the Aspen District Theatre, Buhler suggested that perhaps there is a demand for more of this type of space in the downtown core.
Asked her thoughts on how the parcel is currently being utilized, Buhler said, “As we look at it, if there was not to be a building there, I think there are some really interesting things we can do there.”
As an example, she pointed to the colorful, Bauhaus-inspired work, created by an art class at Aspen Middle School, that was installed on the back fence in late May. Sometime in the fall, the Wheeler will replace the installation with an “indigenous”-themed piece tied to Aspen’s first Native American film festival, the “Shining Mountains Film Festival.”
“This is the perfect backdrop for something that is so simple and beautiful,” Buhler said. “I think we could accomplish something really cool in that space if we decided to sink some money and look into that.”
And if the communal sentiment is to not develop the open space, she said, “let’s make it even better.”
While plans for an expansion of the venue have been discussed and reviewed at the city level for many years, only now is the Wheeler beginning to reach its threshold.
Buhler said that when she assumed her role in 2015, the Wheeler’s programming spanned less than half (45 percent) of the nights of the year. Today, the opera house entertains on 85 to 90 percent of nights per year, which is about as much as the historic space can handle. The remaining 10 to 15 percent of nights are reserved for basic maintenance, including upgrading systems, replacing the carpets and painting walls.
Funded primarily by a .5 percent real estate transfer tax, the Wheeler in more recent years is also in a unique position of receiving a “surplus” amount from this fund.
Along with funding the Wheeler’s operations, staffing and programming, a portion of these dollars are also granted to other local art nonprofits.
When Buhler proposed the city look into how the extra dollars “could be repurposed” at an Aspen City Council meeting in May of 2018, talk of expanding the venue also resurfaced.
All told, the Wheeler collects about $4 million annually from the tax and boasts a fund balance of $30 million to $32 million. This year, the Wheeler granted $400,000 to art organizations, $100,000 of which came from the tax revenue and $300,000 from ticket sales.
Buhler said that, “While it seems like there is a lot of money in the fund, we want to be able to maintain our programming in the event of economic softness.”
In addition to helping with the survey, the consultants are working with the city and Wheeler officials to examine the performance space’s long-term feasibility.
“We don’t ever want to put the Wheeler in jeopardy of being boarded up because of decisions that were made in 2019,” Buhler said.
The Wheeler executives will revisit this discussion and present the survey findings before Aspen City Council at a meeting scheduled for Sept. 17.