Aspen panelists seek common links in chain-store talks
What do you get when a group of Aspen attorneys, developers, landlords, business leaders and former and current elected officials gather in the same room? A six-hour meeting without reaching a consensus.
Even so, Thursday’s spirited panel discussion, held at Koch Building on the Aspen Institute campus, helped the cross-section of participants gain a better idea of the struggles and challenges of doing business in Aspen, which some argue is imperiled by the combination of eroding character and increasing homogenization in the downtown core.
“I wouldn’t say this group reached a ‘Kumbaya’ moment, but I didn’t think that was likely,” said former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, one of the event’s organizers. “I didn’t expect that. But it was a rich and honest conversation.”
The focus of the panel talk — moderated by Michael Kinsley, a former county commissioner and member of the Aspen Hall of Fame — was on a proposed chain-store-regulation ordinance crafted by a group of local residents.
Chain-regulation advocates brought the ordinance to City Council late last year. The council decided it wasn’t ready to entertain an ordinance while it is in the throes of working on policies to reshape the land-use code as part of its moratorium on new commercial development applications. That moratorium expires March 17, provided the council meets its timeline of policymaking goals.
How the chain ordinance looks when it is presented to the City Council at its Feb. 6 meeting, however, has yet to be determined. What originally was conceived as a law that would grandfather in existing downtown chain stores but require conditional-use approval for future ones became watered down as the discussion advanced.
Venture capitalist and Aspen resident Jerry Murdock, who has been pushing for such an ordinance, said it would only apply to developments or redevelopments. In other words, a chain tenant aiming to inhabit a new or redeveloped building would be subject to a conditional-use review by the Aspen government. Murdock said that could help curtail the trend of chains in the long term, such as two or three decades from now.
“As it’s been modified, it’s lost a bit of its bite,” said panelist Bill Stirling, a former Aspen mayor who also helped organize the event.
Another panelist, former City Councilman Torre, agreed: “I don’t think that the passage of this is going to change the face of Aspen. I don’t see that.”
The council could begin the process of approving the ordinance at the February meeting, take it to voters or do nothing. By doing nothing, a possible outcome, based on the sentiment from the discussion, is that residents would launch a petition drive to put the matter on a ballot this year. In other words, let the voters decide on chain regulations.
Other possibilities include the City Council, as suggested by developer Mark Hunt, find ways to subsidize or “incentivize” locally operating businesses to operate downtown.
Seeking common ground
Supporters of the chain-reg ordinance contend that downtown Aspen is losing its vibrancy because of high-end formula retailers that pay exorbitant rents and cater to the moneyed visitors and second-home owners, while local residents can’t afford to shop at the stores or start their own retail operations.
Still, Aspen’s retail economy has been breezing along.
Through November, Aspen retailers had generated just over $600 million in sales, up 6 percent over the same period in 2015, according to city finance records.
Dollars and cents, however, weren’t the bottom line for some in attendance. Rather, they argued that the downtown core, one rich with layers of history, is in jeopardy of losing its appeal to visitors because of its waning charm.
Research done by Stirling showed that roughly one-third of downtown’s ground-level storefronts are occupied by chains, a figure lower than what many assumed to be more in the 50 to 60 percent range. A chain, by the ordinance creators’ definition, is a business with at least 11 locations.
Opponents of regulating chains argue they offer their employees benefits that mom-and-pop shops can’t, support the city’s sales tax base and offer a variety of retail options for visitors to Aspen. They also said there just wasn’t enough hard data at the discussion to draw any firm conclusions.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, or a lack of information,” said developer John Sarpa. “In my opinion, it would be ill-advised to proceed with legislation until you have a better idea of what you’re talking about. … I think it’s impossible to be resolved today. It’s too complex.”
Such prominent building owners as Hunt, Tony Mazza and Charif Souki said they agreed with others that a balance needs to be struck in downtown’s profile of retailers. The landlords also suggested they were willing to work with upstart, local business operators who show a determination to succeed.
They called on the Aspen government to consider providing financial incentives for new local businesses, and also contended Aspen’s fees are part of the reason they charge high rents.
“My real estate taxes in Breckenridge are $1.93 a foot,” said Mazza, who owns commercial properties there and in Aspen. “My real estate taxes in Aspen are $9.40 to $16.33 a foot.”
While Kinsley kept the conversation focused on Aspen’s retail climate, other issues were unavoidable, such as employee housing and how it related to the discussion.
“If you want more locally serving businesses, you need at least 1,000 more affordable-housing units so those businesses can sell to them,” said panelist Michael Miracle, Aspen Skiing Co.’s director of community engagement.
Aspen’s year-round population hovers upward to 7,000, but many of its long-term residents have moved downvalley because its lower cost of living. Hardly any of them return to Aspen as consumers, the panelists agreed, instead shopping for their clothes and other essential items online or at large retailers.
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