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Salt Lake City's leaders have done their share over the years to bolster arts and culture downtown. This time, they want arts groups to help them.
The Salt Lake Chamber/Downtown Alliance has a bold new plan for downtown revitalization that relies on arts and culture as its economic engine. The aim is to form a nucleus of arts groups and theaters reminiscent of New York City's Lincoln Center on the block between West Temple and Main and bounded by 100 South and 200 South. The concentration of touring shows, films, ballet, opera and theater is intended to draw restaurants, shops, hotels, galleries - and people with money in their pockets - to the area.
Chamber member Byron Russell is organizing talks between county and city leaders, property owners and arts leaders to form a new master plan. Representatives of the LDS Church - whose intention to develop college campuses, retail projects and housing downtown is crucial to the project - are involved in the parleys too, said Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake Chamber.
A renovated Utah Theatre outfitted for opera, ballet and touring shows would anchor the Arts and Culture Block at 148 S. Main. But instead of being run by entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel, as previously proposed, the theater might be owned and operated by Salt Lake County.
Ballet West, which uses Capitol Theatre as its rehearsal and performance space, has postponed ground-breaking for its new offices, rehearsal space and ballet school in Sugar House while the proposal is investigated. Chamber members want the ballet school - and the resultant foot traffic of students and parents - on their Art and Culture Block.
"[Ballet West's new] building will happen," said the company's executive director Jhann Jacobs. "Now the question is where. We are giving [the Salt Lake Chamber] up until January to figure this out, and still holding our property in Sugar House."
A pair of smaller theaters are being discussed, and could be located in the vacant Wells Fargo Building at Main and 200 South, said Rick Howa, who owns Utah Theatre. Pioneer Theatre Company, which has long wanted a small venue to augment its shows at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre at the University of Utah, was contacted about using the proposed theaters for some productions. PTC's artistic director Charles Morey is interested in the proposal but says there are many questions to be answered.
Salt Lake Community College will have a downtown campus at 115. S. Main, bringing an influx of college students to the area. The theater SLCC sponsors, Grand Theatre, has been invited to use Capitol Theatre, which would be available if Ballet West and Utah Opera move to the Utah Theatre. Like Morey, the Grand Theatre's artistic director Richard Scott is interested, but unable to commit while the project is in its early stages.
Brigham Young University, which will have a downtown Salt Lake campus as part of the LDS Church's development, might also be contacted about using Capitol Theatre for productions, Beattie said.
Utah Film Commission and Salt Lake Film Society have been approached about moving to the block to create a film presence. Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Utah Museum of Natural History could locate "satellite exhibits" on or near the block. With the new Museum of Utah Art and History right across Main Street from Utah Theatre, a concentration of galleries would result. Regent Street, a narrow alley which runs through the center of the block MUAH is on, could possibly be developed for small shops, galleries and restaurants.
Scott Anderson, CEO of Zion's Bank, is the originator of the "culture block" concept, and Anderson's ideas have since been expanded, said Beattie. Anderson is out of town and unavailable for comment.
John Ballard, regional director of Clear Channel, which brings touring shows to Salt Lake City, said " the more performance arts activity, the better for all," but noted the expense of the new proposal, which he estimates at $200 million, as opposed to the $45 million estimated for renovating just Utah Theatre, with Clear Channel as its manager. "I'm sure there's a rich uncle somewhere," he added.
Money, as usual, is the sticky issue. One catalyst for the new plan was an April Salt Lake Tribune report that showed many capital campaigns competing for dollars from Utah's public coffers and donor community, said Beattie. The new plan seeks to "count the eggs that have already been hatched." That means keeping groups like Ballet West - whose capital campaign for a new building has earned $12 million - downtown where their treasure chests can help with revitalization.
With legislative approval, other funding could come from a bond paid for through Utah's TRAC fund, which finances infrastructure for economic development through taxes on hotels and restaurants.
Salt Lake County Councilman Randy Horiuchi admires the passion behind the new project, but is not sure the plan is the best use of county funds. He cites expansion of the Salt Palace and improvements to South Towne's convention facilities as other important uses for TRAC funds, and he worries about concentrating the county's funds downtown. Horiuchi has long favored renovation of Utah Theatre, but doesn't want to see the building's seating capacity reduced to suit the needs of arts groups.
"I think what [Anderson] has assembled is outstanding," Horiuchi said. "Parts of it are mesmerizing and brilliant, but there are other parts that need work."
Tribune reporters Heather May and Thomas Burr contributed to this story.