A study commissioned by the city of Aspen to analyze a potential expansion of its Wheeler Opera House concluded that new construction would be too costly and interfere too much with current programming.
Consultants Theatre Projects and Keen Independent Research prepared a report after four months of public outreach and market research.
“Though our needs analysis suggests that a flexible, multiuse, 150-200 seat venue would be a welcome addition to the Aspen community, we recommend against developing that facility on the Wheeler parcel,” the report reads. “We believe that the operational, financial and goodwill risks to the existing Wheeler programming and brand outweigh any new benefits to the Aspen arts community.”
In a memorandum to the Aspen City Council, Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler wrote that the cost to expand the facility would be an expensive undertaking, on top of an anticipated $20 million bill over the next 20 years for upgrades and maintenance to the current facility.
“Current financial projections to build on the site would require using approximately $30M of the fund balance for full-scale development, in addition to a substantial ongoing annual operational subsidy,” Buhler wrote.
Instead, the consultants suggested council discuss other uses of Wheeler funds that may provide for a small community venue at a fraction of the cost. The opera house uses an earmarked budget funded by a percentage of real estate sales. The measure was approved by voters in 1979 and stipulates that the funds have to be used by the Wheeler.
The Aspen District Theater at the public schools campus, and the Old Powerhouse building on the Rio Grande River, which is temporarily being used by the city and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association for offices, were both identified as potential spaces that could be elevated with the help of Wheeler funds. However, Buhler told the council that she does not have an interest in investing in other art spaces at this time.
“Staff feels that there are currently too many unknowns with growth, development and programming across the city to devote time or resources to plans for growth on property not owned by the Wheeler,” the memo says.
On Tuesday, the council will consider further studies regarding how excess funds could be used to assist outside organizations in the upcoming decades.
The report showed that local performing artists are interested in the development of a smaller, flexible-use venue. But overall, respondents were split on the need for any additional space in Aspen.
Members of the volunteer board seemed more receptive to using the budget for partner organizations.
“The Wheeler board has a strong desire and passion to serve the community with an additional event/cultural arts space in Aspen that is funded by the [real estate transfer tax] and operated under the Wheeler staffing and funding umbrella,” wrote Buhler. “In addition, they support additional [transfer-tax] funds being designated towards supporting the established cultural institutions through a larger granting program, or other funding models.”
The real estate transfer tax, or RETT, that pads out the Wheeler budget, has been extended by voters multiple times since its inception. Due to Colorado tax law, new RETTs cannot be formed, and there are questions surrounding how redirecting the funds would affect the tax.
However, the consultants said that would be worth looking into, based on their analysis.
“We acknowledge that there are significant political and legal questions that would arise from the redirection of [RETT] funds away from Wheeler, but Aspen’s clear commitment to arts and culture would be elevated by expanding the inventory of facilities to include a multipurpose hall and upgrading existing facilities throughout town,” the report states.
The consultants offered a $12 million option for building on the parcel next to the Wheeler that could create some rehearsal space and add retail on the bottom floor.
Also Tuesday, the council will receive an update on work that is already underway to renovate the existing building, originally built in 1889.
While exterior work has been underway since last year, Capital Asset Project Manager Robert Schober wrote in a memo that more analysis is needed to plan the preservation of the building’s facade.
“An exhaustive building study in order to determine potential areas of concern on the stone and masonry exterior was performed and it was determined that further investigation and subsequent repairs are needed,” Schober wrote.
This fall, new design drawings will be developed to help improve operations and upgrade building infrastructure.
If plans are approved, construction might proceed during the spring off-season, potentially closing the opera house from April through June 2020.