Can Crested Butte pull it off?

Weddings, concerts and conferences are among the activities planned by boosters of a performing arts center in Mt. Crested Butte.

Weddings, concerts and conferences are among the activities planned by boosters of a performing arts center in Mt. Crested Butte.

Crested Butte digs deep into pockets

for major facility

$18 million construction projected for performing arts/conventions

by Allen Best

Can Mt. Crested Butte, among Colorado’s smallest ski towns, really deliver the kind of convention and performing arts center in which a Tony Bennett concert might be held or, for that matter, the comedian Bill Murray might perform?

After all, the population of the two towns of Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte, along with surrounding areas, together don’t add up to more than 4,500 full-time residents. Metropolitan Denver is four to five hours away. Direct flights from distant cities have to be propped up with expensive subsidies.

Whose deep pockets can be mined for the $18 million in expected construction costs for this roughly 34,000-square-foot facility?

Tom Seymour, president of the board of directors for the Biery-Witt Center (named after the donors who shelled out at least $1.25 million each), says the fundraising has been successful enough to start working with a design team, Studio Red Architects of Houston and Sunlit Architecture of Crested Butte. It is now getting ready to solicit interest from contractors, to begin refining the reality of cost estimates. The goal is to begin construction in 2015.

But first, more money must be raised.

The project now has $18.2 million in pledges, but that figure includes $7.2 million in tax collections from the town of Mt. Crested Butte once revenues are collected through the financial mechanism called tax-increment financing. The town and the ski area operator also kicked in land parcels at the site, next to Mountaineer Lodge, that are valued at $1.2 million each.

“It’s a struggle,” says Seymour. “When you are fundraising in an economic environment consisting primarily of second-home owners, you don’t get the same response as people who are raising money in the hometowns of these second-home owners. So, it has been a slower process.”

The process began 10 years ago, when the sponsors of the annual music festival began talking up a more substantial performing arts facility. The vision expanded into more of a multi-purpose facility that could host conferences.

Vail periodically has flirted with the same idea, most recently about 12 years ago. After all, it’s just 97 miles from Denver and has a moderately robust schedule of direct flights. Too, the Keystone Conference Center, which is a half-hour closer to Denver, has done well since it opened in 1989.

But then came in the cost estimates: $38 million to $60 million for construction, plus new evidence of operating deficits that would have required continued subsidies. The plug was pulled even before the recession hit and sent convention-going into a tailspin.

Will the new Internet conferencing capabilities dull the market for convention space? That’s one line of thought. On the other hand, the Colorado Convention Center in Denver stays plenty busy. And for that matter, so do the conference facilities in Aspen.Crested Butte concert rendering

The conference center at Mountain Village, near the slopes of Telluride, maybe the closest analog to what Crested Butte seeks to build.

But will Crested Butte’s facility take an ongoing infusion of cash?

Joe Fitzpatrick, town manager at Mt. Crested Butte, says an updated feasibility study has delivered numbers that are better than the original study and the project can be self-sustained.

“That gives us the confidence that we were headed in the right direction,” he says.

Multiple lines of income are envisioned. The valley already hosts many weddings. There may be synergy with the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which draws scientists each summer from many places. It might provide a better venue for Western State University, located 31 miles away in Gunnison.

“People still like to get together, and there is a level of communication face-to-face and person–to-person that you will never get over the Internet,” says Fitzpatrick.

Crested Butte concert renderingBreaking even—the first year

The financial projections see the conference center breaking even immediately—yes, the first year. Seymour adds that the budget does call for a cushion of $1 million. Supplementing the construction budget will be a $2 million fund for fixtures and equipment.

That adds up to at least to $21 million to get started. Removing the land donations and the future revenues from tax diversions and that still leaves, according to my math, the need for $6.5 million more in pledges.

Checkbooks will likely come out more easily once construction starts, Seymour says. A rural-economic-development loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also being sought.

If Crested Butte outwardly does not have the silver heels of Aspen or Vail, Seymour insists there is an “enormous amount of money.”

“Not everybody in the world wants the artificiality of Vail or the glitz of Aspen. People here pride on Crested Butte being the non-Aspen,” says Semour.

He cites the president of Dell, the computer manufacturer, and the managing partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Bill Murray, the wonderfully funny movie star, has a place here—but you would never know it. He goes to the bars and restaurants and is just one of the folks. That’s why he likes it here,” says Seymour.

North of Gunnison approximately 175 homes are assessed by the taxing authorities at more than $1 million, and 1,900 homes of $500,000 or more. That is after a massive reduction in assessed values during the last four years.

“There are all kinds of money here.” he says.

Economic development is the primary goal of the center. It does not assume an increase in the number of direct flights from the outside world, but proponents hope that it does generate enough business to justify more. They expect a surge of weddings, plus more convention business – and, who knows, maybe Tony Bennett himself.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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