Affordable housing was a common theme of a two-hour discussion Tuesday as community leaders offered their views on the future of Pitkin County.
The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners’ community panel discussion at the Limelight Hotel was part of its second annual two–day retreat. The first day of the retreat saw the commissioners work to identify the strengths and challenges the board deals with and to gather input from several of Aspen’s community leaders on what direction they see the county heading.
The community leaders on the panel represented a broad range of interests within the Roaring Fork Valley. They included Mike Kaplan, the CEO of Aspen Skiing Co.; Karen Schroyer, the U.S. Forest Service Aspen Ranger District manager; Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival; and B.J. Adams, the president of B.J. Adams Real Estate.
“A roundtable discussion like this gives the board an opportunity to really evaluate whether we have the right strategies, goals and priorities in place or whether we need to talk about changing direction,” said County Manager Jon Peacock. “We found it a very useful exercise during our retreat last year just to step back and ask community leaders from different segments of our community what they think and how they feel the county is doing to meet the needs of those who live and work in this area.”
During the two-hour roundtable discussion, each member brought up issues that they deal with or thought were concerns within the county. Many of the topics had no easy answers, such as addressing affordable housing at all levels of income or the issues surrounding mental health in the area.
Even without clear answers to the perceived problems and challenges in the Roaring Fork Valley, what Tuesday’s meeting brought forward was a willingness to identify what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be addressed in the near future.
County Commissioner Rob Ittner opened the panel discussion by asking what people thought the long-term plan should be for the county and the Aspen community.
Kaplan said he felt it was extremely important for Aspen not to lose sight of the shared vision around the so-called “Aspen Idea” of “mind, body and spirit.” The concept of offering renewal toward that ideal and building upon that for the next-generation resident and visitor is where the city should be headed, he said.
“How do we do that?” Kaplan asked. “It’ll take leadership and collaboration in the context of the county, municipalities, nonprofits, for-profits, ... all kinds of different stakeholders. The county could serve as a bit of a collaborator that pulls people together for this. It’s important to stay relevant and energetic in the way we bring that vision to life.”
Fletcher said one of the main concerns for the music festival and the school is how to drive new cultural tourism to the area. He acknowledged the incredible local support the festival receives and said one of the top five reasons students choose to attend the music school is the natural outdoor beauty in the area.
“I want to put in a vote for the acquisition of more land and the management for more recreational land because that is something that our people care about very much,” Fletcher said. “Another big issue for us during the next 10 years will be housing. We bring in about 1,000 students and faculty each summer, and we have to house them. We identify that as one of the biggest financial challenges moving forward.”
Schroyer sees the lack of affordable housing and the area cost of living as one of the biggest challenges to keeping good Forest Service employees working in Pitkin County. She said most people who work within the Forest Service do so because they’re passionate about the outdoors and most Forest Service personnel would love to work in an area like Aspen but simply can’t afford to.
She stressed several times the need for affordable housing for her co-workers and asked that the county consider pooling affordable housing with the Forest Service.
Adams talked about the perceived conceptions that some of the newer affluent residents have voiced concern about. She said it’s still very important to make the wealthy feel welcome to Aspen and to figure out how to allow younger people to find a way to live here affordably.
“We’re losing really good people who leave the valley in order to have a regular life somewhere else,” Adams said. “It’s a huge concern that they can’t have a house with a yard and a fence and not be in restricted housing.”
Adams said the answers aren’t easy, as most of the land in this valley is either taken or zoned in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to find new areas to build in.
“The open space our county acquires contributes to the quality of life we have here,” she said. “There are no easy answers. How do we pull back those people that are leaving the valley to have a regular, normal life somewhere else? How do we welcome, embrace and make the path easy for those who are moving here either full time or part time and make them feel welcome?”
All the panelists agreed that finding a balance between allowing access to the natural beauty in the area and finding ways to introduce affordable housing seem paramount in keeping Aspen a vibrant, growing community.
Other issues were touched upon, such as the importance of upgrading the Aspen airport and how to combat the loss of hotel rooms for visitors. Kaplan said that in the past 20 years, beds are down 30 percent in the Aspen area.
When the meeting was over, Kaplan said it’s important to share dialogue about the priorities and concerns within Pitkin County.
“It’s great to be able to discuss our visions and where we all think we should be going in the near future,” he said. “Airing those issues out and hearing the different perspectives is great. I often hear the opinions of the people here on this board individually, but I never get to hear these opinions collectively. I think we need to do more meetings like this within our community. If we can find one partnership, one thing we’re both working on where we can get together and maybe pool our resources and get it done faster, that makes these type of meetings totally worth the time.”