Arts & Development
Two mountain towns hope to stage an economic revival by investing big in local performance spaces.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 15 years ago, tourism numbers plummeted in resort communities around the world, and Summit County was no exception. The precipitous drop in business forced local marketing experts to reevaluate once-reliable target demographics and spawned an unlikely buzz phrase as mountain towns scrambled to attract new visitors: cultural heritage tourism, driven by investment in the arts.
To that end, Breckenridge leaders hatched a 25-year plan to build a thriving arts campus in the heart of the town’s historic district. This summer that plan was fully realized on June 17, 10 years early, with the debut performance of Chicago at Breckenridge Theater, the newly renovated home of the Backstage Theatre production company. With that $2.6 million project, combined with a $3.5 million arts district campus next door, the just-less-than-$3 million renovation of Old Masonic Hall on Main Street, and an array of smaller improvements, Breck’s recent investment in capital arts projects nears $10 million. Not bad for a mining town recolonized by a bunch of ski bums.
Backstage Theatre’s new space is vast—3,000 square feet larger—and contemporary and stunning, especially considering that it used to be Shamus O’Toole’s Roadhouse Saloon before morphing into a performance space in 2002. With a new reception area and bar (complete with four taps), an oversize glass garage door that opens to a south-facing patio, and rotating monthly art exhibits, the upgrades are not confined to the theater, which no longer is the confined space it once was. Seating capacity rose from 112 to 137, the stage grew 25 percent to 1,000 square feet (and can accommodate multilevel sets thanks a loftier ceiling), and larger dressing rooms now include showers and bathrooms, which helps the Backstage attract more qualified cast members.
“Everything is going to be bigger and better in our future productions,” promises artistic director Christopher Willard.
In addition to Backstage productions, the new space will host concerts (with shows from both the National Repertory Orchestra and Breckenridge Music Festival staged there this summer), stand-up comedy, speaking presentations, and films—not least from the Breckenridge Film Festival, which will screen here in the fall.
“I think our biggest challenge will be: everybody wants to use the space,” says Robb Woulfe, president and CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA), the nonprofit overseeing the renovation, chartered with “cultivating the town’s cultural assets and promoting the community as a leading year-round creative destination.”
But Breckenridge isn’t the only town in Summit spending millions on theater this year. Silverthorne has partnered with the Lake Dillon Theatre Company (LDTC) to build a $9 million performing arts center, which broke ground in April and should be ready by next spring. Until then, LDTC—which had been located in Dillon since 1993—will gladly suffer the indignity of staging its summer season in the Outlets at Silverthorne’s Green Village.
The 16,000-square-foot Silverthorne Performing Arts Center—$6.3 million of which will be funded by the town, and $2.7 million by LDTC—was conceived with a similar multiuse purpose in mind. The troupe’s new home just up the road from the eponymous lake will feature three flexible performance areas, ranging from 30 seats to 130, as well as two multipurpose classrooms and office space.
“People may disagree with me, but this is competitive; it’s what everybody is doing,” Woulfe said recently during a tour of the new Breck Theater. “Communities that are not investing in culture or the arts are going to be left behind. What’s unique about our situation is that it’s happened in a relatively short amount of time.”
In Breck’s case, a full decade ahead of schedule.