Theater backers say tax question leaves them out
Supporters of a performing arts center in Glenwood Springs may be inclined to oppose the renewal of a special city sales tax that’s on the fall ballot, because that particular project is not specifically among those listed to receive funding.
But a ballot question seeking a 30-year renewal of the 1-cent city acquisitions and improvements tax is broad enough that a performance theater is by no means excluded, City Council concluded in forwarding the question to voters for the Nov. 8 election.
“I do feel very strongly about this,” said Dave Merritt, a longtime supporter of a performing arts center and associate of Symphony in the Valley, as well as a former City Council member.
Merritt told council at a recent meeting that he can’t support the tax question as worded because it doesn’t mention a performance/concert hall of any sort.
The symphony is just one of the area groups that could make use of such a facility, he said, not to mention the potential to bring in touring performers. But the project keeps getting pushed to the back burner.
“We have been looking at a theater of some sort for a long time, and it was part of the original tax question 20 years ago,” Merritt said of the original A&I tax authorization in 1998.
Merritt said he has talked to other theater backers who feel the same way about the proposed tax renewal.
City voters are being asked to approve a 30-year extension to the special sales and use tax, which is otherwise set to expire after 2018.
A separate ballot question will ask for up to $54 million in bonding capacity using the tax proceeds to finance a range of projects aimed at easing traffic congestion and redeveloping the confluence area and Sixth Street corridor after the newly aligned Grand Avenue bridge is completed.
Among the bigger-ticket capital projects specifically mentioned in the bonding question are safety improvements to the West Midland Avenue and 27th Street bridges, construction of the planned South Bridge across the Roaring Fork River to Colorado 82, a Sixth Street “gateway” redevelopment, and riverwalk amenities at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers.
After its initial approval 18 years ago, the A&I tax funded several public projects including the Glenwood Springs Community Center, the City Hall building and various trails and park improvements. Tax funds are also used to support the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts and the Glenwood Historical Society, and to subsidize operation of the community center.
Civic groups, including the Glenwood Chamber Resort Association’s Community on the Move committee, have been working with the city in recent months to gauge public support for renewing the tax and asking which projects citizens would like to see funded over the next three decades.
A recent poll of city voters found that 81 percent would be willing to extend the tax for up to 30 years.
Council members said a performing arts facility remains a desired amenity. But at an estimated $20 million or more to build and upwards of $400,000 per year to operate and maintain, based on the most recent feasibility study, it’s not an immediate priority.
“We have seen a couple of different iterations for a performing arts center design. They are gorgeous, but they’re just not feasible when you look at the capital and operational expense,” Councilman Leo McKinney said during an Aug. 18 council discussion when the tax question was forwarded to the ballot.
“I just don’t know how we get past that. … And the real question is, do we need those words in there to get people to vote for this,” he said.
City Attorney Karl Hanlon said there’s nothing to preclude using A&I tax dollars to help fund a performance theater, or even to go back to voters seeking bonding for that or any other specific project.
The city conducted a feasibility study five years ago that looked at building a 350-seat theater space with convertible floor space and a full stage and backstage onto the east side of the community center. That plan also envisioned an enclosure for what’s now an open-air ice rink, which would allow for its alternative use as an events center.
The concept earned support from members of a task force who were working on the project at the time, as well as potential users and city officials at the time.
But it came with a price tag of between $20 million and $26 million to build, plus an annual operating subsidy between $350,000 and $400,000.
Councilman Stephen Bershenyi, who has supported a performing arts center since joining council seven years ago, said it will be his “one disappointment” when he leaves council next year that the city wasn’t able to accomplish it.
“I think there is a huge need for one,” Bershenyi said. “We live on one of the busiest interstate corridors, and multiple acts pass by this community weekly. I think there’s an engine there that we’re missing, and we’re not really looking at what it can mean for our community.”
Other council members maintained that the city could be a partner in funding a performance theater, but not the sole funding entity.
“I would still love to see a performing arts center, but agree … we’re going to need to look regionally to find funding and partner with other groups, instead of it being just Glenwood Springs,” City Councilor Kathryn Trauger said. “It’s absolutely needed, but we can’t do it by ourselves.”
Merritt said the theater project got postponed when the city decided instead to proceed with construction of the gymnasium and swimming pool additions to the community center. It’s time to follow through on that original promise, he said.