Aspen Skiing Co. providing for their own |

Aspen Skiing Co. providing for their own

Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN ” Aspen’s and Pitkin County’s acclaimed employee housing program hasn’t let the private sector skate when it comes to providing assistance to its workers.

The local governments require developers to include affordable housing (or payments in lieu of actual housing) in their projects. Beyond that, however, any business with a long-term stake in Aspen realizes it must take steps on its own to provide housing and not just rely on the government. No business is doing more toward that end than Aspen’s largest private sector employer.

The Aspen Skiing Co. will provide 556 “beds” to workers this winter, according to Jim Laing, vice president of human resources. The offerings range from short-term rentals in Aspen and Snowmass Village to long-term rentals in Basalt to single-family homes for sale in Carbondale.

And the Skico isn’t done yet. CEO Mike Kaplan has made construction of employee housing a critical part of the company’s strategic plan. Managing partner Jim Crown recently called employee housing one of the two most critical operational issues facing the company. (The other issue is the loss of H2B visas for temporary workers.)

“We have continued to expand our employee housing base, but the need is substantial and growing,” Crown said in an interview in July. “We will be investing in that sector for years to come.”

Laing said the Skico recognized the need to provide employee housing well before he joined the company 14 years ago. “We’ve had an inventory of beds the whole time,” he said.

But market forces have changed drastically ” and forced the company to take aggressive action. The towns downvalley from Aspen used to provide a “relief valve,” Laing noted. Employees who couldn’t find housing in the upper valley or grew out of apartments there could find housing downvalley.

That started changing in the 1990s, when rapid price appreciation spread to Basalt, El Jebel and Carbondale. People started seeking affordable housing even further downvalley, in Glenwood Springs and New Castle. Now those opportunities are also rare.

Aspen is an isolated resort area, far from a major metropolitan market labor pool. Reality dictates that a major employer must provide their own housing.

“It’s the closest thing you’ll have to a silver bullet to guarantee staffing,” Laing said. The company employs more than 5,000 workers at peak season at its four ski areas and its hotels.

But the Skico’s philosophy goes beyond assuring warm bodies to load chairlifts and greet guests. “Housing for us is all about quality of life,” Laing said.

Aspen has enough allure that people will come and work three jobs to afford their share of a pricey free-market apartment, he said. But the Skico wants to give them the opportunity to work one job and enjoy the outdoors that draws many people to Aspen.

Thus, it prices rents accordingly, according to Laing. Seasonal employees fortunate enough to land a Skico unit for the winter pay 30 percent of their gross wage in rent.

In general, the Skico focuses on short-term rental housing for seasonal workers in Aspen and Snowmass Village, and rental and for-sale housing for longer term employees downvalley. But there are exceptions.

The Holiday House, in Aspen, burned to the ground in a construction accident in November, shortly before completion. It is being rebuilt and should be finished right around New Year’s. It will provide 43 seasonal beds along with nine long-term apartments that were unscathed by the fire.

(Laing generally assesses the Skico housing inventory in terms of beds rather than units because it allows him to more effectively gauge how many people can be accommodated.)

The Skico opened the 154-bed Club Commons apartments in Snowmass Village in 2000. Club Commons II is being built by Related WestPac, the developer of Base Village in Snowmass; it will add 96 beds for Skico along with 24 beds open to the community.

The Skico also purchased and converted two small ski lodges into affordable housing years ago. The former Heather Bed Lodge near the base of Aspen Highlands has 28 beds, as does the Snow Eagle in Aspen. And the Skico has a few beds in apartments above a maintenance facility in the Divide section of Snowmass Ski Area.

In the midvalley, the Skico purchased the Sopris View Apartments in the El Jebel area in 2007 for $17 million. There are 62 two-bedroom units, which the company uses for longer-term, career employees as a potential stepping stone for people to save toward a down payment to buy elsewhere.

Prior to that purchase, the company bought the Thunder River Lodge in Carbondale and converted the property to seasonal rentals with 43 beds.

Both midvalley purchases were criticized. In the case of the Sopris View, some people accused the Skico of taking an apartment complex out of the community mix; they said the Skico was eliminating cheap motel rooms in the case of Thunder River Lodge. But those views don’t take into account the relentless forces of the development market. It was likely a matter of time before both properties were purchased and converted into free-market housing ” and lost as affordable housing.

In Carbondale, the Skico joined forces with a private development firm for its most aggressive housing project. It committed the financing for eight townhouses and 22 single-family homes at Keator Grove, a project along Highway 133 on the south side of town. It’s offering those units to its employees at cost.

The demand exists for such a project, Laing said, but caution among lenders because of the weak national economy has made it tough for many people to secure mortgages.

The Skico has more opportunities to build housing in the Basalt area. It has owned a parcel slightly larger than 1 acre near Big O Tires in Basalt for years, according to Don Schuster, Skico vice president of real estate development. The property is within the town of Basalt and zoned light industrial, but town officials are urging developers to submit an application for affordable housing.

The Skico purchased a 1.6-acre property in that same vicinity, closer to Basalt High School, in 2007. That land, called the Stott parcel, is within the town’s urban growth boundary, and is thus deemed suitable for urban-style development. The town’s master plan identifies it as suitable for a community facility, which probably dictates some broader community amenity in addition to Skico housing.

The Skico also bought a portion of the Aspen-Basalt Campground along Highway 82 in the Basalt area. The 5.5 acres is within the town’s urban growth boundary.

Schuster said no development applications have been prepared for any of these sites yet. The Basalt Town Council is working on rules that will dictate what it requires for projects annexed into the town. That will affect the Stott parcel and Aspen-Basalt Campground site.

“We continue to focus on employee housing. We’re not slowing down,” Laing said.

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