Candidates speak to town’s economic vitality
April 23, 2003
As we always like to do before an election, we are grilling the candidates for two seats on the Aspen City Council and the mayor’s seat throughout this week.
We have asked all 11 candidates for the May 6 election a series of questions that will appear this week.
The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News and GrassRoots TV have also teamed up to host Squirm Night this Friday night, when the media and audience members can pepper the candidates with questions. The event will be held at City Hall chambers, with the council candidates on stage from 5 to 7 p.m., and the mayoral candidates from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Today’s question is: Aspen’s economy and downtown vitality have become hot-button issues during the past couple of years. Should city government be actively involved in helping to improve the local economy? If not, why not? If it should, to what extent should it be involved?
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A healthy sustainable local economy is necessary to Aspen’s vitality. I believe we must remember that in our resort-based economy, visitors come for the natural beauty, the superb recreation opportunities and cultural events, and the special charm that define this community.
The question is not whether city government should actively be involved to help improve the local economy, but how it should be involved.
For the past two years, as mayor, I have been the city’s representative to the ACRA Board, and to the Economic Sustainability Committee. In recent months, I have participated in Red Brick Center for the Arts meetings, and have been the city’s representative to the health and human service providers’ meetings.
I believe city government needs to sit at the table and engage in ongoing open dialogue with local businesses, hotel and lodge owners, service providers, and nonprofits to promote understanding, define goals and find creative solutions to build upon what is special here, and afford us a healthy economy. Government needs to be involved to understand how its decisions impact the Aspen business, nonprofit and resort community.
The idea of a downtown manager, with subsidy from the city, appears to have created some controversy. First of all, I don’t like the name. I believe it communicates a role beyond what was intended. I am open to reviewing the proposal again to make clear what the intent is, and rework the concept if necessary.
Finally, I believe it’s good business and good for the economy when government pays attention to the details of running a city. Attention to details defines a great town – clean alleys and streets, inviting parks and safe crossings for pedestrians.
We may not be perfect, but I assure you, the city will continue to strive for excellence in these matters.
First, we should control our own economy. The council is entrusted by its constituents to monitor the cost of government. Aspen’s economy grew annually in the past, but times have changed.
Rather than approving every budget request, or adding more staff in hopes of stimulating the Aspen economy, the city should pare down in line with reality.
We also have control of city approvals, zoning, rules and regulations. We are in a position to encourage what is good for the town – open space, parks, the arts, local businesses, mass transit.
In this election, voters should carefully judge the values of those they choose to represent them.
My goal is to make Aspen affordable, for its own working population, for families who want to visit. Historically, Aspen’s tradition was always inclusive; we cannot retain our vitality by appealing only to the wealthy.
It is not within the ability of city government to directly affect the economy. That is not our charge, nor do we have the expertise. We do, however, have the power to indirectly be an influence.
By working to preserve the qualities that have made Aspen famous in the past, that have drawn people here to make their homes, and have attracted people here as visitors, government can indirectly stimulate our economy.
It is not that we need to change, instead we need to rededicate ourselves to what makes Aspen great, both our natural environment, and the charm of our resort.
Should city government be actively involved in helping improve the local economy? ABSOLUTELY!!!
How the city is involved should actually be the question. My answer is through leadership.
Reality tells us that without a stable local economy we will not have the money we need to buy the open space we want, fill empty retail space, support our nonprofits and build affordable family housing.
I believe the key to our success is increasing the number of visitors. We are a resort community that relies on tourism as our main source of income. So, to me it is obvious – more visitors equals more money.
One suggestion I would explore is setting up a commission of marketing experts, which to me means tapping our greatest resource – the people making their homes in Aspen who possess incredible business success – and get them involved.
The idea of generating a larger marketing budget also needs to be explored, but not until we, as a community, get our marketing program in order.
The resources we have within reach in our community are staggering. We need to put them to work.
The downtown core and its vitality are, in my view, very much a part of the city’s responsibility. Forcing realtors to second-floor locations won’t solve the problem. That’s best left to market forces.
Retailers and core merchants are faced with a number of problems that need attention. Lack of different-sized retail square footage, triple tax burdens and a near commercial real estate monopoly are a few things at the heart of the problem.
I didn’t think hiring an expensive downtown core manager is going to solve the problem. That strategy might work for a mall that simply needs traffic, but our downtown core is suffering from more than lack of traffic.
Anyone who has lived here a while knows that in order to survive in an eight out of 12-month season that it’s the locals that keep you going. Since we all drive to Wal-Mart for most necessities, upscale retailers are the only merchants that can survive.
What is the downtown vitality we are trying to achieve: T-shirt shops, souvenir shops and restaurants? How many restaurants and shops are affordable for the average local family? Vitality starts with us, the locals.
It is absolutely within the purview of the city to make changes that will make the core a place for locals and to solve the root causes of the lack of vitality. Get the locals to return and our guests will follow, drive down rents, and retailers that appeal to locals will appear.
The economy in and of itself should be a function of the free market. While it is exceedingly difficult to see the vitality of downtown slip away, it is ultimately the function of local retail and business community, together with the ACRA, to market and enhance local business.
That said, local city government should always be willing to work together with the business community in a partnership to enhance the ability of local business to improve the economy and to assist with the special and cultural events that draw visitors and locals into the downtown area.
Downtown vitality is not solely a product of construction and development; the Saturday Farmer’s Market is but one example. We must continually strive to encourage vitality in all areas of town and to recognize that vitality is key to the success of Aspen, both as a resort and as a community.
It is the charge of our local elected officials to ensure a healthy and vital community and economy. There are many ways to promote the vitality of our downtown.
If elected to the Aspen City Council, I would not subscribe to a social engineering approach. Instead, I have several proposals to enhance the commercial, retail, lodging and service experience for both visitors and locals.
The first thing we need is an understanding by the council of the forces at work and the goals we want to achieve, an understanding I can help bring, and that our council admits they don’t have.
Recently, our council approved a $100,000 expenditure for a retail survey and the creation of a downtown manager position for one year. I think this money should not be spent and the duties therein be shared between the council and ACRA.
Next, it is my suggestion that the best way to enhance the Aspen experience is to return Aspen to the prominence we once enjoyed. It is by maintaining our uniqueness and becoming the global leader in quality of life, intellectual and cultural amenities, and an unmatched dedication to environment and recreational pursuits that we will achieve a sustainable balance of vitality and economics.
I think we should be very careful thinking that we can build our way out of our current situation. Unfettered proposals like infill, four-lane highways and allowing the fractional sell-out of Aspen will dilute the precious mixture so many worked so hard to achieve and enjoy.
I hope you will vote for new vision for our future. Vote for someone with the ability and dedication to make positive changes; vote Torre for City Council.
Infill seems like a good first step. That we have an empty lot in the center of the downtown commercial core (behind Boogie’s) is not acceptable. The mitigation for housing and parking make it cost-prohibitive to develop and re-develop these properties.
The economy is a crucial issue, but beyond expediting the process, and getting out of the way, there is sometimes not a lot the government can do. But, what it can do is make the process easier via less mitigation and regulation, and make it easier to revitalize.
I think, however, a lot of the real, and perceived, economic problems are related to larger issues in Colorado and the United States as a whole. When the stock market turns around, the national economy picks up and we will be the beneficiaries of that new revitalization, and all the private businesses will tell the local government to go away and leave them alone.
Yes, to the point of encouraging through all means a broad array of retail and restaurant outlets on our ground floors in pedestrian zones. No, to the point of hiring a local person to try to solve the problem.
The city should not be involved in seeking out quick fixes to adjust to our changing economic times. They simply don’t have the internal expertise or inherent authority to effectuate any kind of meaningful change.
Our council is much better served to make short- and long-term decisions that will protect and improve upon the special qualities that give Aspen a unique sense of place and purpose. They should focus their daily attention on taking the proper steps to ensure that we maintain our unique position as a premier destination resort and incomparable mountain cultural mecca into the foreseeable future.
They must never lose sight of making the best day-in and day-out decisions that protect our core assets and further distinguish our mountain town from all others.
Arts groups depend on ticket sales to guests. Employers must make payroll. Employees have bills to pay.
Aspen is a resort community and the amenities that contribute to our quality of life are affected by the economy, from funding childcare and open space purchases to reducing congestion with mass transit.
Government plays a role. When I was mayor, I worked to create new guest and community amenities such as the Aspen Recreation Center, skateboard park and to improve the golf course.
Planning ahead, we should support improvements that Pitkin County’s airport master plan identifies. We should support new quality special events like Comedy Festival and the X Games, but not host a chili shoot-off every weekend. I believe that marketing decisions should be left to the chamber.
Carefully planned housing is needed to stem the loss of middle class families and young and middle-aged community members. Working residents keep Aspen real, adding vitality, volunteering for nonprofits and spending their money here.
Protecting our natural environment by acquiring Smuggler and Shadow mountains enhances our town, as does assuring that new downtown development maintains Aspen’s historic character and scale.
Our zoning should favor retail uses downtown and not allow residential, office space and sales outlets for timeshares to deaden the vitality of the core.
We can do more to support the arts, our heritage and defining difference between Aspen and other resorts, by better utilizing the Wheeler fund (over $12 million by 2007) to bring in more live performances and help fund promotions that increase visitation by arts patrons.
The city government is involved. So the answer is yes.
The city has an ongoing relationship with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. One of the chamber’s stated missions is “Facilitating community synergy among government and local civic organizations.” The city proposed and the voters approved a marketing tax to help bring visitors here. ACRA does the marketing.
The city has had several groups that were/are engaged in looking at the downtown economy/experience. They are the Downtown Enhancement and Pedestrian Plan (DEPP), The Downtown Improvement Group (DIG), the Commercial Core and Lodging Committee (CCLC) and the Economic Sustainability Committee.
The Infill Committee is considering changes to the city code, and how the changes will help downtown land and building owners to build or revitalize their properties to stimulate business. The city adopted a fractional ownership ordinance in hopes it will bring more tourists to town.
The city has extended the time a business can expand outside, onto public property, by two months. The city has relaxed the noise ordinance to permit louder, fun events. The city has permitted the Farmers Market to expand onto Connor Park and an additional street.
We have invested in new bathrooms so that more people can “hang out” (and maybe do some shopping) downtown. We keep the benches, lighting, trees, sculptures and water features in good repair and line the mall with flowers. We discourage bears from dumping garbage and loitering.
The sooner we agree on the next steps, the sooner the city will help it get done. The real challenge is the agreeing part.
The business of government is business. It is the purpose of our local government leaders to assure that the business community has a smooth path to communicate their ideas on how they can increase their business potential, to provide recreational opportunities for our citizens and visitors, and to carry out the essential maintenance and care of our town.
Local government should be a partner with our business community so that we can set and obtain common goals. We do not need downtown managers, or uptown managers, with consultants advising them.
What we need are leaders with the courage to go out into the community, walking and talking to our citizens, so that there is a better understanding of the day-to-day operations of our business community. The men and women who run the businesses in our community know what they need, and it is time to listen to them on a one-on-one basis.