A new study says downtown Salt Lake City can become a mini-Broadway - home to a successful arts district with two new theaters and thousands of patrons shelling out millions a year to attend musicals, plays, concerts and dance performances
    But whether it happens is far from certain as arts groups question the study findings.
   The report - by the Chicago-based convention, sports and entertainment facilities firm HVS - was released last week. It says Salt Lake's art scene can grow and it recommends building a 2,400-seat theater and renovating the mothballed Utah Theatre for 800 to 1,400 seats, adding to downtown's Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and Rose Wagner Center.
   "The question we can't answer is: Does Salt Lake want to define downtown as a cultural district," says Hans Detlefsen, one of the study's authors.
   The easy answer is yes. Arts officials interviewed last week are enthusiastic about the potential for a district to generate more excitement about downtown and ticket sales for them.
   But some of the potential performance groups proposed for one of the new theaters say they aren't considering a move downtown, undercutting the need for the venue.
   And others are dubious about adding up to 3,800 more seats to the market when the symphony, opera and ballet struggle to fill the house now. Part of the skepticism comes from fear: New venues and more performances present competition.
   "There's a lot of interest, a lot of momentum and a need," says Bob Farrington, director of the Downtown Alliance. But, he adds later, "This thing will never happen if the arts organizations don't see it ultimately to their benefit. They won't sign the contract to be a part of it."
   The alliance helped fund the HVS study, along with Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Chamber. HVS found there is demand for more shows based on local demographics, arts-participation rates in the Mountain Region and national industry trends.
   HVS also analyzed demand by looking at successful arts districts in Denver, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh - while acknowledging the Salt Lake market has fewer people who make less money than in those markets. Residents here also are younger, and arts participation is higher among the older crowd.
   HVS recommends building three "black-box" theaters of various sizes because the ones at Rose Wagner have waiting lists. Arts groups also want rehearsal, classroom and banquet space downtown. A district could also house galleries, museums, film and more restaurants.
   It is the possibility of two new theaters that generates the controversy.
    Recommendations: HVS suggests the idle Utah Theatre on Main Street be renovated as a midsize 800-seat to 1,400-seat theater, holding 179 events and drawing 164,300 people a year. Under the proposal, the midsize facility would mainly consolidate events now happening outside of downtown, including moving the Grand Theatre's 90 productions from Salt Lake Community College's campus at 1575 S. State St. Such theater-goers might dine at the Olive Garden instead of the Metropolitan, but it all adds to more foot traffic downtown, Farrington says.
   But Richard Scott, Grand's artistic director, says he has no desire to move. "There's a real question about some of these scenarios [the study] created."
   The University of Utah Children's Dance Theatre, another possible tenant, is raising money to build a new facility and the U. Ririe-Woodbury dance group is adding more performances. But founder Joan Woodbury prefers remaining at the Capitol Theatre.
   And while the study says the Utah Theatre could be the premier home of Utah Opera (now at the Capitol), opera CEO Anne Ewers disagrees. She prefers the Capitol Theatre be renovated to improve sightlines and seating, as the study suggests, but she suggests it lose only about 100 seats instead of the 300 HVS recommends.
   Ewers, also CEO of Utah Symphony, says the Utah Theatre would work for the symphony's chamber series but she won't put it there if the structure is built to hold up to 1,400 seats. That would be a "disaster" acoustically, she says. She would want around 900.
   "I'm not saying we don't do the new theaters, but do them properly."
   Expanded venues: HVS says a brand-new, larger venue is needed if Salt Lake City wants to expand its Broadway offerings downtown because existing venues are too small or outdated. It recommends one with about 2,400 seats and projects it would hold 168 events a year drawing 346,000 people.
   There is talk of putting it on the Salt Palace block or on Main Street across from the Utah Theatre. And there is a sense of urgency among proponents: They don't want to see a suburb build the venue (think Real Salt Lake's move to Sandy) and ruin the concept of a district.
   The $60 million theater could house Ballet West's "Nutcracker," along with concerts, family shows (magicians, hypnotists and comedians), musicals and other events, the study says. It would primarily be the home of Broadway in Utah, which presents national touring shows like "Peter Pan" and "Hairspray."
   Broadway's director John Ballard says he could use a new theater to bring in events that skip Utah - he says "Wicked" is going to Oklahoma because existing venues here are too small - and to show extended runs of the shows that do come to town.
   "Planning for performance spaces in a growing community is kind of like planning the airport," Ballard says. "If you are running at capacity, then you have a problem. If you plan ahead for growth, then you can handle the crowds when they come in the future.
   "Having more seats is critical to our future."
   Such a scenario raises longtime concerns of nonprofit arts groups that a new venue would allow Broadway shows to directly compete with, say, the ballet. The latter would be the loser. But such profit-making performers need to stay in business to subsidize rents for the nonprofits.
   The U.'s Kingsbury Hall probably stands to lose the most if the large theater is built. Many of the events Kingsbury hosts now - from Broadway in Utah to other national and international acts - would go downtown.
   "That very much concerns me," says Greg Geilmann, Kingsbury's director. He wonders where the new arts patrons will come from for the new theaters, with competition for the entertainment dollar coming from new sports teams, satellite TV, computers.
    "There's a lot of things to do out there in Salt Lake City."
   LDS interest: The LDS Church is interested in the arts district. The district would sit a few blocks from Temple Square and probably across the street from the church's Crossroads Plaza and ZCMI Center malls, which are slated for a $1 billion overhaul.
    Presiding Bishop H. David Burton held a private briefing with the study authors last week, though the church has not issued an official opinion.
   "The church is always so very interested in keeping the downtown forward moving," says Chip Smith, chairman of the church's visitor activities, who is familiar with the study.
    Phil Jordan, director of Salt Lake County's Center for the Arts, can't yet say whether two theaters are warranted. But he believes arts patrons are out there, but they stay home because the market doesn't offer what they like. Attendance at Ballet West and Utah Symphony and Opera may be down, but that's true for such groups across the country, he notes.
   "It does not reflect the potential of what's possible."
   What's next
   * Salt Lake County, which owns and runs three performing arts venues in downtown Salt Lake City and would probably own the proposed new theaters, will take the lead in reviewing the HVS study.
   * Next week, Mayor Peter Corroon and Councilman Jim Bradley, along with the county's venue managers, will travel to Denver to check out its cultural district.
   * A coalition of government officials, arts groups and venue managers eventually will decide whether there is more demand for new theaters and determine their impact on existing groups and venues. Arts groups also want to know if the theaters would add more events or just shift existing ones around the Salt Lake Valley.
   * Deadline: There is no time frame for a decision.