Something Wicked This Way Comes | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

July 29, 2009 News » Cover Story

Something Wicked This Way Comes 

An arts district one block from Temple Square will either save Main Street or become its biggest folly yet.

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The house that Sundance Built
Just like Main Street itself, the historic Utah Theater has been waiting for decades to make a comeback. Now, it appears to have its chance. The Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency recently inked to deal to buy the old playhouse owned by Rick Howa, and set the wheels in motion to create a film and media arts center that would house three film-oriented nonprofits: Salt Lake City Film Center, Salt Lake Film Society and SpyHop Productions, a multimedia education center for youth. “It would be a great way to bring all the likeminded entities together in one space,” according to Rick Wray, executive director of SpyHop. “Right now we’re all operating in isolation.”

The business benefits come at a time when first-run art houses across the country are struggling. Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, which runs both the Tower Theatre and Broadway Centre Cinemas, recently attended a conference with 50 other art houses. “We recognize the trend nationally for there to be shared resources,” she says. “I feel like Salt Lake is already on the forefront, but this collaboration puts Salt Lake on the stage as becoming the model for the rest of the nation.”

Salt Lake City Film Center’s Geralyn Dreyfous says the combination could help keep independent film alive in the city during a time when the landscape for how films are distributed is changing, and Salt Lake could become “a national pilot or Petri dish for some of these new models for filmmaking.”

If the Salt Lake Film Society does move into the historic Utah Theater, it might put the future of another historic theater, the Tower at 9th & 9th, in question. Baker says the Tower is “very emotionally important” to the society and was a “huge part of the mission” of the founders. However, she also notes that the society does not have ownership of the Tower building and only leases the space.

The organizations still need to raise more than $25 million to renovate the Utah Theater and make it operational.

Becker says, on the contrary, that national-level Broadway advisers have told him Salt Lake City could be a premiere destination if it had the facility. One of Becker’s advisers is his brother Bill Becker, a Tony Award-winning producer who was asked by Ralph to serve as volunteer chairman of the Downtown Theater Action Group.

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Studies and Processes
For Becker to fully realize his vision for downtown, he will almost certainly need to pick up some funding from Salt Lake County. In 2008, Salt Lake County contracted with AMS Planning & Research to conduct a study and draft a cultural facilities master plan. Released in December 2008, the plan looked at the proposals for both a downtown Performing Arts Center as well as a similar facility located in Sandy. AMS concluded, “On balance, taking into account the market need, the program considerations, and the readiness factors, AMS is unable at this time to advise the County to make a commitment for significant public funding for either of these projects. However, AMS strongly recommends that additional information be provided to the County prior to a decision on support.”

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For those who question the need for the downtown performing arts center, that should have been the final nail in the coffin. “Multiple studies have been conducted that find the proposed venue to be unsustainable and ill-conceived—most recently by Salt Lake County,” Rapier says. “How many studies does it take?”

Becker, however, sees the study as anything but definitive, saying it is more focused on avoiding the politics between Sandy and Salt Lake City than determining the need for a large theater. “I would say they remained neutral,” Becker says.

Sandy attempted to pursue a Broadwaystyle theater as part of a privately funded development called the Proscenium, but that project has stalled due to funding difficulties. When it picks back up, it will focus first on building the residential component of the facility.

“It’s still up for debate,” Corroon says of the downtown facility. “We will look at any project. The process is in place to do that.”

Becker states, “We see it being a partnership with the county,” but he also emphasizes that some projects could be joint ventures, while others could be pursued solely by one party or the other. However, the price tag on the performing arts center—a cost of $80 million has been tossed around—would indicate the need to go through the time-consuming “process” with the county before any funding comes through.

Those who question the need for the performing arts center also question what the benefit would be of spending public funds on the facility. “You have to ask, ‘What are you delivering for them that you’re not already getting?’” Geilmann says. “Who benefits from spending that $80 million? Who are the beneficiaries?”

Where do you want to live?
Culture and arts offerings help people decide if they like a city and want to live there. Even talking about the arts— more than a city’s politics, infrastructure, resources, or fiscal policy—reveals how people view their city and what aspirations they have for it. Corroon points to Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, a book about professionals in the new “knowledge economy” and what they look for in a place to live. Florida argues that a thriving gay population and rock bands are important to a city’s economic development. Corroon gets this. “It’s larger than just the arts,” he says. “It’s technology, tourism and economic development.”

As to a performing-arts center, Mathis says, “The real benefit of this process has been the recognition that this discussion is much bigger than a single building. The future might hold a district of some kind, or a cultural trust, similar to what other cities have developed, or something completely new that fits Salt Lake City specifically.”

On a more personal level, Becker has been trying to convince his mother, who was the first person he called after he found out he won the mayoral race in 2007, to move from Washington, D.C., to Utah. He recently found an inroad on a recent visit when the two went to an arts function in Washington. It was a chance for the mayor to remind her that his city also has cultural offerings she might enjoy. From a cultural perspective, D.C. to SLC might not be such a big leap, especially if Becker can get people to catch his vision.

Geoff Griffin
comments@cityweekly.net

City Weekly Interviews Geralyn Dreyfous of the Salt Lake Film Center & Vasilios Priskos of InterNet Properties on the next page.

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