AURORA | A panel of Aurora city council members last week shot down a citizen-submitted proposal calling for the city to opt out of a regional cultural district and venture into its own entertainment jurisdiction.
Aurora resident Jeff Brown briefed the city’s Federal, State and Intergovernmental Relations committee April 14, asking members to forward to the full council a proposal to cut the city out of the 30-year-old Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and enact an identical tax district at the city level.
Brown has said the idea would buoy the city’s coffers, keep revenues produced in the city within municipal limits and pave the way for the construction of a performing arts complex in Aurora, possibly akin to facilities in Lone Tree and Parker.
“No one is coming to Aurora to have fun, and we all too often leave Aurora to see a show in Denver, in Parker, in Lone Tree, in Centennial and what have you,” he told council members. “ … I’m further proposing Aurora make a 180-degree turn into performing arts and entertainment in order to revitalize the city’s dining and retail sector.”
Brown is advocating to send a ballot question to local voters this November, asking residents to opt out of the seven-county SCFD and enact a special tax district at the municipal level.
He has contended the city could unilaterally leave the district via a county-referred ballot question, though SCFD officials have countered that the state legislature would have to pass a measure removing Aurora from the current district before referring a ballot question.
The trio of council members on the city’s governmental relations committee, Angela Lawson, Nicole Johnston and Curtis Gardner, said that referring a ballot measure to voters this fall would be premature. They instead suggested pursuing a market study to assess the feasibility of crafting a new district or erecting a new arts hub.
“We need to make sure that we have data to back up what it is that we’re bringing to the voters,” Gardner said.
City staffers suggested the market study could be funded in upcoming budget negotiations. If a study is funded, officials would also likely congregate a citizen task force that could lead to a ballot question referred to voters in 2022, according to city staff.
Whispers of constructing a performing arts complex in Aurora have permeated the city for decades, though no proposals have come to fruition. Former Mayor Steve Hogan in 2017 alluded to a public-private partnership that could bring such a facility to Aurora, though talks eventually fizzled. Hogan died following a cancer diagnosis in 2018.
Aurora voters have twice voted down ballot measures seeking to fund a performing arts structure in Aurora, once in 1979 and again in 2002.
Alice Lee Main, former cultural services division director for the city, told the Sentinel in 2016 that the 2002 project was proposed to be combined with a branch of the Aurora Public Library, and that the 1979 question had asked for a three-pronged facility intended to house a theater, a museum and a library — all of which would have been connected by a central atrium with communal gallery space.
The failed proposals have left the city without a singular artistic anchor, though a smattering of theaters and dance companies have called the Aurora Cultural Arts District along East Colfax Avenue home for years.
Still, Gardner lamented the lack of cultural space in Aurora, particularly in the city’s southern and eastern peripheries.
“We need more things to do here in Aurora,” he told his fellow council members. “Yeah it’s great that we have a great cultural arts scene in the metro area, but when my wife and I on a Friday night want to do something, there aren’t a lot of options in Aurora — there really aren’t any in fact. We live in pretty far southeast Aurora, and while The Fox theater is great, that’s a significant commitment. And after the show, there are not a lot of places for me to go eat or have a drink or something like that. While I understand that we do have some amenities here, I don’t think we have the amenities on par with a city of our size.”
However, Gardner and others expressed concern that Brown’s proposal could divert funding from the region’s most magnetic cultural sites, such as the Denver Arts Museum and the Denver Botanic Gardens, depleting the collective cultural offerings available to Aurora residents.
The so-called “big five” cultural hubs in Denver receive the bulk of SCFD funding each year, though a tweak to the formula several years ago ensures more of the funds go to smaller groups if an annual revenue cap is met.
SCFD officials told council members that the group’s 11-member board and five-person staff is open to working with Aurora staffers on soliciting potential bids to erect a new venue in the city.
Still, the Arapahoe County appointee to the SCFD board, Jake Zambrano, condemned Brown’s recent proposal.
“Mr. Brown’s endeavor to build a cultural venue in Aurora is a noble one … but … cannibalizing SCFD dollars for operations at some of our wonderful tier IIs and tier IIIs to build a building to service debt is short-sighted and detrimental to our community,” he said.
First passed by ballot measure in 1988, SCFD charges a penny per $10 to fund nearly 400 arts groups in the region. Voters have re-approved the tax four times over the decades, most recently in 2016.
A bevy of Aurora arts groups receive money from the district, including The Vintage Theatre, Kim Robards Dance and the Aurora Singers, among several others. The city’s cultural services division receives the largest local share of the SCFD pie, nabbing $350,000 in 2019, according to county documents.
Under Brown’s proposal, the city would have to backfill that funding from the general fund, according to city staff.
Brown said he was frustrated with council members’ recent decision and is continuing to explore how to get his proposal to this November’s ballot.
“It’s disappointing to see our city leaders neglect the revenue opportunity by kicking this initiative down the road another two years,” he wrote in an email. “By not pursuing entertainment and the arts, Council is leaving over $28 million/year in sales tax on the table together with the over $6 million in cultural funds that should be invested in the city’s venues and cultural organizations.”