Rick Howa has given up his goal to build a new performing-arts theater in the mothballed Utah Theatre on Salt Lake City's Main Street.
Salt Lake City and County officials say $10 million is too much to pay to buy Utah Theatre for a downtown arts district.
(Danny Chan La/The Salt Lake Tribune )
After unsuccessfully trying to peddle the playhouse to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, Howa late last week hung a large "for sale" sign on the one-time vaudeville theater and subsequent movie house.
"That was not an easy thing to do," the developer said Monday. But, "I'm selling it because it's the right business decision to make."
While there's a chance the city or county could buy the building to preserve it as theater space, the current asking price - $10 million - is too steep, according to government officials.
And that means a private developer could buy it and tear it down. Howa is selling the theater, at 176 S. Main St., and adjacent retail properties. Together, they include 50,000 square feet of space.
"It's a great location for a hotel. It's a great location for
an office building," Howa said.
Politicians would rather see it remain a theater venue. In 2004, Howa revealed plans to transform the former Pantages Theatre into a Broadway-sized theater to house touring productions. But he tied the idea to the for-profit Clear Channel Communications.
Fearful they would be harmed by such a for-profit competitor in charge of a theater, local arts groups protested.
Howa's concept eventually lead the city, county, Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance to commission a study on the viability of a downtown arts district. The study, released earlier this year, validated Howa's ambition, but called for a Broadway-sized theater with 2,400 seats to be built on another spot because it would cost less than renovating the Utah.
The study did say to renovate Howa's theater into a mid-sized venue for certain opera, symphony and student productions.
But the county may not know until next spring how it will
proceed with a cultural district - whether it will build a Broadway theater or renovate the Utah Theatre, said Salt Lake County's Center for the Arts Director Phil Jordan.
"Without really having a clear understanding about what we're trying to do for the entirety of the downtown, it might be construed as too much, too fast, too soon to come up with a Utah Theatre solution," said Jordan, who did not know the Utah Theatre was up for sale until told by a reporter.
While Jordan has concerns about renovating the Utah Theatre as a mid-sized venue because it would compete with the county-owned Capital Theatre, he nevertheless hopes to see Howa's property revived as some sort of performance space. The problem is price.
"Rick always wanted it developed as a theater as many of us do, but he was attached to a $10 million price tag."
Dave Oka, the city's Redevelopment Agency director, agrees. "He wanted more than anyone was willing to pay."
If the Utah Theatre is demolished, it won't kill the concept of a downtown arts district, Jordan said. The key part of the arts district is the Broadway-sized theater. And proponents have a handful of downtown locations in mind, including Little America owner Earl Holding's property on Main Street and 400 South.
And the county may have a funding source for such a performing arts center with the $70 million or so in hotel taxes expected to be left over after the county helps subsidize a Major League Soccer stadium in Sandy.
Those hotel taxes could be tapped to buy the Utah Theatre, said City Councilman Carlton Christensen. As chairman of the city's Redevelopment Agency, he said the RDA would be interested in helping buy the structure.
* Originally built in the 1880s as the city's first Masonic Hall, the structure adjoining the Utah Theatre later became an Auerbach Brothers
store. The theater was constructed in 1919 in a vacant lot in the block's interior, next to the Kearns Building and behind the Auerbach store.
* Known as the Pantages - it was named after Alexander Pantages, who operated a vaudeville circuit - it was used as a vaudeville, film and theater palace. The building eventually was leased to Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO), Paramount and Plitt theaters, which created a two-screen theater in 1972, destroying much of the building's ornamental work.
* In 1988, the Salt Lake Repertory Theatre leased the space and presented community productions there until May.
* Rick Howa bought the building in 1992. He's been accused of land-banking as the theater sat vacant for more than a decade. His adjacent retail property has languished as well. He commissioned renovation drawings in 1995 to convert the theater into a Broadway-sized venue, but a market study said there wasn't enough demand. He marketed
the property nationally, but there were no takers. He returned to his restoration proposal in 2003.
Source: Utah Heritage Foundation, Tribune archives.