DEEP IN THE HEART OF TAXES
It started out as a way to save the Boulder Theater. But ballot initiative 2C, to be decided by Boulder voters on November 8, has become more than that--a lot more. Even Kent Zimmerman, the executive director of the Boulder Bureau of Conference Services and Cultural Affairs, as well as one of the project's most vocal supporters, warns, "Hang on, because this gets really complicated."
True enough: 2C is a weighty--and expensive--proposal. The measure calls for a 2.75 percent tax on Boulder hotel rooms, to be used to pay off the majority of $16 million in bonds the city wants to issue. If the initiative passes, Zimmerman says, approximately $2 million from that total would go toward the purchase of the Boulder Theater, an 88-year-old city landmark, with another $2 million earmarked for restoring the structure to its original glory. In addition, $1 million would be set aside to buy a private parking lot behind the theater on which a community meeting center would be constructed (estimated price tag: $4 million). Also included is the cost of a free shuttle service on the route between the theater/meeting center and Boulder-area hotels. And that's not to mention a three-level, 265-space parking garage to be built underneath the meeting center.
The $5 million cost of the garage would be borne by an increase in the mill levy for the 300 or so property owners in downtown Boulder's Central Area General Improvement District, known as CAGID. (The property owners will vote on the mill levy separately.)
How did such an apparently simple cause wind up carrying so much baggage? The roots can be traced back to Richard "Dick" MacLeod, who owned the Boulder Theater until last year. MacLeod, who actually lived in the theater for a time, turned the venerable room into a thriving live-music venue. But after pouring an estimated $120,000 to $160,000 into a failed television venture, Boulder Theater Presents, he found it impossible to pay off a wide range of creditors. His solution--passing more than $150,000 in bad checks--only got him into more trouble. Last month he was sentenced to six months in jail and a whopping twenty years' probation on nine charges of check fraud and one charge of theft.
The city of Boulder also got stiffed by MacLeod and shuttered the theater in July 1993 for nonpayment of $4,000 in back taxes. Among those to whom this came as a terrific blow was Nick Forster, a former member of the bluegrass group Hot Rize who is also the producer and host of E-Town, a National Public Radio program that's called the Boulder Theater home for several years. Even as he was scrambling to find a new setting for his show, Forster says, "I was very anxious to breathe some life back into the theater. I didn't want to see it dark and empty in the middle of town. I'm passionate about the Boulder Theater."
Forster soon found others who were thinking along the same lines. By late 1993 a surprising conflation of musicians, artists, businesspersons and city-government types began meeting in an effort to bring the theater back to life. Given that the venue had failed several times in the past, the supporters--dubbed the Citizens to Save the Boulder Theater--wanted to come up with a plan that would sustain it on a more permanent basis. At one point, someone suggested turning the theater into a conference center, an item long on the wish list of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. Because the group wanted to maintain the theater as a music hall, this notion was initially rejected. But the idea of purchasing the parking lot behind the building and creating a theater/conference-center complex was immediately embraced. The parking garage component was added later, partly in response to the loss of more than thirty parking spaces along 13th Street due to the creation of a bike lane.
The next decision to be made was how to pay for this ambitious plan. In the late Seventies the city of Boulder had purchased Chautauqua Park, which includes a concert facility, and subsequently made a success of it: The operation, headed up by Boulder mayor Leslie Durgan, is turning a profit. But because of the 1992 passage of the Douglas Bruce-promoted Amendment 1, which requires cities to put tax increases before voters, Boulder couldn't simply authorize the expenditure of the funds needed for the new Boulder Theater complex as it had for the Chautauqua deal. Therefore, the plan's backers needed to come up with a funding mechanism that might pass in an atmosphere that Boulder City Councilman Bob Greenlee characterizes as "anti-development--anti-everything."
The solution was a tax not on the residents of Boulder but on tourists. Forster succinctly states the initiative's appeal: "We get the theater restored, additional parking, a meeting center that will provide a consistent community benefit--and the visitors to Boulder pay for it."
Neither the shuttle system nor Forster's logic placated Boulder hoteliers. According to Mary Ann Mahoney, the executive director of the Boulder Hotel and Motel Association (BHMA), the 2.75 percent tax increase on rooms would bring the total city, state and federal assessments against Boulder visitors to more than 12 percent, making it the second highest in Colorado. And that, she believes, would be bad for business.
Sandy Paul, marketing manager for Boulder's Broker Inn, also doubts that hotels would receive the benefit of additional customers lured to the area by a meeting center near the Boulder Theater, which is at least a ten-minute drive from most of the major hotels in the city. "If you've got 300 people who need to get to the center by nine in the morning and you've got two buses that hold forty people each that are supposed to take them there," she says, "they'd have to leave three hours early to get there on time." Peter Angell, owner of Boulder's Highlander Inn, agrees: He describes 2C as "an economic exercise in suicide."
In spite of these doubts, the BHMA didn't immediately oppose what became 2C; rather, it proposed to pay for the cost of the project with a 1.65 percent tax on hotel rooms and a .15 percent tax on restaurant tabs. This concept and the original 2.75 percent hotel tax plan were presented to the Boulder City Council, which rejected the association's proposal. The council, whose members didn't think that residents would vote to place an additional tax on themselves, unanimously approved the present version of 2C, prompting the hotel association to crank up a campaign in opposition to it.
Councilman Greenlee, a cautious supporter of 2C, thinks the hotel association is exaggerating the amount of business its members might lose as a result of the new tax. "I don't think it's going to have any impact on a person making a decision to rent a room in the city of Boulder," he says. Still, he concedes, "I am concerned whether or not all of the potential impacts of the project have been thoroughly considered."
Even so, voters in the city seem to want to do something to save the theater. Boulder's Downtown Management Commission recently oversaw a questionnaire that asked about a number of local development issues, including the Boulder Theater; more than 60 percent of those who responded said they wanted the venue to survive, while fewer than 20 percent answered negatively.
Mahoney thinks the pro-2C forces are doing so well because they've implied that the measure is the only way to save the Boulder Theater. Indeed, the reason current theater owner David Edwards hasn't sold the property yet is because he agreed not to consider offers until after the election. But Mahoney claims that there are private parties willing to purchase the theater and use it as a music venue, thereby giving the city an opportunity to build a meeting center closer to most of Boulder's hotels. "We want to save the Boulder Theater, too," she says. "We just think there are better ways to do it."
For Forster, however, the bottom line is keeping the theater going--and he sees 2C as the only sure way to succeed. Through a subleasing agreement, he's been able to use the structure for E-Town tapings since early 1994, but he's afraid that it won't be around much longer unless Boulder voters act now. "We just want it to be a better version of what it is already," he says. "Which is a great place to hear music.
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