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The playhouse that Ralph built? Ex-mayor sees it as a 'source of joy ... for years to come'

Published October 17, 2016 3:33 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Former Mayor Ralph Becker, who left office in January, was instrumental in bringing the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater to Salt Lake City.

Though the project drew criticism, Becker said the result, with its contribution to the arts, architecture and downtown vibrancy, "speaks for itself."



What are you most looking forward to with the theater's debut?

I most look forward to seeing people enjoy first-rate performances that Salt Lake City and the region would otherwise never have an opportunity to see. And, with the other developments associated with the theater — the creation of Regent Street as a vibrant festival street with art and many new attractions, and the opening of the parallel development at 111 S. Main as a premier office building — I look forward to seeing this core of the downtown become a catalyst for vibrancy. During my tenure as mayor, my team and I were determined to site and build a theater that would nestle into the core of downtown and add the best of today's design to our city.

The Eccles Theater is a magnificent architectural contribution to Salt Lake City and downtown. As I've toured the theater — as well as the Regent Street and 111 S. Main developments — I'm incredibly impressed by the quality of design and construction. From the integration of the theater into Main Street with no rear, but another activating influence on Regent Street with the main entrance to a badly needed additional black-box theater, we now have a state-of-the-art facility that will draw people from around the region for years to come.

Finally, it's exciting to me that this theater will be accessible to everyone. Thanks to the larger seating capacity and actions taken by the city and private contributors, seats will be set aside that will be affordable for anyone wanting to experience the performing arts in Salt Lake.

What does the theater's opening indicate, in your view, about the city as an arts and cultural center?

With the Eccles Theater opening, Salt Lake City and Utah continue a tradition of investment in state-of-the-art venues that enrich people's lives through performing arts. Following on the strong tradition of arts and culture in Salt Lake, since the settlement of the valley — from the Capitol Theatre to Abravanel Hall and Rose Wagner to the University of Utah venues — the Eccles Theater underscores that arts and culture are worthy investments. The Eccles Theater also is a premier modern theater that offers performing artists a superb venue for their craft.

You encountered some criticism for pushing this theater. How would you answer those critics?

I actually thank the critics; they made us sharpen and improve every element of the theater, from siting to financing to design to providing for a range of local, national and international artists of all kinds. This occurred over a five-year period, from the initial concept to a commitment to invest in this theater, and another three years of design and construction. So I truly do thank everyone who was involved in that public process for contributing their time, thoughts and ideas. This theater will be experienced and reviewed for many years to come. Thanks to all the participants in the process — performing arts groups, businesses, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City Council, and other local government officials — we were challenged to NOT raise taxes, to include provisions for local productions, to use the theater as a catalyst for more activity downtown, to meet sustainability goals, to make the theater accessible to those who are financially or physically challenged, and to ensure the facility would contribute to the beauty and vibrancy of downtown Salt Lake City.

Any new project of this magnitude creates some disruption and controversy. This theater, originally conceived in the 1962 Salt Lake City Second Century Plan, had been discussed for decades, with feasibility studies and proposals in Salt Lake City and later in Sandy. After announcing I would explore the viability and desirability of a new, larger downtown theater in early 2008, I quickly learned why the proposal had never led to development. Struggling arts organizations questioned spending money on a new theater when they were barely hanging on, especially during the Great Recession. Others questioned whether public money should be spent to support the arts versus other necessary public needs. Questions were raised about whether the theater would serve only the wealthy elite. Those were all legitimate concerns. We did everything possible to proceed in a transparent way with analyses and community dialogs — thanks to so many who gave their time through volunteer work or governmental consideration. In the end, the city and county, with the affected taxing entities, concluded the performing arts center was a worthwhile investment for Salt Lake City and the region.

I believe the result speaks for itself.

Architecture and art always generate opinions, and this new facility will be no different. I applaud the designers for taking on a challenge and meeting every objective we gave them.

Some high-profile critics suggested that the theater wasn't needed and would fail. Yet even before the grand opening, season tickets for touring Broadway productions are at record levels for Utah, and the reaction to scheduled musical performances has been positive.

The Eccles Theater also has spurred development on Block 70: Regent Street, 111 S. Main, a new hotel and condominium at 200 South and Regent Street — key revitalization components of the downtown core.

Public and private funding has exceeded our estimates, assuring sound financial footing. The Eccles Theater was built without raising taxes (we used existing revenue streams). The Community Development Area (CDA) for the block now receives revenues that were not relied on for the theater's public bonding; Salt Lake City and the taxing entities will likely receive a payback of the bonds well ahead of schedule. Approximately one-third of the revenues come from private contributors. (The initial goal for private fundraising was $24 million, then raised to $30 million. While private fundraising is not finished, private contributions to date total about $37.5 million.)

Pricing for some seats will be lower than existing pricing at the Capitol Theatre for similar shows, because a larger theater offers more flexibility for a variety of pricing levels. This, combined with some subsidized ticket pricing, will allow more people access to the performing arts, and is likely to generate more interest and attendance at other arts facilities and performances.

You enlisted the help of your brother, Bill, who has extensive Broadway theater experience, to assist with this project. How did his expertise help?

This project was so fortunate to have my brother Bill as an adviser. Every hour he dedicated was pro bono, and I could not be more grateful to him. After a career in law and business — much of it in the performing arts in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center and other theaters around the country with his own production and theater management business — he "retired" in Utah. When I requested his help and expertise, he had one condition: He would not accept a single dime in compensation. Bill spent countless hours as a volunteer, applying his expertise and years of experience ensuring that we made sound financial and management decisions. He met with all the interested arts groups, the business community, and had dozens of meetings with governmental officials and their consultants and advisers. Some of those entities offered Bill a parking pass while attending those meetings, or an open desk for the dozens of times he came to City Hall. He refused every offer. I think everyone who met Bill and worked with him on this project would agree that his selflessness, and his in-depth knowledge and analysis led to better decisions and outcomes. The theater would not be what it is today without his tremendous contribution.

What is your hope for the theater's impact on downtown?

I hope the theater is a source of joy for our community and the entire region for years to come. And I hope it continues to attract investment and people to Salt Lake City's downtown.

 

 

 

 

 

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