Is it curtains for SLC’s Broadway-style theater?

By Derek P. Jensen

The Salt Lake Tribune

September 6, 2010 03:36PM

Despite the recessionary blanket draped like a shroud over commercial construction, Mayor Ralph Becker is committed to raising the curtain on a 2,400-seat, Broadway-style theater on Salt Lake City's Main Street. He has made it a priority since his election and is not wavering as a re-election bid looms next year.

But a ballooning list of challenges has thickened the plot. The city has yet to buy the parcel at 135 S. Main from the LDS Church. The City Council is not fully on board. Questions mount about the easement on the narrow Regent Street, which services the old Newspaper Agency Corp. building. Consultants still are researching whether the project makes sense.

And, most sobering, Becker acknowledges funneling downtown's future sales-tax dollars to the playhouse won't come close to covering the $80 million price tag. And there is more drama. A top Salt Lake County politico warns that even if the cash is found, it may be a decade before a theater gets built.

All this while a new Salt Lake Chamber radio spot raves about a revolution downtown, with references to the "Utah Performance Center on Main."

"It's a legitimate question whether the council wants to make this very important policy decision about where our downtown sales taxes are going to go," says Councilman Luke Garrott.

How to raise millions for construction and what City Creek Center's sales-tax bump actually will be, Garrott says, are mysteries. But he is certain the LDS Church's $1.5†billion lifestyle center won't significantly "grow the pie."

"That sales tax money could, and perhaps should, go somewhere else," he adds. "That's why the council needs to pause. We're already budgeting that money."

The Mayor's Office had imagined a so-called Community Development Area -- including buy-in from the county and the state -- that would capture downtown sales taxes to fund the theater and provide extra cash for arts agencies statewide.

"There would be substantially more revenue than we would need for this theater," Becker said nearly two years ago at a splashy ceremony to unveil the former NAC building as the playhouse's home. "That's for both capital costs and the operation."

Since then, the plan has been dialed down to a potential interlocal agreement between just the city and county.

County Council Chairman Joe Hatch, a longtime arts lover, warns that such a sales tax deal would deliver only $20 million. That factors the "most expansive boundary you can possibly imagine."

What's more, he insists, negotiations between the city and county no longer include funding capital projects like the theater. "When we realized the limitations, that was immediately dropped."

Hatch says a mega-playhouse is a priority for the county, "but not a short-term priority." He questions the commitment of the City Council, noting no member attended a theater meeting last week.

He also notes the county's long-heralded cultural-facilities master plan pointed to a five- to 10-year time frame for a theater. "I don't think anything I've seen has altered that."

In recent days, Becker sat down with county leaders and LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton to talk about the theater. The mayor says the meetings were "constructive," though a financial deal is "by no means completed."

The sluggish economy, Becker says, "certainly doesn't affect our initial judgment that this is a great benefit to the community. That has also given us time to fully engage the arts groups and be very methodical on exploring how the theater will work. I don't view that necessarily as a problem. It's given us some advantages."

Becker says it is "clear to us" sales tax alone cannot fund the venture. The city is counting on a combination of redevelopment dollars, ticket surcharges, naming-rights revenue and up to $20 million in federal tax credits to help.

Downtown real-estate mogul Vasilios Priskos says the city "absolutely" needs the theater. "It puts us on the national radar," he says. "It is a producer of money. There's so much return."

Developers Swisher Garfield Traub and Hamilton Partners -- along with VCBO Architecture in partnership with famed downtown library architect Moshe Safdie -- will complete a theater feasibility study next month.

In July, the City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency Board, approved Becker's $30,000 request to hire Infinite Scale Design Group and consultant Carter Livingston to help brand the project, complete with a Web site and logo.

Meantime, crowds swell the sidewalks for the long-anticipated "Lion King" run, continuing this month at 1,900-seat Capitol Theatre. A similarly sized venue -- Kingsbury Hall -- also draws large productions. Under that backdrop, arts groups continue to argue the city's Broadway needs already are served.

The county's 2008 arts master plan agrees. It calls for officials to hold off on a mega-theater, warning it would siphon millions annually from existing venues.

Livingston sees his role as fostering collaborative support from arts groups -- "a channel of communication that's new."

"It's been nothing but positive from the people that I talk to," he says. "But there's a lot of work to do."

Insiders say a bond issue on November's ballot -- average countywide property taxes would spike $2.40 to fund the $15 million Utah Museum of Natural History -- can serve as a "focus group" on whether taxpayers ultimately would support funding a Broadway-class theater. Nobody has called for such a bond.

City Council Chairman J.T. Martin says he is "extremely confident" the theater eventually will get funded. And he calls it "absurd" and "ridiculous" for Hatch to question the council's commitment.

"We don't want to lose our triple A bond rating," Martin stresses. "But I will do everything in my power to find the money.


Two years after selecting 135 S. Main as the location for an $80 million Broadway-class theater, Salt Lake City officials are no closer to paying for it. A plan to steer future sales tax revenue toward the playhouse, with money left over for other arts groups, is problematic. That method is projected to generate just $20 million in 20 years, and county officials don’t want a penny put toward building the theater.

© 2010 The Salt Lake Tribune