Salt Lake County officials believe they should be the owners of the once-elegant but now forlorn Utah Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City.
Title to the 94-year-old theater at 148 S. Main is held by Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA), which bought it for $7 million in 2009 from businessman Rick Howa.
Largely unused since 1992, the theater has been considered a potential home to a digital film and media center and an archive of independent films. The county has spent $125,000 studying what would be needed to renovate the aged building and of the potential for creating a film archive that would build upon the Sundance Film Festival’s annual focus on independent productions.
Those studies are being finalized, with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams saying Tuesday he expects to give the County Council a report on the results in June.
In the meantime, McAdams secured council support to negotiate an interlocal agreement with the city to acquire the building and underlying property — a pledge that came with a big caveat: In no way, shape or form is the council endorsing the idea of turning the theater into a film center. That’s a decision for later, after the studies are scrutinized.
“This [interlocal agreement] is not committing us to that,” McAdams said. But if the studies show that a film center and archive are worth pursuing, he thinks it’s wise for the facility to be controlled by the county, the lead agency in developing and operating Salt Lake’s cultural facilities.
“If we are going to invest significant time and future resources, we want to do that in a county-owned facility,” he said, noting the county will negotiate to get the parcel for free.
“Why does Salt Lake City want to give it to us?” questioned skeptical Councilman Steve DeBry.
“I don’t know that they do,” McAdams responded. “We’re formalizing a request. Those conversations with the city will continue.”
City Councilman Stan Penfold, chairman of the RDA board, said informal discussions of the proposal have occurred, but he does not anticipate formal talks to begin until after release of the studies, which the city helped fund.
“I’d love to have a conversation with the county on it,” Penfold said. “That’s an important location on Main Street and a great old historic theater.”
In the county’s deliberations, DeBry and his Republican colleague, Richard Snelgrove, voted against authorizing McAdams to pursue the agreement.
Snelgrove thinks it’s a bad idea for the county to be in the film business, while DeBry argued that “this is a cart-before-the-horse deal. … I would like to see the studies first. I don’t want to leap before I know what’s going on.”
But the council’s four Democrats all supported McAdams’s position that now is the time to start talks. The mayor also picked up support from Republicans Michael Jensen and Aimee Winder Newton as long as the agreement does not bind the council to develop a film center — or anything else — in the theater.
“I have no problem with transfer of property as long as we know we have the ability to sell it or give it back” to the city Redevelopment Agency, Newton said.
Jensen, a council member since its inception in 2001 and its current chairman, believes the county deserves to own the property because “Salt Lake County has put in tens of millions of dollars, if not $100 million, into the central city district RDA.
“The building isn’t as important as the land. They’re not making more land in the downtown area,” Jensen added, contending the parcel could become “a bargaining chip in our bag that we could package with other properties” in land swaps if the film center/archive idea is abandoned. “That’s enticing to me.”
A coalition of nonprofit arts groups promoting the film center idea contributed $50,000 to the architectural studies of the Utah Theatre.
They are the Salt Lake Film Society, Utah Film Center and Spy Hop Productions, which would develop training facilities for teen filmmakers.