Basalt officials reconsider aid for performing arts center

Plans for The Arts Campus at Willits would include a large performance venue, smaller lecture/movie theater and a lawn that could host events.
Courtesy photo |

After working with a group for two years on a $7.7 million performing-arts center in Willits, the town of Basalt is pondering pulling the plug on its support.

Councilman Bernie Grauer is leading the charge to review the town government’s role with The Arts Campus at Willits.

He said during a Basalt Finance Committee meeting Tuesday he has “lost confidence” in the nonprofit organization over financial issues.

The town has been providing seed money for exploration of the performing-arts center through a real estate transfer assessment at Willits, a portion of which is dedicated to arts issues.

The town budgeted $100,000 for the arts campus this year, but a staff report estimates expenses will more likely be $175,000.

Grauer was incensed at the Finance Committee meeting over the arts campus submitting a $7,500 invoice for an event that never happened.

Town Finance Director Judi Tippetts sought more information, and taxpayers never ended up paying for the event. Grauer claimed that wasn’t the only financial indiscretion.

The Town Council was scheduled to vote on signing a development agreement with the arts campus at its Aug. 9 meeting, but that item has been pulled from the agenda.

If approved, the agreement would allow the arts campus to move forward with a performing-arts center on 0.75 acres of land owned by the town in Willits Town Center. Grauer said it also would be “the beginning of a $800,000 commitment” for the facility. Most funds for construction would be private.

“I don’t support a development agreement. I support terminating the agreement,” Grauer said.

Angry with Scanlon

Grauer and finance board members Katie Schwoerer and Jacque Whitsitt also were angry with Town Manager Mike Scanlon for approving use of real estate transfer assessment funds to pay the salary of The Arts Campus at Willits Managing Director Ryan Honey without notifying the council.

“This is shocking and very disturbing,” Schwoerer said. They contended such an expenditure needed to be approved by the council. Further, they scolded Scanlon for not alerting them to alleged accounting problems on the part of the arts campus.

Whitsitt said she wanted to start from scratch with a warning that financial issues needed to be addressed.

“I’m going to call it a second chance, for lack of a better term, for [the campus] and our staff, frankly,” Whitsitt said.

Grauer said he couldn’t support a second chance. Grauer repeatedly refused to let the arts campus’s representatives respond to the finance board’s concerns, even though he isn’t the board chair; Whitsitt is.

Grauer interrupted board Treasurer Michael Lipkin and Honey. He asked attorney Jody Edwards, “Who are you?” and didn’t allow him to speak. Edwards was a longtime consulting attorney for Basalt before Grauer joined the board.

Grauer also noted that the town’s financial consultant raised questions about whether the performing-arts center can sustain its operations with a taxpayer subsidy.

Grauer concluded the meeting by making a motion to advise the full Town Council to cut off further funding for the arts campus, reject a development agreement and not allow use of the town-owned land.

Whitsitt and Schwoerer supported his motion. The finance board is essentially a subcommittee of the full council right now.

Lipkin told the board after the vote that he was “shocked and disappointed” by its action. He noted he’s had a successful history as a developer at Willits Town Center and the Willits neighborhood and wouldn’t volunteer his time on a performing-arts center if he didn’t think it would be successful.

Arts campus responds

The Aspen Times asked Lipkin for answers to the primary questions the financial advisory board posed.

“We submitted an invoice for $7,500 to pay for costs related to a planned marketing event to raise awareness about [the arts campus],” Lipkin wrote in an email. “However, the [arts campus] board subsequently determined that this event was not the best use of resources, and town staff indicated that advancing anticipated operating costs was not feasible. As such, town staff and the [campus] board mutually agreed that the invoice would be retracted, and it was.

“The $7,500 in question was never given to [the arts campus], and we certainly never spent it.”

The process of financial transparency and accountability worked as outlined in a predevelopment agreement with the town, he said.

Regarding the finance board’s anger over funds being used to pay Honey’s salary, Lipkin responded, “We are extremely surprised by the confusion around our hiring of a managing director. A professional position was included as a line item in the unanimously approved predevelopment agreement, and it was also included in the 2016 budget request that we submitted in October of 2015.”

The Arts Campus at Willits also advised the Town Council and staff in monthly reports starting in February that it was searching for a managing director.

Lipkin noted that the arts-campus board was originally scheduled to meet with the council in January for an update on activities, but the meeting kept getting postponed.

He said he remains optimistic the arts campus can get back on track with the town government.

“We appreciate the many demands that are currently before the council, but as they have time to work with us, we believe they will share in our enthusiasm for [the arts campus],” he said. “Bringing performing arts to Basalt as part of a larger arts ecosystem will have positive social, cultural, educational and economic impacts on our community.”

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