Aspen council discusses Mountain House in closed session

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – To go into executive session or not to go into executive session?

That was the question on which the Aspen City Council spent half an hour during Monday night’s meeting at City Hall.

Prior to the meeting, Mayor Mick Ireland asked for closed doors to the council chambers – which meant the public and media would be barred from listening – so that he and council members could hear a real estate expert’s property valuation of the Mountain House Lodge bed and breakfast, which is headed for foreclosure proceedings.

An executive session to discuss lawsuits against the city already was planned. The question facing the council was whether to tack on the possible Mountain House acquisition to the list. Ireland wanted to know if it would make financial sense for the city to purchase it at a Pitkin County Courthouse auction later this month and then look to sell it to an operator who would continue to run it as a medium-priced hotel.

One of the council’s stated goals is to encourage more lodging in the downtown area. Mountain House Lodge is at 905 E. Hopkins Ave., a little more than a block east of the Original Street curve. Ireland doesn’t want to see the property converted into free-market residential use.

Near the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Councilman Adam Frisch reiterated a point he made in an email to council members last week that talks regarding the 26-room Mountain House should be done publicly.

Frisch, a businessman and former Wall Street trader, said though he understands the need for affordable lodging units in the heart of the city, he doesn’t believe the city should get into the risky hotel business.

“We have a multimillion-dollar issue if we want to get involved,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of us do want to get involved in it. But it’s definitely an issue that needs to be discussed, … and I remain curious, with all respect to the mayor, why it can’t be done in a public setting.”

Ireland said he didn’t request the executive session to discuss the general policy issue of purchasing a lodging property. He said he wanted an analysis of the property’s value from Andrew Ernemann, the city’s real estate broker, as well as to hear from City Attorney Jim True about the city’s legal options.

“There isn’t time to have a month of vetting, according to the information that will be available to you in executive session,” Ireland said. “There’s a limited window of opportunity. And I don’t know if council wants to act or not, but Adam, I think it’s craziness to establish in public your bargaining position and your opinion of the valuation.”

“To tell fellow competitive bidders, ‘This is how much we think it’s worth,’ … I don’t know how you do business, but all my clients would sue me for malpractice if I started describing to the public what their legal strategies were and their opinions of valuation on a potential purchase were,” said Ireland, who is a tax lawyer. “I’d just be out of a law license within a week.”

Frisch again stressed that the issue should be tackled in a public forum.

“You want to discuss valuation positions in public, and I think that’s crazy, Adam,” Ireland responded. “Why would you tell somebody what our bottom line is? Why would you ever do that? Have you ever purchased anything?”

Frisch agreed that the valuation should be discussed in private but suggested that the council would be getting ahead of itself by participating in such a discussion. It would make more sense to first discuss whether the council wants to pursue the idea of purchasing the lodge and setting it up for a potential operator.

The discussion resumed near the end of the meeting. Councilmen Derek Johnson and Steve Skadron expressed reservations on the idea of the city getting into the hotel business, but like Councilman Torre, they were willing to hear Ernemann in a closed setting.

The vote to add the Mountain Lodge matter to the executive session list was 4-1, with Frisch dissenting.