Q&A with Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron about his next two years in office
Mayor Steve Skadron
Education: MBA, Northeastern University; BSB, University of Minnesota
Government experience: Current mayor who previously sat on Aspen Planning & Zoning and was a member of City Council. Currently on the boards of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, Colorado Association of Ski Towns and Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
Signature achievements as mayor: Revising Aspen’s land-use code to mirror the Aspen Area Community Plan; moving city to 100 percent renewal energy; launching ‘uphill economy’
When Steve Skadron calls the Aspen City Council meeting to order Monday, the edge of the campaign season will have faded after voters re-elected him to a third and final two-year term this past week.
Skadron’s landslide triumph over his sole opponent, Lee Mulcahy, was a surprise to nobody who follows Aspen politics. The outspoken Mulcahy wasn’t expected to offer much of a challenge because of his track record in Aspen, which has been colored by bans, litigation and confrontations.
Even so, it meant Skadron, 54, who was raised in Minnesota and moved here in December 1995, had to campaign again and defend his stances on water rights, development, the economy, housing, transportation and all the matters that make Aspen tick — and its residents debate.
On Thursday, Skadron sat down with The Aspen Times to discuss his goals for the next two years and what he might consider after his time as mayor. He vowed to expand the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall two blocks east, continue his effort to change the way people think about transportation, and even hinted, ever-so slightly, at a possible run for Colorado governor.
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The following excerpts are from the question-and-answer session with Skadron.
Aspen Times: What criticism did you take to heart during this past election season?
Steve Skadron: I said during the campaign I thank Lee for running because I was uncontested until the last hour, and I think the community is better served and democracy is healthier when campaigns are contested. That said, it was disappointing to me that we never touched on the issues because Lee’s approach was ridiculous and an affront to every decent person in town. There was no debate on issues. There was a comment in (The Aspen Times) endorsement that had to do with my style, that I need to work on this, and that I’m emotional on issues. I think while some emotion is good, I have to remember to keep a healthy detachment to ensure appropriate outcomes are achieved.
AT: Did any of the candidates’ ideas, such as Skippy Mesirow’s pledge to digitalize Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s housing inventory, resonate with you? Did you take anything away from the council debates?
SS: To tell you the truth, I stayed away from it. I did not pick up the newspapers; I picked up one newspaper and it was the day The Aspen Times ran the question about the water rights and dam issues. Other than that, just the nature of my election, I kept a bit of a healthy distance from it.
AT: Did you vote for council?
SS: I voted for both seats. What I stayed away from were some of the letters to the editor, some of the bashing that goes on. Leadership was an important issue for me, and I said in the campaign I wasn’t endorsing anybody, but I could not support a candidate who was using the water rights as a political wedge. Because that’s a leadership issue. … I looked for the candidates who took a prudent approach about responsible government. I think the mayor’s responsibility is to serve an entire community. A sitting mayor endorsing candidates creates an odd dynamic both for the candidates who are running, who we currently serving with, and those I may be serving with in the future. And I didn’t think the community’s interest was best served by a mayor making an endorsement for personal-political reasons.
AT: What can you realistically achieve in the next two years?
SS: No. 1, I think we can do a thorough review, audit perhaps, and repositioning of affordable housing to ensure that it’s serving its real intent, that we can address issues where it’s failing. I think people should follow the rules. People who take advantage of the system, it infuriates me, as tempting as it is. I’m not surprised that it happens, but I want to have the tools and people in place to ensure that the housing is being delivered to the people who need it and are subscribing to the rules, and the community is maximizing this valuable asset. I think that’s something we can get done, and it’s something I will propose as a top-10 goal.
Secondly, I think we can lay the foundation for a fundamental shift around mobility. I had a goal about employing next-generation mobility technology, and that’s led to a community forum and some of these discussions. The next evolution of that is coming, and I called it ‘Mobility Spring.’ That’s going to change, but I called it that for a reason, and it’s a fundamental shift in the way things have been getting done. I think we have a responsibility to address the way we move ourselves around.
AT: Are you basically saying ‘get people out of their cars’?
SS: Not necessarily, because I’m not suggesting the downtown core is auto-free. We dedicate so much time and prime real estate to asphalt for the purpose of cars and automobiles. I think we can think differently about this, and I think Aspen has the responsibility to do so as a community with significant assets, both financial and intellectual and natural.
AT: Does Aspen need another parking garage?
SS: No, and success for me in the next two years would be to have a pathway that leads us away from infrastructure, development as an option, more land and more parking garages. We’re not going to solve it in two years, but I think we can introduce the future and set Aspen on a course to accomplish that over time.
AT: The Entrance to Aspen is the gorilla in the room. What about that?
SS: That’s part of the discussion. The other thing, and I think this is really exciting, is I talked about pedestrian priority in the downtown core, and the toolkit I suggested was the extension of the downtown mall.
AT: Explain that.
SS: Right now it’s just the Hyman mall, and it’s about prioritizing pedestrians in the core the way I believe a small town should accommodate those on foot. I want to introduce this into the community discussion, because I think there is great opportunity there to increase vitality on that two-block area where it doesn’t now exist. We could invite more restaurants or outdoor seating, or maybe a place for music students in the summer, or maybe we have a community garden down the middle and restaurants are growing their own basil over the summer. That’s yet unforeseen. Maybe it can become a de facto extension of the Red Brick (Center for the Arts) in one of the spaces that’s currently unpopulated there, and we develop an arts-and-culture corridor that runs from the Wheeler (Opera House) to the (Aspen) Art Museum.
AT: You would have to get the building owners on board.
SS: Yes, I talked to (building owner) Andy Hecht before I went public with it, because I thought I should tell him what I was thinking. Andy was really supportive, and Ron Garfield (Hecht’s partner) as well. He stopped me in the grocery store and said, ‘Let me be part of the conversation.’ I chatted with Heidi (Zuckerman, executive director of the Aspen Art Museum) about it also, and I chatted with Angie Callen (the Red Brick’s executive director) to see if it was interesting. Part of this came from the Red Brick team during the Power House conversation. They talked about an arts “greenbelt.”
AT: Would it be pedestrian-only?
SS: Not necessarily. What it won’t be is an exact duplication of the mall that exists partly because it can’t, because our mall is historic and our development around historic areas says you can’t simply duplicate; you have to distinguish new from the old. I see it more like a complete-streets project, where the street itself serves many user groups, not simply cars. I don’t envision it eliminating parking, or all the parking. Perhaps it could be something more like downtown Grand Junction, or maybe the Pearl Street Mall (in Boulder) a bit.
AT: What advice would you give somebody who runs for mayor of Aspen?
SS: It’s such an interesting question for me because I have to start thinking about the end. And it’s time and I’m glad, and I think change in leadership is good. My advice would be community first. Never forget that it’s a community-service position. You serve in the role as mayor.
AT: What was your key to winning these elections?
SS: The fact that viable candidates stepped aside (this year) suggested I have done something right and perhaps their better opportunity is in the next election. But all I can say I had clearly defined goals in each of my elections and I delivered on my promise and I didn’t try to do more.
AT: There’s some speculation you might be grooming Adam Frisch (City Council member) for a mayoral run. He’s one of the first people you lean on in decision-making at the council table, and you both are seen together frequently outside of council meetings.
SS: It’s interesting — Adam was my arch-rival when I started. Adam was perceived back then as a pro-development guy. So there was a lot of friction there. But now that I’ve sat next to Adam for a lot of years, I see it more as people across the aisle working collaboratively to deliver an outcome. If I’m grooming someone? That’s a good one.
AT: How many hours do you work for the city?
SS: Let me put it this way: It takes 45 minutes to buy bananas. People always want to talk.
AT: Do you have any other political aspirations after this term, or is this it for you?
SS: Right now I’m thinking only about the city of Aspen, and I’m really flattered to be given the privilege to sit in this seat. Right now the private sector is really alluring, and I may do just that. But if I was ever to consider another elected position, I think there are only two that I’d really be interested in. One would be, and maybe it would be only one, as crazy as this sounds, governor of Colorado. If I was interested in doing something like that, it would be at that level, partly because the experience that I have at the Aspen City Council table is one of the most significant elected positions in the state of Colorado. I would say perhaps next to the governor and mayor of Denver, with no disrespect for some of the other prominent communities in the state, mayor of Aspen is one of the most significant.
AT: And why is that?
SS: At least since I’ve been sitting there, there is such great attention to what we do around the state … or at least it seems that way. And the access we have (to other people). Now, I’ve never served as mayor of any other communities (laughs), so perhaps they’re saying the same things, but it feels that way to me in this seat.
AT: Now in some other parts of the state, you would be branded as ‘that Aspen liberal’ right from the start. Would you be prepared for that?
SS: It’s a business principle. What we did in Aspen was build a successful local community based on the assets we have in place. Intellectual assets. Natural resources. Political assets. And we defined an outcome and built a strategy to get there. Now that’s not something that works everywhere else or I would impose on any place else. But the fact is, we get things done here whether it’s affordable housing or mass transit. … But I would never expect other communities to be Aspen.
AT: What’s the biggest misperception about the potential dams on Castle and Maroon creeks?
SS: That the city is poised to build dams. But in reality, it’s a filing required by the state to protect our rights to your drinking water.
AT: But in order for the city to get those water rights, they must prove they ‘can and will’ build the dams. A lot of people have been hanging on to that terminology.
SS: That’s terminology imposed on us by the state. We’re doing what they asked. Our legal fight should be with the state — why are you requiring us to use the words ‘can and will?’ But if that’s what the state is asking us to say to keep the water rights, we’ll do what it takes to keep the water rights.
AT: Are you going to vote in the June runoff (Ward Hauenstein against Torre for City Council)?
SS: Yes, I always vote. I always try to vote on Election Day.
AT: Do you know who you will vote for?
SS: Actually I don’t. I’m going to listen very carefully. If there are some debates, I might submit a question. I think what’s important to me as a voter is the bigger role of leadership, not necessarily how you stand on all of the issues, but who you are in a leadership role. I think the individual who is independent in their thought, creative in their thinking and has prepared themselves — that serves long-term community value, more so than pursuing a straight political line … I think they’re both great guys. I think the community would be well-served with either one of them.
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