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The notion of developing a digital and film center in Salt Lake County has gotten more complex.

Part of it has to do with an architectural study, released last week, that attached a hefty price tag to fixing the beloved-but-dilapidated Utah Theatre on downtown Salt Lake City's Main Street and building the multi-purpose film center around it.

Theater restoration alone would cost $36 million to $42 million, depending on whether repairs are basic or extensive. Adding the proposed film center's half-dozen movie screens, production facilities, archival collections and administrative offices could boost the bottom line to nearly $86 million.

The other complicating factor is that while Architectural Nexus was finalizing its study, at least one suburban city — South Salt Lake — informed Salt Lake County officials that it, too, liked the idea of becoming home to a film center. And it figured it could build one more cheaply.

This new source of competition brings the County Council face-to-face with an issue that often bedevils its members:

• Are they being fair to their constituents if they pour tons of money into developing the arts in downtown Salt Lake City, creating an attraction whose benefits trickle down to all county residents?

• Or should they try harder to spread the wealth among suburban cities whose growing populations are catching up with Salt Lake City's, serving the masses closer to where they live and pay taxes?

Councilman Randy Horiuchi summarized that internal discord when he observed: "I've been an advocate for moving things out to other communities, but this is really the key to whether the downtown is rebuilt. And we've already invested a gazillion dollars in the big-ass theater," he said, repeating his favorite nickname for the megatheater rising across the street.

"It's actually the George S. and Delores Doré Eccles Theatre," said Phil Jordan, director of the county's Center for the Arts, in a deadpanned response to Horiuchi's glib characterization.

Jordan went on to summarize the findings of the architectural study, funded by the county and Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency with support from three film-center proponents — the Salt Lake Film Society, Utah Film Center and Spy Hop Productions.

The century-old theater at 148 S. Main is in "very feeble" shape, Jordan said, so even if it's handled with tender loving care, "it could fall apart in our hands." As a result, if restoration is the ultimate course of action, he added, only a few of the theater's original elements are likely to be preserved.

"This is a new building," he said, "taking what we can save and remolding it."

"The trade-off is that you get a more energy-efficient, more comfortable building that is safer in the long term," Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn added.

There's little doubt, Jordan said, that Utah Theatre's Main Street location would be ideal for a county-operated film center since it's right between the renovated Capitol Theatre and the now-emerging Eccles Theatre. The county will manage both of those theaters.

Utah Theatre would have an 800-seat theater, "which is what we don't have in the marketplace now," Jordan said, noting that Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center seats 500 while Capitol Theatre holds 1,600. "An 800-seat theater would fit nicely in the current mix of venues."

Dunn also said county officials are interested in examining how a film center would advance the creation of an "innovation district" where entrepreneurs, artists and educators can come together via mass transit to share ideas in an area wired to the max with digital technology.

"We're excited to look at how we can use this venue, not just as an arts-and-culture facility but as an economic-development engine," she said. "Through a venture like this, we could have students studying at our universities in film and media and keep their businesses here instead of moving to other locations."

While the downtown site has many advantages, Dunn said, the "puzzle pieces" in the architectural study "could be assembled at other locations. … It's simply information we would build up, mold and change, depending on the location proposed."

Over the next two months, she said guidelines for a film-center proposal will be sent to Salt Lake Valley cities.

"I anticipate that will generate more interest," Dunn added, noting she would expect Salt Lake City officials to participate once they digest the architectural study's details.

County community services director Erin Litvack, whose portfolio includes the Center for the Arts, pledged to treat all applications equally.

"We will be thorough in looking at any other alternative site," she said.

Then the council will have to decide where to put taxpayers' money — if anywhere at all.

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