Aspen Newsmakers of the Year
ASPEN – Since 2004, the Aspen Times Weekly has published an end-of-year article about the local Newsmakers of the Year. We like this tradition because it gives editors and reporters a way to reflect back on the events of the year, and to see them through the people that made them happen. (Not all newsmakers are people, but most are.) It’s a fun exercise for us, and we think it makes interesting reading.We must state at the outset that Newsmakers of the Year is not a popularity contest. Some of our chosen Newsmakers certainly crave attention and love to see their name in the newspaper, while others became Newsmakers thoroughly by accident. These distinctions matter little to the members of the newsroom who made the selections. Our criteria were simple: Did they make news? Were they interesting for one reason or another?However they ended up on this list, most of these people and things made us think. Some asked questions and made statements that caused us to stop and wonder. Think of Jim Blanning and the apparent bitterness about his hometown that led him to try to blow it up. In other cases, these Newsmakers became living examples of trends and events larger than themselves. Individual proprietors of medical marijuana dispensaries, for example, didn’t necessarily say or do anything radical or unusual, but collectively they became part of a statewide business and cultural movement.So, here’s a look back at 2009, an interesting year and, frankly, a somewhat troubled year for Aspen.
Aspen’s claim to fame has been its world-class skiing, its wide array of cultural offerings and its celebrity scene. But for a near 24-hour news cycle, Glitter Gulch grabbed headlines and sparked cable-news alerts because of a New Year’s Eve bomb threat. In the hours leading up to 2009 and the days that followed, no one had a bigger effect on Aspen – or was more vilified – than Jim Blanning.The bitter native son had essentially given up on life when he launched a bold and desperate plan to rob at least two Aspen banks and probably more on New Year’s Eve 2008. He held Aspen in his terrifying grip for the better part of a day after depositing bombs at two banks in mid-afternoon and discarding two other bombs in a sled he was pulling around the downtown core.The bomb threats were designed to extort money from the banks, but Blanning abandoned his deranged plot when police reacted, evacuated and cordoned off the entire commercial core, and called in a bomb squad from Grand Junction. He ended up taking his own life east of Aspen sometime late on New Year’s Eve or early on New Year’s Day, leaving behind a rambling suicide note that did little to clarify his motives.Authorities used a water cannon to dismantle three of the bombs, and the fourth was intentionally exploded without incident. Investigators determined the bombs were authentic and could have caused real damage.The notes Blanning left with bombs at Vectra Bank and Wells Fargo said, “Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood” if his demands for the banks to turn over $60,000 each weren’t followed. Aspen will never know if he actually would have triggered the explosions and injured innocent people.Blanning, 71, grew up in Aspen and had long dreamed of striking it rich. He was interested in Aspen’s mining history as a kid, and later became an expert in researching titles to old mining claims. Blanning gained a reputation as a flim-flam artist while selling property he claimed he owned. His actions eventually caught up to him when he was convicted for fraud connected to a property scam and spent time in prison.Though Blanning hoped to benefit personally from Aspen’s ever-rising real estate values, he also was deeply bitter about the transformation of his hometown into a glitzy resort. He was living in Denver when he targeted his hometown banks. Even without explosions, Blanning caused substantial damage. His actions forced the evacuation of a 16-block area of downtown on what should have been one of the busiest and most lucrative nights in an economically tough ski season.In some ways, Aspen’s “eve of destruction” was a metaphor for what the town would experience in 2009. Aspenites once thought they’d never face real-world calamities like bomb threats, and that their economy wouldn’t falter like the rest of the country’s. Both occurred in 2009, making it a year many Aspenites would prefer to forget.- By Scott Condon
When 2009 got under way, the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign was only on the minds of a few conservation-minded people and under the radar of most folks in Colorado’s central Rockies.That changed in a flash last summer. Debate over the proposal erupted as details emerged. Friends and foes have sparred in the letters-to-the-editor pages of local newspapers and there has been a steady stream of stories about negotiations between proponents and various user groups.People on both sides of the issue have flooded public meetings to lobby local officials, and foes recently staged a protest that captured the attention of U.S. Rep. John Salazar as he attended an event in Aspen.The numbers are impressive on both sides of the debate. People care about what happens on their public lands.Proponents are passionate about the proposal to add about 400,000 acres of specially-protected Wilderness in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Summit counties. Critics, mainly motorized recreationists and mountain bikers, are inflamed over what they see as a land grab that forces them out of areas they currently use or hope to use. Wilderness doesn’t allow use of motorized or mechanized machinery.If any human is the face of the Hidden Gems effort it is Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the Aspen area’s oldest environmental organization. Wilderness Workshop is the lead group on the Hidden Gems campaign, and Shoemaker is the guy on the spot as chief lobbyist and negotiator. He’s the hero to many Gems proponents and the villain to many opponents.Expect to hear more from Shoemaker – as well as people on both sides of the issue – as we get into 2010. Conservationists intend to ask a member of Colorado’s Congressional delegation to carry a bill for the Gems. Foes are trying to kick up enough of a fuss to convince members of Congress that they shouldn’t get ensnared in a sticky political issue.- By Scott Condon
A budding industry in Aspen and around Colorado dominated the headlines in 2009. Medical marijuana and the legal dispensing of what has long been an illegal substance for recreational users cropped up repeatedly in both the news and the halls of government.By year’s end, a multitude of Colorado towns were wrestling with how best to regulate the dispensaries while others were trying to ban them entirely. Dispensaries popped up from one end of the Roaring Fork Valley to the other, including four in Aspen. Locally, the dispensaries might operate pretty much unnoticed were it not for a proliferation of newspaper advertisements alerting potential patients to their presence.In Denver, the alternative newspaper Westword even advertised for a writer to review the dispensaries and their products.Meanwhile, a state lawmaker in Denver is proposing stricter regulations on medical marijuana providers and patients, and drafting a bill that would allow dispensaries and growers to be licensed by both the state and local jurisdictions. Lively debate on the matter in the upcoming session of the Colorado Legislature will come with a backdrop of events that may not help the industry’s cause – an attempted armed robbery at a pot dispensary in Denver and a Summit County explosion that severely burned two people. The apparent cause of the blast was legal medicinal pot-growers trying to make hashish out of marijuana, authorities said.Colorado voters actually approved a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana back in November 2000. The law took effect on June 1, 2001, but it wasn’t until last summer – when the state health board rejected a move to limit how many patients a medical marijuana supplier could serve – that the industry took off.In Pitkin County, the number of registered medical marijuana patients climbed slowly and steadily during the summer – from 42 by the end of June to 61 at the end of July. The county had 85 registered users at the close of August – the most recent month for which state data is available. Across Colorado, the number of registered patients topped 16,000 by summer’s end and applications continued to flood into the state health department.- By Janet Urquhart
After Sept. 11, Aspen, like the rest of the country, saw its economy slip, but not to the point that it lost its “recession proof” label.The economy recovered rather quickly, and by the middle of the decade, Aspen – and the rest of Pitkin County – enjoyed robust years punctuated by annual real estate sales of more than $1 billion.But the once-humming economy bottomed out when the Great Recession – fueled by the toxic blend of bad loans and Wall Street’s casino culture – struck. On top of that, the ripple effect of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was felt locally, where he preyed on at least 50 victims, some of whom had to sell their houses and step down from local nonprofit boards.Indeed, when looking at 2009 in Aspen through an economic lens, the year was downright gloomy. And that was reflected in the headlines all year long.Through October, sales tax collections in the city of Aspen were down 20 percent. Skier visits at the four local mountains slid 7.6 percent. Real estate sales in Pitkin County – which had eclipsed the $1 billion mark every year since 2003, and the $2 billion mark from 2005 through 2007 – are expected to see levels more consistent with 2001 and 2002.Aspen’s downtown commercial vacancy rate was estimated to be between 8 and 10 percent, or perhaps even higher.”Nobody is seeing anyone doing anything,” commercial broker Bob Langley recently told this newspaper. Any way you sliced it, sales figures – be they at the cash registers, the ski slopes, or the real estate offices – plummeted in 2009.Which equated to numerous layoffs in both the private and public sectors: 20 people lost their jobs at City Hall, and here at The Aspen Times, at least a dozen employees were given their walking papers.Those who were fortunate to hang on to their jobs were bound to know somebody who didn’t. There was even the formation of an Unemployment Anonymous group, a 12-step program for the jobless. All the while, local businesses followed the battle cry heard around the rest of the nation: “Do more with less.”For sure, Aspen’s economy was humbled by the Great Recession, and the “recession proof” label is now a distant memory. As many have noted, however, the economy is cyclical. 2009 just happened to give people a taste of the bottom. “This is not going to last forever, this is a short-term scenario,” Aspen commercial broker Ruth Kruger told this newspaper. “[Aspen] is by essence, a healthy financial district, and Aspen is still so resilient in its spirit and ability to adapt.”- By Rick Carroll
Las Vegas nightclub owner and restaurateur Scott DeGraff arrived in a town a couple of years ago with big plans to enter the food and drink scene in Aspen. And likewise, residents were hungry for something new and different, particularly in their beloved Red Onion, which had closed in April 2007.Locals had high hopes for DeGraff, who Aspen Magazine dubbed the “Man of the Moment” last year. He planned to open his trademarked “Junk” bar and restaurant at the Red Onion this past summer. At the beginning of the 2008-09 ski season, he had opened the bar/restaurants, Liquid Sky and Junk, in Snowmass Base Village. He also transformed the old Cooking School of Aspen on the Hyman Avenue Mall into his N9NE Steakhouse, which has locations around the country.Sadly, the only venue open nowadays is N9NE, which also is open for lunch under the name Junk.The liens and lawsuits filed against him total more than $1 million. Architects, contractors, subcontractors and vendors have yet to be paid for work performed at the restaurants, and DeGraff’s mounting legal troubles show all the signs of a financial meltdown.In July, DeGraff was let out of the lease at the Red Onion by his landlords, local attorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, who own the building on the Cooper Avenue Mall. The space remains unfinished and unoccupied.Then in November, Liquid Sky and Junk in Snowmass were placed into receivership by Related WestPac, DeGraff’s landlords in Base Village. The company claims DeGraff has defaulted on a $2 million loan and has failed to pay rent since April. Eviction proceedings against DeGraff for both spaces are ongoing.Colorado First Construction Co. and PCL Construction Services Inc. of Denver filed a lawsuit in June in Pitkin County District Court, claiming that DeGraff owed $663,732.41 for work done at Liquid Sky and Junk in Snowmass. Poss and Associates Architecture and Planning filed a lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court in July, claiming DeGraff’s companies, Fun Worldwide LLC and Junk/Red Onion LLC, owed him $117,135.79 for work done in the empty space on the Cooper Avenue Mall.The general contractor, Hansen Construction, filed a lien in June against Junk/Red Onion LLC for $293,620. Other subcontractors have filed liens for amounts ranging from $26,250 to $207,000.In the past DeGraff has said the unpaid bills will be resolved, and some of them are business disagreements in which he didn’t believe the work was complete. In November, DeGraff told the Times that he was attempting to take back the space in Snowmass Village.DeGraff is a veteran restaurateur; when he relocated to Aspen, he had owned interests in the Playboy Club, Rain nightclub, Nove Italiano Restaurant, Ghostbar, Palms Pool and Bungalows, and Moon nightclub in the Palms Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, as well as the N9NE Steakhouse, Ghostbar, Nove Italiano and the Liquid Sky nightclub in Dallas.- By Carolyn Sackariason
Alan Fletcher: CEO of a divided institutionThe October press release from the Aspen Music Festival and School was abrupt, puzzling and short on details. But it was clear – that Alan Fletcher would be, in the vague words of the announcement, “stepping down” as president of the organization, effective at the end of the October. Or was it clear? Apparently the decision had been made by an executive committee of the Music Festival board, rather than the entire board. And when the larger body met in November, it voted to offer Fletcher a new contract. After considerable dithering over terms of the contract, Fletcher signed. So Fletcher is back, but the question remains: What sort of organization is he leading?It has emerged that there are rifts between administration and faculty, and there is a vocal contingent not pleased with Fletcher’s personality. While Fletcher acknowledged that the Music Festival is “bruised,” he did not hesitate to keep hold of the reins of the 60-year-old institution, and vowed to pay “special attention” to the faculty. Fans of classical music would hope that the ruckus is over, and that the AMFS will get back to its primary business of presenting excellent concerts and training the next generation of musicians. Should the issues prove intractable, then the Music Festival could end up a top newsmaker a year from now. – By Stewart Oksenhorn Marilyn Marks: Tireless government criticCity Hall critic Marilyn Marks made the local news many times this year with her unsuccessful bid for mayor against her nemesis, incumbent Mick Ireland, and her challenge of the election method employed this past May. Her relentless pursuit to reform Aspen municipal elections took the form of a lawsuit against the city this past October. The pending legal action asks a judge to order the to city release photographic ballot images from the election so they can be used in an independent “audit” of the election process. Marks, a stern critic of the Instant Runoff Voting method used for the first time in Aspen this past May, was denied by the city when she filed a Colorado Open Record Act requesting to inspect the ballot images. Since then, Marks has requested to see dozens of e-mails and other communication between public officials regarding the election. Her requests have consumed hours of city staffers’ time. Her countless e-mails on the subject, sent at all hours of the day and night, can exhaust even a diehard electronic communications junkie. But they have captured the attention of election reformers around the country, who are taking a critical view of Aspen’s election.Marks has become known for her continuing calls for “government transparency” and “election integrity.” Her critics, however, say Marks is simply a conspiracy theorist with too much time on her hands and is using “election integrity” as a way to conduct a recount of the election, in which she lost to Ireland by fewer than 200 votes. – By Carolyn SackariasonBears: Back again, and in trouble Hungry black bears are starting to become so common in Aspen that they’re not news anymore – at least not in the sense that they’re surprising or unique. For the third time in five summers, bears have entered Aspen almost every night of the summer and raided trash cans, Dumpsters and backyard grills, seeking human food. This behavior, driven by both a lack of natural food sources and bad habits developed in prior years, inevitably lands the animals in conflict with humans. And when humans and bears clash, the bears lose. In summer and fall 2009, Colorado Division of Wildlife officers killed a record 30 black bears from Aspen to Basalt because of run-ins with humans, ranging from toppled garbage cans to residential break-ins to actual “attacks,” in which bears scratched or clawed people (nobody was seriously injured). Frustrated DOW officers even asked for help from Aspen police officers and Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputies in scaring the bruins out of town and, if necessary, killing them. The Division also boosted the number of hunting permits available this fall for bear, but nobody believes they’ve found a real solution yet. The simple fact is that Aspen, with all of its tempting garbage, food scraps and smells, is right in the middle of ideal black bear habitat. “We’re always going to have a bear problem,” said Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for the DOW. “It’s never going away because of the primo habitat we have here.”- By Bob Ward Aspen football: Skiers impress on the gridironAn estimated 1,700 people gathered on that brisk Saturday in November. Area ski lifts had yet to open. There was no major musical act in town. The group had descended on Aspen High School on a cloudless afternoon to experience something that seemed inconceivable just a few short years ago. They swarmed the bleachers and lined the football field to cheer on the Skiers in the 2A state quarterfinals against top seed and eventual state champion Faith Christian. They were treated to quite a show. The same could be said of the entire season. Aspen set a school record for wins (nine) in 2009 and made a third consecutive trip to the playoffs. The Skiers’ dramatic opening-round win over Pagosa Springs was their first in postseason play since 1973. The season was replete with lopsided wins, big plays and a memorable milestone – tailback Nicky Ufkes eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark in the Nov. 6 regular-season finale. He finished with 2,506 yards on the ground, the second highest total in the state. There was also a program-defining performance. The Skiers nearly pulled off the unthinkable against a Faith Christian squad that had lost just four times since 2003. They jumped out to a 13-0 lead midway through the second quarter and held on until the waning minutes of the third. Only after a late Eagles surge did Aspen’s season come to an abrupt end. Still, the effort drew praise from Faith coaches and players. It was also a major breakthrough for a program that had won just six games in the three seasons before venerable coach Mike Sirko took the helm in 2007. The Skiers have won 24 games since. Many expect more big things to come next fall. One thing is for certain: The town and the state will be watching closely. – By Jon Maletz
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