Becker’s Broadway theater gets council boost

Main Street • After testy moments, panel votes 5-2 to  launch  Utah  Performing  Arts  Center.

By Derek P. Jensen

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: December 7, 2011 07:53AM
Updated: December 7, 2011 07:47AM

Touring Broadway plays, which arts lovers insist too often fly over Salt Lake City for San Francisco and elsewhere, soon may land in a new home on Main Street.

After a testy debate Tuesday, the City Council voted 5-2 to spend $18 million to design a $110 million megatheater — the hallmark of Mayor Ralph Becker’s agenda since he took office in 2008.

The mayor’s team members laud the 2,500-seat playhouse as an anchor that will lure visitors, jobs, suburbanites and top-tier Broadway shows. They say it will reboot a depressed stretch of Main just south of the soon-to-open $2 billion City Creek Center.

Critics worry it will cannibalize existing arts venues and, with most tickets north of $100, turn into a white elephant. They also point out a troubling funding gap and note Salt Lake County has yet to sign on for its 20 percent.

Council dissenters Luke Garrott and Soren Simonsen tried to delay the vote until more oversight could be set up on the $18 million bond. Simonsen also tried, unsuccessfully, to fund an impact study on current theaters.

But the council argued the megaplayhouse has been studied extensively for three-plus years and has passed the critical review.

“This isn’t a decision that we’ve come to lightly,” said Councilman Carlton Christensen, comparing the theater to the city’s bold choice to build City Hall during the bleak economy in the 1890s. “I’m nervous. Eighteen million is a lot of money. On the other hand, I’m optimistic.”

Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said the decision has kept her up nights, but pointed out the property exists, interest rates are low and other Broadway-class theaters have succeeded.

“We know if we don’t build this theater,” she said, “other cities will.”

Ultimate approval of a larger bond for the whole project — using property taxes set to expire in 2015 on street improvements for EnergySolutions Arena — would come back to the council. So would the final decision on design, including whether to add a smaller black box inside, coveted by arts groups, as well as rehearsal space.

“You have one big hammer at the end of the day,” said Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who is Becker’s top adviser and the financial architect. “That’s a pretty big incentive for the administration to stay at the table.”

McAdams also repeated that county officials’ anticipated 20 percent contribution in property taxes is significant but not “insurmountable” if they chose to keep it.

Garrott, however, lamented a “carte blanche” financial allowance to the mayor and his theater consultants. He also said the move has no guarantees for the nearby Utah Theatre, which he fears still could be sitting empty five years from now.

“We have no lever to give any feedback that would have any sort of binding power to it,” he said, calling the council’s compliance puzzling. “We are signing a blank check to the administration.”

Becker maintained the project has undergone “hundreds of hours” of study, including the impact to other arts venues. “I don’t think there’s been a shortage of analysis,” he said.

Simonsen, who backs the theater idea, challenged that notion, saying plenty of arts executives are bracing for a blow to business if the theater is built.

“We are not a company looking to make a profit,” Simonsen said. “We are a municipal agency looking out for the public benefit. I don’t think it’s enough to say trust us. We haven’t done this analysis.”

Several studies reported a “pent-up need” for touring Broadway performances, which theater backers point to as justification.

“We want to put a stake in the ground,” McAdams said, “for the capital city being the cultural core of the state.”

Councilman Stan Penfold said, for him, the decision was “easy.”

“Recently, I had a friend ask me what I thought about the theater,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m a gay man and we’re talking about bringing musicals to Main Street.’ I almost said, ‘Duh.’ ”

Construction could start in 2013, with an opening in late 2014.

© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune