Deseret Morning News, Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Would 2 theaters rejuvenate downtown?

Renovation, new venue proposed by consultants

By Kersten Swinyard
Deseret Morning News

Renovating a downtown theater and building Salt Lake City's largest stage could rejuvenate downtown, consultants told the City Council on Tuesday night.

The two theaters would anchor a downtown arts district stretching from the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on 300 South to Abravanel Hall on South Temple. Chicago-based HVS Consultants said that would create more nightlife and a selling point for the city.

Salt Lake City has "a real potential to be an example in how to include (theaters) in the larger planning process downtown," consultant Hans Detlefsen said during Tuesday's council meeting. "We usually get hired to look at one building."

The potential additions to downtown would come from a 800- to 1,400-seat theater — possibly a renovated Utah Theatre on Main Street — and a new 2,400-seat theater that could host first-run Broadway musicals and larger crowds for ballet and opera shows. It is not known where the larger theater would be built.

Detlefsen and his colleague Thomas Hazinski, who looked at education and incomes of Salt Lake residents and others who lived within 50 miles of the city, determined that a high demand for classical music and musical theater would support two new stages.

"Can we build two new facilities that won't steal a single ticket away from any other facility? The answer is 'no,' " Detlefsen said. "They're going to compete. Can they position themselves successfully . . . in a downtown area as part of a cultural district, then yes."

Adding those two theaters would come with a price tag, either for the city or the county, which manages Capitol Theatre, home of Utah Opera and Ballet West. The smaller of the two new theaters would cost between $130,000 and $150,000 to operate each year, which doesn't take into account the initial cost of renovating the Utah Theatre. The larger theater likely would pay for itself and make around $300,000 a year, said Dave Oka, executive director of the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency.

"Ballet and opera almost never make money," Oka said. "But it becomes a quality-of-life issue: Do you want museums and ballet that add to the quality of life?"

A past estimate from Daniel Coffey, another consultant who worked on the study, said that converting the Utah Theatre into a 2,500-seat auditorium — as owner Howa Construction had planned — would cost around $63 million. Altering it to the smaller 800- to 1,400-seat theater would cost around $30 million, Coffey told the City Council in December.

Detlefsen and Hazinski suggested adding three small theaters that could hold between 60 and 125 people; they also recommended cutting the number of seats in the Capitol Theatre from 1,800 to 1,500 to improve sight lines for cheaper seats.

Removing 300 seats from Capitol Theatre would be taking away 200 too many, said Johann Jacobs, Ballet West's executive director, because the ballet uses 1,600 to 1,700 seats on average for its performances. Any reduction wouldn't reflect demand; rather, it would accommodate patrons' long-standing requests for more comfortable seating and extra restrooms, particularly to fill "a dire need for women's restrooms," Jacobs said.

Less seating also may translate to more performances for the ballet company.

"If we go to (fewer) seats, that would create the opportunity to add performances," to keep up with demand, Jacobs said. "That's always a plus for an organization to add performances if the opportunity arises."

The consultants and Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce suggested that downtown businesses and the sponsors form a coalition, develop a master plan for the cultural district, figure out what to do with the proposed Utah Theatre on Main Street, incorporate the planetarium and other museums into the district, and use the cultural district as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment.

Downtown arts businesses will see the consultants' final report — a three-month, $40,000 effort — at a breakfast this morning with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. A representative for the company that books Broadway shows for Capitol Theatre did not want to comment on the plan until this morning's briefing.


© 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company