Aspen City Council reflects on pandemic challenges as it looks toward future

All-day retreat focused on goal setting for the next year

Aspen City Council members kicked off their annual goal setting retreat Monday by reflecting on the past year and what challenges and successes were seen in the community, within the municipal government and in themselves.

The last time council set its goals, the governing body adopted them via resolution March 10, 2020, four days before Gov. Jared Polis shut down ski areas across the state as the pandemic bore down on the world.

City officials scrambled to respond and spent most of the year “building an airplane in mid-flight,” as Councilman Ward Hauenstein described it.

Generally speaking, council members agreed that the city responded as best it could under the circumstances, including quickly approving a $6 million economic relief and recovery package for businesses and residents.

“We had to make decisions based on imperfect data,” Hauenstein said. “I’m just really proud of the way our organization, the city staff, were able to respond.”

But after 15 months of living under public health orders and a subsequent urban influx of people here, the community is feeling the effects.

“The feeling for Aspenites is that there is a level of frustration, they are overwhelmed or undervalued. … For example the conversation about being pushed downvalley took on a whole new flavor this year,” said Mayor Torre.

Aspen isn’t alone as a resort town becoming the popular destination among travelers around the country, as Councilman John Doyle and Councilwoman Rachel Richards discussed.

“Our community, other mountain towns, other resort communities across the nation are becoming increasingly popular and hand in hand with that is the increasing popularity of vacation homes,” Doyle said. “The fact that traffic is so much worse than any of us have ever seen before.”

Richards said the COVID dynamic has had its pluses and minuses, and one of those is that she’s experienced new and short-term residents don’t seem care about public health orders or the well-being of long-term residents.

“I think we have a very different incoming class perhaps,” she said.

Richards said it also was refreshing to see community members helping fellow community members during the pandemic.

“There were more people reaching out of their comfort zones than ever before and so that was a strengthening bond for us all,” she said.

Going forward in a post pandemic world for the council may be having to be realistic in what it can achieve.

“I don’t know what the new normal will be, but I think there is a limit on what a local government can do, communicate or control, and sometimes it takes pushing the envelope or being willing to be challenged in the courts,” Hauenstein said. “We can be bold, decisive, have courage and strength and the confidence in our abilities that bold actions need to be taken.”

Richards said the new normal for Aspen includes higher wages, worker shortages, longer wait times and decreased service levels as the housing crisis continues to worsen.

“I think our challenges, our problems are growing exponentially,” she said. “We have a chance to deal with them here and there, but we’re almost reaching the point where almost nothing is ever enough.”

Regardless, they will push on Tuesday to set goals around what they see as the community’s biggest needs and challenges: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste, affordable housing, access to affordable child care, and supporting and fostering local serving businesses.

Council meets from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Dunaway Room in the Pitkin County Library.

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