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Broadway-style theater closer to reality in Salt Lake City

Published March 6, 2013 9:24 am

Performing arts • Salt Lake City, County councils close in on a deal to own and operate the venue, but there are still a few details to iron out.
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It's not a done deal, but Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County took big steps Tuesday toward creating a new downtown theater for the big Broadway-style musicals that sing and dance their way west.

The city and county governments still need to agree on how to operate the planned $110-million Utah Performing Arts Center (UPAC). But the partners appear to have agreed on who will own the 2,500-seat mega-theater designed to attract touring shows like "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "The Book of Mormon."

First on Tuesday, a short-handed County Council voted 4-2 to endorse the contracts that specify how the two governments will interact in developing and running the proposed playhouse on Salt Lake City's Main Street just south of 100 South. However, the County Council lost its quorum before its formal meeting and did not official ratify the agreements.

In the evening, the City Council approved the ownership agreement, but added an amendment to the operating agreement that gives Salt Lake City the authority to ask for annual financial audits of UPAC. The amendment also requires the agency that will operate the theater to keep the City Council informed on the arts accessibility program. That program sought to budget 1 percent of ticket sales so that low-income community groups would have access to UPAC shows.

It's unlikely, but conceivable, the County Council could reverse direction before its formal vote next week.

According to the agreements, the city would have a 75 percent ownership stake in the theater and would be responsible for that share of its costs.

Salt Lake County would have a 25 percent ownership interest and would operate the facility through its Center for Fine Arts, which also runs the Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

The operating contract requires the county to host, on average, no fewer than 100 performances every year of Broadway-style or family events — or 138 performances if other "popular entertainment events" are thrown in.

The contracts also specify how theater revenues will be divided. Once critical reserves are built, the county will receive $600,000 annually to defray any losses experienced by its other three downtown arts venues because of competition from UPAC.

"It's a good deal for us and the city, quite frankly," said County Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper, who was part of the county's team that negotiated the agreements. "We put ourselves in a position where we can make some money on it and protect the arts organizations in the valley as best we could. It's better for those organizations that we manage it."

Despite Casper's assurances, concerns about the impact of the planned playhouse on existing arts facilities helped fuel opposition by Republican Councilmen Steve DeBry and David Wilde.

"I hope it's as successful as the rosy picture provided," said DeBry, the council chairman. Otherwise "we run the risk of cannibalizing the good work we've already done."

And he predicted the mega-theater could push some arts organizations "over the edge."

Wilde concurred, reiterating his long-standing complaint that too much public money is flowing into downtown Salt Lake City at the expense of arts groups in the suburbs and a worthy scientific-oriented institution in Clark Planetarium.

"We already do more than enough for the arts in the community," he said.

They were outvoted Tuesday afternoon by the council's four Democrats — Jim Bradley, Arlyn Bradshaw, Sam Granato and Randy Horiuchi — who felt the playhouse will make Salt Lake a richer, more dynamic place to live, with the contracts providing protections for the whole arts community.

"One of our hallmarks is to safeguard the arts," Horiuchi said. "That's one of the reasons we're a world-class city."

Bradshaw added that the county and the city previously made the decision to proceed on the mega-theater and that the contracts reflect good work by both sides to forge a mutually beneficial working relationship.

Since three Republican councilmen missed the Tuesday afternoon vote, it is possible — but unlikely — the decision could be overturned when the ratification vote comes up next week.

While Richard Snelgrove has sided with Wilde and DeBry before in opposing UPAC, the other two GOP councilmen have supported it. Max Burdick, for instance, is chairman of a council subcommittee studying the vitality of the downtown convention and tourism industry.

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