Theater lovers, business groups crave Broadway lights in Salt Lake City

By Derek P. Jensen

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: November 22, 2011 10:33PM
Updated: November 22, 2011 11:36PM

Interest — indeed, passion — for the performing arts has ballooned in Salt Lake City over the past 30 years, but during that span the city has not built a large-scale arts venue.

The time has come, a group of theater lovers, promoters and business executives told the City Council on Tuesday during a lopsided public hearing in which response was mostly favorable for Mayor Ralph Becker’s proposed $110 million Broadway-class theater on Main Street.

“Salt Lake City has never stagnated,” said Jeffrey Berke, calling the 2,500-seat theater one of the greatest contributions the city can give the next generation. Having a full year of open calendar dates at the Utah Performing Arts Center, Berke added, would give Utah’s arts community an opportunity to expand.

Becker has made the playhouse his priority for three years. The council is scheduled to vote Dec. 6 on approving an $18 million bond for design of the theater. The vote would also solidify a Community Development Area to funnel property tax from the block between 100 South and 200 South between State and Main to the theater. And it would commit the soon-to-expire EnergySolutions Arena bond monies to the project.

Critics worry the theater will be a white elephant and unnecessary in a market that already hosts Broadway touring shows. And arts groups fear it would cannibalize their patrons.

But Safia Keller, a season ticket holder at multiple Utah theaters, disagrees. “Bringing an arts center like this would only enhance what we already have here,” she told the council. “I don’t think it would put some of the smaller organizations out of business.”

Musician Kurt Bestor said comedians and musicians — “guys like B.B. King” — also would use it rather than “lose money” at arenas like the Maverik Center. The theater in Durham, N.C., regularly cited as a model, notched sellouts this year for comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Blue Man Group and Diana Ross.

But Ashley Anderson, who runs a nonprofit dance company in the Marmalade, is strongly opposed. She argues people won’t be able to afford tickets, and places like hers, which produces two dozen choreographers a year, will not be welcome at a mega-theater. “At least change the name to Salt Lake’s Broadway Repository,” she mocked.

“The numbers that I’ve heard so far about this proposal just don’t add up,” added Roger Jones, calling on the council to table the proposal.

Even with the pledged tax revenue from the NBA arena, theater financing faces a $2.5 million gap in the first few years. But that can be bridged with naming-rights dollars and interest-rate savings if the city acts now, according to Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who is also Becker’s senior adviser and the theater’s financial architect.

“With delay, we risk missing our window,” he told the council. McAdams, who just announced his candidacy for Salt Lake County mayor, insists the public investment will be “far offset by the sales tax.” If the theater performs like Durham’s, he notes, it will be profitable.

The Downtown Alliance, Salt Lake Chamber, Economic Development Corporation of Utah and other business interests endorsed the playhouse Tuesday. Besides the lights, they see shoppers at City Creek Center, visitors in hotels, diners at restaurants and vitality downtown.

“The arts have not always been recognized as economic drivers,” the Alliance’s Jason Mathis said. “But they are.”

Still, Barbara Bannon, a longtime freelance theater critic for The Salt Lake Tribune — who disclosed herself as such at the hearing — isn’t keen on a performing arts center.

“It discriminates against our local theater,” she said. “It’s just going to put a lot of money into the hands of out-of-state producers and promoters.”

Yet, “if it’s not built in Salt Lake City,” McAdams warned, “it will be built somewhere else.”

Not to worry, said resident Dave Winder, who opposes the playhouse but thinks it’s a done deal.

“We wouldn’t spend $18 million dollars if we weren’t quite confident in going the distance,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious the direction the council is going to vote.”

© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune