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Aspen City Council looks at now-expanded use for Wheeler fund

Last year, voters approved an expansion of a tax fund earmarked for the Wheeler Opera House to also use for other purposes.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
Last year, voters approved an expansion of a tax fund earmarked for the Wheeler Opera House to also use for other purposes.

In 1979, Aspen voters passed a half-percent “real estate transfer tax” that would mainly fund the Wheeler Opera House and up to $100,000 in arts and culture grants.

By about a 2-1 margin, Aspenites voted six years ago to extend the tax to sunset in 2039.

Over time, the tax has brought in a lot more money than the Wheeler is using.

And last year, Aspenites voted to lift the cap on grants and expand the purposes of the fund, with about 71% in favor of the broader use. The city can now also use the money to fund operations at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

So, how much money is in the bucket? And where will it go now?

According to the budget that city staff presented to council Monday night, there will be almost $42.5 million in the Wheeler RETT fund by the end of next year.

In 2023, about $11 million of that could go into a balance for broader arts and culture purposes.

Before the vote last year, that money would have been mostly earmarked for the Wheeler.

There would still be about $31.5 million in the dedicated fund balance for the Wheeler next year.

The budget incorporates a staff recommendation to “spend down” the money earmarked for the Wheeler until it’s on par with the amount the historic opera house actually uses, while keeping the overall balance about the same.

Over time, the balance that can also be used for other creative uses would grow as more money comes in.

The city’s budget manager, Andrew Kramer, said it’s still up to the council to decide how the city will spend the money.

“The funding will always be there for the Wheeler depending on how you know the revenues come in and how council decides to do that,” Kramer said. “But it enables y'all and future councils the maximum flexibility to address any arts and culture needs that come up.”

City finance director Pete Strecker said the whole fund can still be used for the opera house if the need arises.

“Be assured that both of those totals can always be used for Wheeler purposes, so, in essence, it basically does not diminish any sort of strength that we have to take care of the Wheeler,” Strecker said.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.