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Aspen bounces back

Janet Urquhart

A collective smile is brightening Aspen’s face these days.The slumping shoulders and slumping fortunes of just a few years back have yielded to a renewed sense of optimism, bolstered both by tangible signs of improvement and less quantifiable inklings of better times.Or, maybe it’s just that it’s snowing.

Whatever the reason, the vibe on the street is one of joy – the cautious kind versus the unbridled stuff, perhaps – but hey, attitude is half the battle and, as one resort official put it: “Things sure feel a lot better.”Aspen may not yet be poised to surpass the glory years of the late 1990s, but there are signals the resort is at least inching back to that heyday, before winters of disappointing snowfall, a national economic recession and Sept. 11, 2001, took their toll on tourism.Local real estate sales hit $1.5 billion by the end of November, shattering the old record – $1.27 billion in 2000 – with a month to spare. When December retail sales are tallied early next month, the 2004 total could eclipse the record year of ’98, though Aspen is still playing catch-up, when the indicator is adjusted for inflation.Skier numbers, up slightly last season for the first back-to-back increase since 1996-98, will jump again, despite a 10 percent decline in this season’s early going, predicts David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president.Then there’s the immeasurable, but no less significant buzz generated by the return of ESPN’s Winter X Games to Buttermilk for a fourth run later this month and the back-to-back outdoor concerts that will rock the downtown core during the event; the scheduled reopening of Aspen’s once-pre-eminent live-music venue, the Double Diamond, as the new nightclub Belly Up; the rise of Aspen Highlands as extreme-skiing central with the opening of Highland Bowl; new hotel development and new shops in what once felt like a glut of empty storefronts.

“The energy just seems to be back,” said Steve DeGouveia, longtime owner of Footloose and Fancy Things. The shop had its best Christmas season since 1990 – by a healthy margin, he said.”It may be short-lived, but I hope not,” DeGouveia said. “I hope it’s a return to what we had before we developed the malaise.”A booster shotAspen needed a shot in the arm when the Skico’s Perry arrived on the scene in June 2002. He came prepared to needle Aspenites into remembering what made their town great.A ski industry career man, Perry was well aware of Aspen’s struggles when he assumed the No. 2 post with the Skico. The Canadian native had already been working closely with the resort as CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, which plucked him from success in Whistler-Blackcomb, B.C., in 2000.He was back in Aspen shortly after taking the helm at Colorado Ski Country, a trade association of the state’s ski resorts. What Perry found was a much different resort than the one he first visited during the 1988 Winternational, when he’d seen firsthand what had long made Aspen the premier ski resort – top dog in the industry.

“It was just so phenomenal,” he said, recalling the 1988 visit. “The skiing was fantastic, the spirit was like nothing I’d ever experienced before … everything was just hitting on all cylinders. I was so impressed.”What I experienced when I came to Aspen [in 2000] was dramatic, compared to what I’d experienced in 1988,” Perry said. “To me, the loss of spirit, the loss of pride in Aspen was palpable.”Aspen was considered yesterday’s place. Aspen was a resort that had been hijacked by the rich and famous. Aspen was a place that had lost its soul. I’m talking about perceptions, but when people perceive you that way, you feel it.”After joining the Skico, Perry started talking up Aspen to anyone who would listen – primarily the locals.”I had to figure out different ways to remind people how great this place was and why it was great,” he said.

But Perry wasn’t all talk.There are a multitude of factors Aspen can’t control, from snowfall to the world economy, but Perry preaches a proactive approach – either capitalize on a situation, or be in a position to minimize its impacts.”To me, the key is being in step with those factors,” he said. Perry made it a priority to keep the Winter X Games in Aspen beyond its planned second run. And the Skico followed through – last year the company signed a deal to keep the Games at Buttermilk through 2007. The company has also pulled off a couple of big downtown concerts and two more are in the works, this time in conjunction with ESPN, for this year’s games.The Skico has also continued to focus on international marketing, even when a strong dollar several years ago weakened overseas business and competitors were pulling back. Now, the value of the dollar has dropped and the Skico’s diligence is paying off with a significant upswing in international business, according to Perry. If Aspen feels fun again, that spirit may be embodied in the Skico’s willingness to take itself less seriously, even making light of the resort’s glitzy image on occasion. The company has rolled out film clips of Hollywood poking fun at Aspen during presentations at a couple of conventions – to the audiences’ great delight.

Its “Power of Four” marketing promotion features a book and a DVD featuring locals – not the Skico – talking up Aspen.”I just thought it was important that we connect with the roots of Aspen – what made it great in the first place,” Perry said.Had it done absolutely nothing, Aspen would have experienced a rebound of sorts merely as a result of a recovering economy. But, the resort has positioned itself to take better advantage of the circumstances that come its way, Perry believes.”I absolutely believe that we’ve turned a corner on a very positive path,” he said.

The Skico has received a good share of the credit for debunking the resort’s stodgy image – starting with the April 2001 lifting of the snowboard ban on Aspen Mountain – but City Hall hasn’t exactly been a stick in the mud.Whether it’s easing city regulations, allowing the ski company to close the streets for a rock concert or embracing plans for hotel redevelopment, the feeling that Aspen is open to change is part of the cure, according to local developer Greg Hills, who counts the rebuilt Galena Lofts and Christiana Aspen condominium hotel among his projects. “I quite honestly think the City Council has done a good job of bringing back the entrepreneurial spirit the town had at one time,” Hills said. “I think the attitude has changed within the city – not that we’re going to be Las Vegas or Vail or something, but that they’re going to be receptive to ideas.”That investors are ready to plug millions of dollars into a pair of new hotels near the base of Aspen Mountain may speak volumes about confidence in the resort’s future, but more important, the projects may offer a stable flow of visitors. Both the Hyatt Grand Aspen, scheduled to open next Christmas, and The Residences at Little Nell, slated to begin construction this spring, are among the influx of fractional-ownership projects popping up in town. Having plunked down a considerable sum for a share of a hotel unit, owners are expected to come – or send family or friends to use the residence. If a unit is open, the city had ensured they’ll be available for short-term rentals like standard hotel rooms.Sales at the Hyatt thus far are outpacing the company’s expectations – about a third of the shares have already been snapped up.

“I think, as we reach a critical mass of these fractionals, we’re going to see a pretty good spike in our economy and in the people here,” said Ernie Fyrwald, a real estate broker with Morris & Fyrwald.”I think that will bring in a new market that has kind of been squeezed out,” agreed Ruth Kruger, commercial real estate broker with Kruger and Company. “If you can buy something for less than $1 million at the base of Aspen Mountain and you really only want to be here a month a year, you now have the opportunity to do it.”Kruger also credits the community for responding wisely to a downturn and trying to position itself to weather the next one better.”You can’t just go up and up and up all the time,” she said.

Even as Aspen appears to have righted itself, some in the business community note plenty of underlying problems that will do little to foster sustained prosperity.Local bank executive Howie Mallory acknowledges the renewed buzz on the street, but decries the city’s failure to adopt a package of zoning regulations intended to make redevelopment of aging buildings feasible.”Unless that gets done, we’re going to be weak on the quality of our infrastructure,” he contends.Restaurant owner Bill Dinsmoor laments the resort’s failure to boost its marketing funds.”There have been no profound changes in the way Aspen does business or presents itself to the world,” he said. “Obviously, there are more people in town. I think it has very little to do with, are we more competitive as a resort than we were three years ago? I don’t think we are.”And stratospheric land values still translate into higher costs in virtually every facet of Aspen life.

“Very little has changed to make this a cheaper place to do business,” observed Rick Jones, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors. At the Holland House, business is not back to the levels of the late ’90s, but it’s getting better, said Yasmine dePagter, whose family owns the ski lodge.”To say, ‘Wow, it’s been a phenomenal turnaround’ – I don’t see that,” she said. “But I think we’re definitely turning the corner.”Or, maybe it’s just that it’s snowing.”A lot of the attitude in this town has to do with the snow depth and what’s happening at the moment,” Jones said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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