Candidates for Basalt Town Council were quizzed Monday night on everything from allowing sales of recreational marijuana to specific plans for lifting downtown out of economic doldrums during a forum hosted by the chamber of commerce.
The approach was light and easy among the four candidates who attended. Bernie Grauer, Jeff Orsulak, Richard Duddy and Mark Kittle were able to outline differences among themselves while being civil and even complimentary of one another at times. A fifth candidate for the three open seats, Gary Tennenbaum, couldn’t attend the forum because of prior plans.
Grauer stressed that he believes Basalt town government can and should play a big role in economic revitalization, though it also should be careful to protect its small-town character and enhance its connection to its riverfronts.
Grauer, 69, retired, said he would consider selling Lions Park and the Town Hall site to a private developer to raise funds to buy the remaining Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site. The town owns half of the site and is working on creating a park alongside the Roaring Fork River. Grauer said acquiring the remainder of the site for a civic plaza and events venue would help fuel downtown revitalization.
As a councilman, he said he also support would hosting events at the plaza on every weekend during “good” weather to draw people to Basalt.
Duddy, 62, a real estate agent with Shane Aspen Properties, took a more bottom-line approach to revitalization. Vitality means people are making money, he said. It’s not about adding parks or adding specific buildings, he said.
Tourism, construction and real estate are cornerstones of the economy that Basalt can build off of, Duddy said. It’s important that the town alter the perception that it is unwilling to work with developers on proposals for downtown projects, he said. Instead it should be willing to entertain ideas to see if it matches the community vision, according to Duddy.
Kittle, 55, chief building official in Snowmass Village, said he believes that it is important to add new lodging downtown and reviving the Clark’s Market building, possibly with a more upscale grocer. He also suggested Basalt town government should play a more direct role in marketing the town to tourists and business interests, following the model of Snowmass Village.
“The only agenda I have is we need to get some lodging in here,” Kittle said. He said he would work to bring lodging to Willits Town Center and to the Pan and Fork site.
Orsulak, 38, an architect and planner with Lipkin Warner Design and Planning, said his vision for economic vitality is influenced by “fried chicken.” He recounted how Colonel Sanders had to examine his business plan, adapt to circumstances and identify what he could do well before his fast-food chicken franchise could soar. Orsulak repeatedly stressed throughout the evening that Basalt can tackle the issues facing it by drawing as many residents into conversations as possible and figuring out a common path to follow.
“For far too long, we’ve just been reacting,” Orsulak said.
The candidates expressed contrasting thoughts on affordable housing. Orsulak said Basalt’s approach over the past several years is not working. Heavy mitigation requirements on developers have produced only 53 units, he said.
He questioned the degree of Basalt’s affordable-housing problem. Surveys have shown that 63 percent of Basalt residents own their housing, he said. That’s slightly below the national average but it’s 5 percent ahead of Aspen, which has spent millions of dollars to address its housing shortage, he said.
Orsulak said he favors finding ways to work in public-private partnerships to provide housing. Such partnerships are working on proposals to build housing at Willits Town Center and at a site next to Stubbies bar. The governments of Basalt and Pitkin County are considering contributions to projects that could add more than 100 units.
“We need Pitkin County to contribute to this problem, not just cause it,” Orsulak said.
Duddy said he senses a greater need for affordable housing from talking to community members. Business owners have told him the lack of affordable housing in Basalt requires them to live in New Castle, he said.
Rising real estate prices are making it difficult for workers to purchase housing, but that’s part of the sacrifice many people have made to live in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said.
“I don’t know how to fix it,” Duddy said.
Kittle said he wants an emphasis on “attainable” housing for people returning to Basalt after college. The town government needs to find partners willing to provide land at a reduced price, then consider housing such as modular units that can be built economically, he said.
One option Kittle wants to explore is carving five or so acres out of the Grange family conservation easement for housing. Basalt, Pitkin County and Eagle County purchased the conservation easement roughly five years ago. Kittle acknowledged he didn’t know if it would be legal to use any of the land for housing.
Grauer said it is clear that Basalt has a need for housing for young, working families with household incomes under about $60,000 annually. Town councils have been in agreement for about 15 years about that need, he said.
Grauer said his position has evolved on how to satisfy that need. Instead of requiring developers to provide on-site housing, he supports public-private partnerships like those being pursued adjacent to Stubbies and at Willits Town Center.
Diverse views also were offered on recreational marijuana sales, which currently are prohibited in Basalt via a moratorium.
Duddy and Kittle said they aren’t opposed to putting an issue before Basalt voters, asking if recreational operations should be allowed in town. Duddy said a lot of younger Basalt residents that he’s talked to don’t want the town to legislate morality.
Kittle said he favors education, regulation and taxation, but if that doesn’t work for town residents, “maybe we need to put it on the November ballot” and see how they feel.
Grauer said parents with children are concerned about allowing recreational pot shops. He said there is a concern that it could lead to more marijuana “seeping” into schools. Grauer said he favors “heavy regulation” or even extending the moratorium for a year to see how state law on pot shops evolves.
Orsulak said he favors allowing recreational pot shops. Banning businesses isn’t the way to increase vitalization, he said, noting that Basalt banned additional real estate offices in the downtown core several years ago in an effort to boost vitality.
Customers of the recreational pot shops will become customers of other stores, Orsulak said. They will eat at restaurants, then 10 minutes later they’ll eat again, he quipped.
“I know we can handle the issues that come up,” he said.
The forum was recorded by GrassRoots Community Network and will be aired four times this week on cable channel 12 in Basalt. The air times are Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., Friday at noon, and Saturday at 1:30 and 6 p.m.
The election is April 1. The three candidates that earn the most votes will each serve a four-year term.
“April Fool’s Day is a perfect time to have a local election,” Duddy joked toward the end of the forum.