Salt Lake City poised to OK Broadway-class theater
Arts • $18M vote would set the stage for a $110M Broadway-class playhouse.
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The figure calls for $18 million to finance "a portion of the cost of acquiring, constructing and equipping a performing arts center."

But, in reality, a "yes" vote Tuesday by the Salt Lake City Council would permanently affix the curtain on Mayor Ralph Becker's $110 million Broadway-class theater.

The vote appears to be stacked as deep as downtown lines were for "Wicked." And that seems to spell an early Christmas for Becker, who has made the mega-playhouse on Main Street his top priority.

"The indication is that we are moving forward and will move forward," says Councilman Soren Simonsen, who supports the 2,500-seat theater in between 100 South and 200 South. "We are actually committing major expenditures."

Councilman Carlton Christensen, a fellow supporter, concurs that Tuesday's $18 million vote is "significant."

"You wouldn't want to spend this level of resources if you didn't think that long term, even with a design-only project, that this isn't the right thing to do," Christensen says. "The timing is good. Financing is extremely attractive."

But plenty of residents, especially in the latest round of comments on the city's "Open City Hall" online forum, consider the premise flawed and the financial ground squishy.

"Becker's folly," some say, would become a boondoggle that undercuts existing arts venues with corporate productions and bland content. Others argue the soon-to-expire bond for EnergySolutions Arena street upgrades — the prime source of tax funding for the theater — should go back into the pockets of residents. Others argue a playhouse would be better suited atop a surface parking lot rather than coming at the expense of mid-century buildings on Main.

"SLC already has Abravanel Hall, Capital Theatre, Rose Wagner, Kingsbury and [Pioneer Theatre Company]. And even THEY can't fill every seat," playwright Tobin Atkinson writes. "We need a new 2,000-plus-seat boondoggle like we need a $110 million hole in the head."

Atkinson labels the project a "legal payback scheme" for downtown bigwigs cozy with City Hall. "But like I said after the first ultra-choreographed, pro-only 'town hall' I attended on this issue: SLC is gonna eat this thing whether they want it or not. Hope you're hungry, folks."

West-sider Laurie Mecham says a venue for touring Broadway shows would bring unneeded competition for existing theaters. "How many people can afford hundred-dollar tickets for their families?" she writes. "And for those that can, how many will support other businesses by taking the family to dinner? It's not going to happen that way, and taxpayers will be left holding the bag."

On the other side, backers insist a theater would be a reliable lure for locals and visitors, an amenity to help "balance" the downtown draw of City Creek Center on Main Street's northern tip and an economic driver that would attract new restaurants and shops.

"I've never heard anyone complain that their city had too many cultural attractions," resident John Peterson writes. "Downtown is in the middle of a great transformation, and there is no reason to go halfway and regret the opportunity to build something that will really benefit the community."

Others maintain Capitol Theatre is inadequate and say growth in the arts — via tax dollars — is a must in vibrant cities.

"This new theater ... will attract the suburbanites to come to town and see something other than a movie at The Gateway," Boyd McAllister writes. "Hopefully, a few will get excited about the arts and buy a ticket or two to our other great theater venues."

A "friends of" the theater group recently was formed by Wells Fargo Executive David Golden and Emmy Award-winning composer Kurt Bestor. The Salt Lake Chamber, Downtown Alliance and Hale Centre Theatre also endorse the endeavor.

City officials have conducted months of public outreach and theater open houses and recently posted a series of studies that ultimately embrace such a theater. Still, supporters on the theater's website include lots of names on the city payroll — from consultants backing the project to appointees working in the mayor's office.

"On the city's website they tell you how to voice your 'support' for the project, but they don't inform you that you can also be against the project," Katie Sheen writes. "It is as if the city has already made up their mind."

Council members insist that is not true, but insiders expect a slam-dunk — perhaps unanimous — vote Tuesday, setting the stage for the $110 million project.

"Just build it already," resident Robert Jones writes. "All the naysayers will be the first in line to get inside once it's built." —

Curtain call

The Salt Lake City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to spend $18 million in theater design costs, which would all but cement Mayor Ralph Becker's proposed $110 million Utah Performing Arts Center on Main Street. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in Room 315 at City Hall, 451 S. State St.