Aspen officials dedicate John Denver Sanctuary expansion |

Aspen officials dedicate John Denver Sanctuary expansion

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
At the dedication of the John Denver Sanctuary, Annie Denver tells fans about John's love of Colorado and how it changed his life forever.

ASPEN – Rio Grande Park bustled Sunday as city officials formally dedicated the John Denver Sanctuary expansion and the Aspen Ideas Festival held its first-ever block party.

Annie Denver, John Denver’s first wife, commented on the expanded sanctuary, which encompasses a 4-acre stormwater filtration system and wetlands area envisioned by Aspen Parks Manager Jeff Woods a few months after John Denver’s death in October 1997. About 150 people attended the ceremony in the area next to Theatre Aspen’s new courtyard, midway between the park’s playing field and the Aspen Art Museum.

“It was shortly after John’s death that Jeff contacted me, and I have to be honest, I had no idea it was going to look this spectacular,” Annie Denver said.

The wetlands area is designed to clean stormwater running from the eastern side of downtown Aspen to the Roaring Fork River. It’s adjacent to the original sanctuary, which opened in 2000 and features large boulders that display the lyrics to several of John Denver’s well-known compositions such as “Rocky Mountain High” and “Annie’s Song.”

John and Annie Denver moved to Aspen in 1971 just as his recording career was starting to take off. They lived in the Starwood area through the 1970s, during the most successful phase of his career. Despite divorcing in 1982, they continued to reside in Aspen.

“I know John could never have imagined something like this honoring his memory,” Annie Denver said. “John has a line in ‘Rocky Mountain High’ stating that he was ‘born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.’

“And I know, and you all know, that what resonates for all of us is that we love Colorado,” she continued. “John loved Colorado. It changed his life. He had the ability to put into words I think things that we all felt. He wrote ‘Rocky Mountain High’ on a trip to Williams Lake during the Perseid meteor showers when we were backpacking and camping up there. He never failed to appreciate the beauty of this place.”

Aside from the sanctuary’s practical value of cleaning up stormwater before depositing it into the nearby river, Woods said the property pays tribute to Denver’s environmental legacy.

“We were looking for a space, a place to build where people could enjoy John’s life,” Woods said. “One thing was real clear – Annie did not want a memorial garden. So we came up with the idea of a sanctuary. I think when you walk through this landscape you’ll see why it’s not a memorial garden, it’s really a living garden.”

Small and large rocks, flower gardens, native grasses, waterfalls, streams, seats made from boulders, Theatre Aspen’s new lobby area and a wooden bridge mark the location. At a cost of about $400,000, the sanctuary represents most of Phase I of the city’s Rio Grande Park improvement project. Phase II, which involves more stormwater ponds, a restroom facility, a pumping station for irrigation, two bridges and renovated trails, begins later this year.

City engineer April Long told the crowd that the sanctuary’s stormwater filtration system will carry about half of the downtown area’s runoff to the river.

“This is where we had the greatest opportunity to make a big impact,” she said. “With this project we’re able to remove about 98 percent of the pollutants that reach the river.”

She said the natural design for the filtration system flies in the face of conventional industry standards that rely on underground pipes and concrete.

“This all looks very natural but it’s very engineered,” Long said. “Our goal is to do a stormwater program by mimicking nature. We couldn’t have done this without our citizens and their commitment to protecting the environment.”

A mere 200 yards away from the sanctuary dedication, the first-ever Aspen Ideas Festival Block Party was under way. Adults ate lunch provided by five different food vendors as children danced the limbo and mulled about the Rio Grande Park field.

Nonprofit and for-profit organizations set up information booths on the site. Representatives of played with the kids and touted the group’s anti-smoking message. Separate speaker presentations focused on topics such as raising children in the modern technological age and the importance of art.

Michael Holthouse, an Inc. magazine entrepreneur of the year, was brought in to talk about jobs and the economy. His family foundation, The Holthouse Foundation for Kids, focuses on at-risk youth. His newest venture is Lemonade Day, a communitywide education event teaching kids how to start, own and operate their own businesses.

Holthouse told about 70 listeners that job creation lies in the hands of individuals, not the government.

“Jobs are created when some individual decides that they have a better way,” he said. “They have a product or a service or a capability that they can either do better, or has never been done before.”

He challenged the youths at the block party to take on the task of job creation as they get older.

“Begin thinking this way: Don’t find a job, create a job. That’s what created America,” Holthouse said.

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