Salt Lake County has yet to answer the casting call on mega-theater
SLC • Republicans on council reluctant to spend $20M.
Published: July 1, 2012 12:15AM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:31PM
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An artist's rendering of the $110 Utah Performing Arts Center, slated for completion March 2016. Actors, directors and playwrights in Utah's community of small professional theater companies hope to see a 100- 250-seat 'black box' theater inside its design in addition to the center's main stage facility, which will seat up to 2,500.

Salt Lake City continues to glance nervously offstage for the supporting actor to help fund its planned $110 million Broadway-style theater.

But Salt Lake County has yet to take its cue for the scripted $20 million buy-in on the Utah Performing Arts Center. And the County Council’s Republican majority doesn’t look to be in a spending mood.

The proposed 2,500-seat playhouse will be built on Main Street — with or without the county’s contribution, according to city officials. Nonetheless, the perception persists that without the county’s support, the mega-theater would have to be scaled back a bit.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council are pressing ahead with plans for the theater — to be erected just south of the newly opened City Creek Center. In December, the council voted to spend $18 million to design the venue it hopes will attract touring Broadway shows and help boost downtown’s renaissance.

Behind the scenes, Becker and the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency have been negotiating with County Mayor Peter Corroon. The city is dangling a theater-management contract as a financial incentive to bring the county on board.

The county’s Center for the Arts already operates the Rose Wagner Theater, the Capitol Theatre and Abravanel Hall ­— all downtown.

“We want the county to have the management contract [for the Utah Performing Arts Center] because we think they are good managers,” said freshman City Councilman Kyle LaMalfa, who also sits as chairman of the RDA Board. “But we’d like them to be an owner, too.”

County Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn confirmed that negotiations are progressing. Beyond the financial rewards of a management contract, the county could operate the planned mega-theater so that it would not compete head to head with other downtown venues.

“There are many benefits to the county operating [the theater],” Dunn said. “We could manage it to maximize utilization of all facilities to keep all venues vibrant.”

But the enthusiasm of Corroon’s Democratic administration is not necessarily shared by everyone on the County Council, which must sign off on the proposed $20 million allocation, as well an accompanying management contract.

The County Council’s GOP majority recently voted against putting a $123 million parks bond on November’s ballot. In doing so, some of the Republicans, including Council Chairman David Wilde, said this is not the time to spend on big-ticket items.

In an interview, Wilde said the proposed $20 million theater partnership “is one more expensive thing” among many that are on the county’s wish list, including a proposed convention-center hotel, film center and new buildings for the district attorney and Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

The County Council has not heard a formal presentation from Corroon’s staff on the Utah Performing Arts Center proposal, Wilde said, so he is withholding judgment until all the information is on the table.

“But, right now, my vote would be ‘no,’ ” he said. “I’m not convinced, and I didn’t hear any [Republican colleagues] jump up and down and say, ‘Let’s go for it.’ ”

Republicans hold a 5-4 majority on the council.

Still, County Councilman Jim Bradley, a Democrat, said he believes the council may be persuaded to vote to support the Broadway-style theater — after the November election but before the January swearings-in.

Bradley and two Republican incumbents, Michael Jensen and Max Burdick, are seeking re-election.

If the county were promised a lucrative theater-management contract as part of the $20 million deal, there may be enough “wiggle room” to get it through, Bradley said. “There is a possibility. It’s not a dead idea.”

However, the fall election could change the makeup of county government and its willingness to underwrite the theater. If Democrat Ben McAdams, a top Becker adviser, were to win the county mayor’s seat and Democrats were to retake control of the council, it could ease the way for an agreement. By contrast, if Republicans were to win back the mayor’s seat and keep or strengthen their grip on the council, the chances for such a deal could die.

But Dunn, the county’s deputy mayor, said Salt Lake City cannot wait that long. She expects to put a proposal before the County Council no later than July 17.

“The city has a timeline,” she said. “They have to know whether the county is on board and who will be the [theater] operator.”

csmart@sltrib.com

City moving forward with theater design

Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency and Mayor Ralph Becker have announced three finalists to perform architectural and engineering design services for the 2,500-seat Utah Performing Arts Center to be located on Main Street between 100 South and 200 South. The winning firm is expected to be announced this week.