Colson: Call Hunt’s bluff, hope for the best |

Colson: Call Hunt’s bluff, hope for the best

with John Colson

I don’t live in Aspen these days, but assume that I might be called upon at some point to write stories about one Aspen issue or another. So I rarely address local controversies in this column to avoid calling my objectivity into question.

But I can’t help myself with the Base 2 vote, since I am not covering it as a reporter.

The question before voters on Nov. 3 is about the city council’s approval of a roughly 15,000 square-foot, 37-room hotel, at the corner of Monarch and Main streets in what’s known as the “mixed-use” zone of homes and small-scale businesses.

Thanks to a petition drive prompted by objections to variances granted for the project — including doubling its allowable size from about 7,500 square feet to the current 15,000 — it is up to voters to decide whether to confirm the council’s approval or reject it.

There are a lot of ins and outs to this brouhaha, and I won’t get to them all, but there are some points I feel are salient.

For one thing, there is the way Hunt has dealt with his opposition.

In August, he announced he was pulling the pin on the project, withdrawing it from city review and going back to the drawing boards.

Then, a few days later, Hunt changed his mind and encouraged the city council to put the matter before the voters, as demanded by the petitioners.

It sure looked then like Hunt was trying to play a form of “bad-cop/good-cop” with the city.

As the bad-cop, he may have hoped that by withdrawing it from the council table he would short-circuit the petition drive and then could re-propose the project later.

Then, after he thought about it and realized that the opposition probably would not go away, he came back as the good cop. He convinced the council to let the voters decide, hoping to show that he genuinely cares what the little people have to say and, shucks, he sure would like their approval.

No proof he thought these things, of course. Just a gut feeling.

Then there are recent revelations, in various news stories, that Hunt is basically trying to blackmail the local electorate.

According to reports, he recently declared that if he can’t build his hotel, he’ll just put some other commercial enterprise on the lot in question, which currently holds a Conoco gas station that has been there for decades.

And, again according to reports, the two particular kinds of enterprise he mentioned were a bank and — wait for it — a pharmacy.

It just so happens that the site of the proposed hotel is across Monarch Street from Carl’s Pharmacy, a veritable department store in function and form, selling liquor and drugs, greeting cards and groceries, Halloween costumes and stationery, and much, much more.

Carl’s, named after co-founder Carl Bergman, has been one of Aspen’s most recognized and most appreciated commercial landmarks since the 1960s. It once boasted a soda fountain where the liquor store is now, and it has served as a genial employer for countless ski bums through the decades. In fact, a job at Carl’s, for some, may have started out as a temporary thing but somehow turned into a career.

To my mind, using Carl’s as an electoral bargaining chip, essentially threatening its continued existence, is a low blow. Hunt should be ashamed of himself.

As for the idea of a bank replacing the gas station, I hope he was joking.

Aspen has more than enough banks already, of just about any type one could mention.

Banks, like law offices and real estate brokerages, have proliferated in recent decades to the point where the kinds of stores that Aspen once was famous for — quirky little shops where you could find things that surprised, impressed and sometimes awed visiting shoppers — have fled downvalley to more affordable neighborhoods.

Aspen needs another bank like it needs global warming.

I must say, I commend Hunt for homing in on affordability as the main selling point for this hotel. That is something Aspen needs in order to attract the kind of skiers that will keep the industry afloat — families, 20-somethings, people who look for bargains to stretch the vacation budget.

Though I admit that $200 a night for a room smaller than the bathrooms in some Aspen homes might seem like an insult to the skiing public.

And there’s nothing in the city’s approval to require Hunt to live up to that price point, or to his eleventh-hour pledge to provide underground parking at Base 2, although city officials seem to feel Hunt’s written offer of the parking garage has binding legal force.

I’m not impressed by Hunt’s carrot-and-stick approach.

And, in my experience, developers always shoot for the moon but really only expect to get to the clouds.

Which is to say that I think the voters can call Hunt’s bluff in the hope that, in the end, he’ll come up with a hotel proposal everyone can live with.