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Proposed arts center at Willits Town Center gets a sizable financial boost
The Contemporary could break ground later this year
Arts Center
The future of the Arts Center at Willits became more clear this week when the Basalt Town Council agreed to allocate six figures to funding of The Contemporary, a multipurpose 240-person theater with a lobby bar, café, work space and community room. Courtesy image

The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) got a sizable boost in its efforts to build a permanent home this week, when the Basalt Town Council voted 4-2 to allocate more than $942,000 to that home’s construction from a special fund created for just such a purpose. The resolution means that TACAW will almost certainly break ground this fall on The Contemporary, a multipurpose 240-person theater with a lobby bar, café, work space and community room.

The Contemporary will be phase one of a campus to be built on a parcel of land owned by the town of Basalt at Willits Town Center. The land was dedicated to the town by the original Willits developers for use as a town park and arts center, and TACAW has held a lease on the land since 2017. Phase two, The Permanent, which currently has no timetable, will include an expanded lobby and 450-person theater. 

Construction of The Contemporary will take roughly two years and is estimated to cost about $4.9 million overall. The $942,000 will come from an account funded by a real estate transfer assessment (RETA) set up by the Willits developers, 50 percent of which is put aside “to build, maintain and provide an endowment for an arts or cultural center” to be built on the Basalt-owned parcel. The rest of the money will come from donations, ongoing RETA funds and a construction loan from Alpine Bank.

Though it has always intended to build an arts center at some point, TACAW was forced to step up its timetable when The Temporary, a small performance venue in Willits Town Center, lost its lease and was forced to close in May after a 20-month run. In that time, The Temporary hosted more than 250 events ranging from concerts to comedy to salsa nights to kids movies and educational fare.

That diversity of programming and the steady crowds that came to see it, according to TACAW Executive Director Ryan Honey and board member and former Basalt Town Attorney Jody Edwards, demonstrate the demand in the Mid-Valley for continued arts programming and justify the use of all the RETA funds for The Contemporary’s construction.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and all the council members agreed with Honey and Edwards and fully supported TACAW in its efforts to build a campus, but council members Katie Schwoerer and Jennifer Riffle had questions about TACAW’s financials. They asked that the matter be continued two weeks to the next town council meeting so they could take a look at the nonprofit’s balance sheets.

“I don’t think I understand your financial position without seeing your balance sheet,” said Schwoerer. “It’s a lot of risk for the bank and the town.”

Council member Bill Infante countered that the RETA funds are intended to help finance construction and should be the first dollars spent before using money borrowed from the bank that gets charged interest and fees. Council member Gary Tennenbaum said he shared some of Schwoerer and Riffle’s concerns but saw no reason to delay giving TACAW the funds.

Mayor Whitsitt agreed, saying, “I’m OK with it. I believe we did all the blood, sweat and tears on this deal, and I’m going to support it.”

All parties agreed that the RETA funds would only be used specifically for hard costs – those related directly to construction – and not for soft costs like salaries or overhead. Then Mayor Whitsitt called for a vote in front of a roomful of TACAW supporters, and Infante, Tennenbaum and council member Ryan Slack voted in favor of giving TACAW all of the money now, while Schwoerer and Riffle voted against it. Council member Auden Schendler was not in attendance.