A breath of life was given to efforts to finish the renovation of the old Rifle Creek Theater Tuesday night, with city council's unofficial thumbs-up to a request for nearly $2 million of city funds.
However, the ongoing operations and maintenance costs of the New Ute Events Center are not as likely to be subsidized by the city.
The New Ute Theater Society, or NUTS, board met with city council and staff in a workshop on Oct. 17, and as part of the council's budget process on Oct. 23, to discuss the next step in reopening the 1940s-era building. It has been closed for the last few years, after the city acquired it and agreed to let NUTS, a non-profit corporation, manage and promote plans to reopen it as an events center.
"If you decide to spend the money on this project, we think it will go a long way," said NUTS board President Helen Rogers. "You've been seeing a lot of negativity about the water plant, so something positive would help the city."
The council directed staff to include a plan by City Manager John Hier that would designate a combination of city funds and grant money, some anticipated, to cover remaining interior renovation costs, at their Nov. 7 budget hearing.
"We think we'll be making money hand over fist," added Events Coordinator Shelley Aibner. "Rifle will be a destination for performers."
Aibner said she knows one of the make-up artists for singer Stevie Nicks, and when Aibner explained the possible availability of the Ute, "She said Stevie likes the small venues, impromptu performances. I said in a few years, we'll have a place for that."
Aibner said the Hampton Inn Suites had agreed to offer discounted room rates for out-of-town performers booked at the Ute.
"They're excited at having more business, not only from the performers, but folks who come from outside the area to attend an event," Aibner said. "Everyone I've talked to has said it's a no brainer and they see it would be such a boost for downtown."
Rogers noted she has had phone calls from area and regional performers, asking if they could book the center.
Among those area performers is the Symphony in the Valley, which recently performed at the high school theater in the cafeteria.
"The acoustics there are really terrible, just because it wasn't designed for musical performances," Aibner said. "I think a group like the Symphony in the Valley deserves the best facility."
The Garfield County Regional Airport south of Rifle, which already sees performers land and then go to Aspen and Grand Junction for concerts, would be a natural tie-in for the Ute, Aibner noted.
"You've already spent about a half a million dollars on the building now," said NUTS board member Gil Frontella. "For about $2 million more, you get the rest. I think the fact we stand to lose $200,000 in grants if we don't do something by the end of the year needs to be considered."
"It's already your asset and it needs to be completed," Frontella urged.
City Councilman Rich Carter called the Ute building "a huge amenity and cultural addition we don't have now. I think it would be a huge step forward."
Carter also noted an events center would keep local dollars in the community, instead of losing them to places with events centers like Aspen, Denver and Grand Junction.
City Councilman Keith Lambert agreed with the value of an events center to Rifle. But he worried the city's capital reserve fund - where close to $650,000 of city funds would come from - would be drawn down to a level where no other projects could be funded.
"We don't have a dedicated source for this fund, that's why it's a reserve fund," Lambert added. "My biggest concern is establishing a cost center we would have to find a way to fund on an annual basis, and we're already deficit spending."
Lambert referred to the proposed 2013 budget, which calls for the city to use $600,000 in reserves to cover estimated expenses.
Lambert noted city staff had not had any salary increases in four years, something he wants the city to address in the 2013 budget.
"I do see the benefits and this is something I've wanted to see happen for a long time," Lambert said. "But I also want us to have enough of a capital reserve fund to use when an economic opportunity, like the Brenden Theatre, arises."
Frontella said he believes the Ute Events Center is "just as important" an investment for the city.
"It's all about economic development in our community," he added. "I'd also point out the events center would be a place that 40 percent of our community, the Hispanic community, could use. They don't have any place like that now."
A recent consultant's feasibility and marketing report said event centers never pay entirely for themselves and need subsidy from some source.
Rogers said a ballpark figure of $138,000 a year has been discussed for operations and maintenance of the Ute center. The NUTS board will develop a plan to wean the city off subsidizing the center's operations and maintenance and present it to city council at its Nov. 7 budget hearing, Rogers added.
A fundraising campaign, similar to public radio or TV, is also likely part of the center's plan, she said.
To use capital reserve funds for the renovation project requires at least five of the seven council members votes, and it was noted Carter may not be allowed to vote, since his architectural firm could do business for the project.
Another potential funding source for the center, a special district that could also help with a recreation center, is something the Ute board may explore after this month's election, Rogers said.