Aspen mayor reflects on ’09
ASPEN – Mayor Mick Ireland said he has high hopes for 2010 and the key to the resort’s economic success will be to continue sending the message that Aspen is not just for the elite anymore.
While the “affordable Aspen” pitch has had marked success in recent months, Ireland said it’s even more important in 2010 now that the economic landscape around the world has changed and even the affluent are being frugal.
“I think we’ve gotten the community talking about our economic future in a way that wasn’t done in the past,” Ireland said. “We need to build an economy that’s not so boom or bust, but one that has more flexibility and a broader base.”
One way to create affordability is to ensure that the Aspen City Council approves development projects that are geared toward a particular price point, Ireland said.
“We’re going to have to look at ways to make sure lodges are short-term accommodations,” he said, adding Aspen doesn’t need more high-end condominimized units. “When you look at development you have to make sure you aren’t creating cold beds.
“We have to have an access point for people to come here.”
Ireland reflected on 2009 and what he hopes will be accomplished this year while gazing out at the vast Elk Mountain range from a window at the Sundeck on New Year’s Eve. Before taking a few runs on Ajax with a Santa hat attached to his helmet, Ireland sat down with The Times to discuss the past year’s disappointments and accomplishments, as well as aspirations for 2010.
On a personal level, the mayor, in his second term, hopes to ski more – this season is the first year he has bought a full, premier ski pass.
But when taking turns isn’t on his mind, Ireland said he is very concerned about the de-institutionalization of the community and resort. There is a real threat that many cherished, longtime places like the Given Institute, the Aspen Club, the Silver Lining Ranch, the Limelight Lodge and the Hotel Jerome will become privatized in some form in the future.
“The highest and best use of property isn’t always the highest best and use for the community,” he said, adding many places exist as a result of the efforts put forth by the community’s early visionaries like Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke.
As an elected official, Ireland is keenly aware that he has a responsibility to protect those resources as much as possible. He added that the community has to care enough to keep long-standing institutions alive as well.
“We need to be aware of it and thinking of them as a group. There’s the theory that one bad move or a series of bad moves are irrevocable.”
Ireland said the past year had a lot of ups and downs, with the worst being the tough decision to layoff dozens of employees, eliminate positions and freeze wages.
“That’s a real hardship for them,” he of city employees.
In response to Aspen getting hit hard as the recession worsened, the city’s 2009 and 2010 budget was slashed by millions of dollars. But the measures taken will serve Aspen well as it continues to weather the economic storm, Ireland said.
“You have to take what you can get out of it. We’ll come out stronger as a result.”
Ireland said too much time, energy and money has been wasted on political fighting with his critics over the results of the May election. A few individuals are questioning the integrity of the municipal election, which was conducted with the first Instant Runoff Voting method.
“It’s very disappointing that we have to spend time on this,” he said.
On a brighter note, the city in 2009 began collecting sales tax on short-term rentals and refinanced some bonds, saving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Ireland said he would like some finality to two development proposals at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west portal. One, the Lodge at Aspen Mountain, will likely go to a public vote, Ireland predicted.
Also likely to be on ballots this year will be reinstating the 0.1 percent sales tax that funded the city’s nine in-town bus routes. That tax was eliminated earlier this year, and the rest of the sales tax revenue has seen sharp declines for more than a year, forcing bus service to be cut.
Ireland said he wants an advisory question posed to city voters about what alternative they prefer for the Entrance to Aspen. Voters will likely be asked to vote yes or no for each option presented. If one has more support than the other, the city will begin pursuing a solution, Ireland said.
Aspen voters could be asked to approve millions of dollars in bonds to pay for affordable housing at Burlingame Ranch, and elsewhere.
“If we are serious about housing our workforce … the time and place for that is not when you are in crisis mode but when there is competition [for construction prices].”
Sometime this year both the city and the county will implement a low-cost loan program for homeowners to make energy efficient upgrades that include improvements like solar panels.
“Good things are happening environmentally,” he said, adding that the city is on schedule to build a new hydropower plant that will reduce the city’s energy consumption by generating electricity from water out of Castle Creek.
Ireland also said he has high hopes that new special events are born from seed money funded by the city of Aspen. Several concepts that have come from residents have been recommended for funding.
“I’m going to hope that Aspen presents itself to a whole bunch of people who hadn’t thought of us before,” he said. “I think some of that stuff looks pretty cool.”
Also on the priority list are new ball fields near the school campus, gymnastic pits at the Red Brick Arts Center and a citywide advanced bike system in which people use bikes for free and they are tracked using a GPS system.
Ireland, 60, said he hopes the “Epic” flag flies regularly the rest of the ski season because ultimately that is why most people live here – to experience great days in the mountains.
“All things considered, it’s a pretty good place to live and visit,” he said.
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