Aspen’s Braun ski hut system reaps $1 million from TDR sale
Nonprofit turned gift from 2007 into endowment, will still need community support
A gift received 14 years ago by one of Aspen’s backcountry ski hut systems has blossomed into a $1 million endowment for the community institution.
The Alfred A. Braun Hut System Inc. received 5 acres of land on Richmond Ridge in 2007 from the Gale and Ellie Spence family and the John and Betty Oakes family. Gale Spence and John Oakes co-founded Aspen Sports in 1953. The hut system sold a transferable development right from the property on Sept. 30 for $1 million. That’s a big boost for an organization accustomed to living hand to mouth, said Ashley Perl, president of the board of directors.
“This endowment gives us some backing for what comes our way,” Perl said this week.
The Braun huts have been an integral part of Aspen’s history since 1960. They are the oldest hut system in Colorado. Stuart and Isabel Mace along with John Holden built the first three huts in the early 1960s. Aspen fixture Fred “Opa” Braun took over management of the system in the late 1960s and added three more huts in some of the most spectacular scenery of the Elk Mountain southwest of Aspen. Braun died in 1989. The Opa’s Taylor Hut was added in 2012 in his honor.
Backcountry adventurers covet a stay in the seven huts because of the spectacular settings, access to backcountry terrain, the small, intimate size and history. Reservations are filled or close to filled every season at a reasonable price.
The aging huts fell into disrepair in the 1990s while owned and operated by the U.S. Ski Association. Local hut lovers headed by Craig Ward raised funds to buy the system in 1997, then a community fundraising effort produced about $1.5 million for renovations. That solidified a tight community connection with the hut system, said Morgan Boyles, the executive director and sole full-time staffer with the system.
The $1 million endowment will be an essential tool for keeping up with the constant maintenance needs of the seven huts, he said.
“We don’t want to fall back into the history of letting the huts go into disrepair,” he said.
Many of the huts were renovated at the same time and the Markley Hut was replaced. There is a concern that capital improvements will be needed at about the same time in the future.
“There’s sort of a looming time bomb,” Boyles said.
The board is fiscally conservative, so the investment with the endowment will hopefully produce annual funds for maintenance, but the hut system will still turn to the community for funding for major projects.
“We’re not really off the hook for fundraising,” Boyles said.
The system is currently raising money to replace an 11-year-old truck that has been used for summer maintenance in the rugged backcountry. A recent fundraising effort allowed the Braun Huts to secure its first office in the Benedict Building in Aspen. That sort of help will continue to be needed, Boyles said.
But the endowment provides breathing room. The nonprofit organization’s most recent form 990 with the IRS showed it had $145,206 in revenues and $191,934 in expenses in 2019. Expenses included insurance, hut supplies, repairs, and sewer and sanitation upgrades.
Program revenues, mostly from winter hut fees, raised $128,717.
When the hut system received the Spence family’s gift in 2007, the board wasn’t immediately sure what it wanted to do with the land. The 5 acres was zoned Rural and Remote, a special designation created by Pitkin County to prevent rampant development of mansions in the backcountry. The zoning only allows construction of 1,000-square-foot cabins on the property. To placate some of the angry landowners, the county created transferable development rights or TDRs. The development rights could be sold and the Rural and Remote land sterilized forever. Buyers could use the TDRs in specially designated areas close to the county’s urban centers to increase the size of homes or, in some cases, create development rights.
In 2007, TDR certificates were selling for less than $200,000. Thankfully, the Braun system’s board held onto the asset.
“We probably looked at selling this once per year since we’ve owned it,” Perl said.
The gifted land is between the Sundeck and the Barnard Hut, about 3 miles from the top of the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain. The property abuts wilderness. The board considered using it to build another hut, but there is a strong conservation ethic, so they decided not to add more development. Selling it to allow someone else to build a private cabin was also ruled out.
Lo and behold, patience paid off. Ward, who is one of the board members and also a real estate agent, was aware of the soaring price of TDRs this year, Perl said. Prices eclipsed $1 million for the first time for TDRs as desperate homeowners rushed to increase home sizes for fear of a county crackdown on land use regulations. On Dec. 7, a TDR sold for a record $1.8 million.
Once the price hit $1 million, the board took quick and decisive action to sell the asset, Perl said. The goal is to maintain the $1 million endowment and use the investment proceeds above that amount for maintenance and other needs, she said.
Perl and Boyles stressed the Braun system will still rely as heavily as ever on volunteer labor during summers and occasional fundraisers for capital projects.
“The Braun huts are such an amazing gift to the community,” Perl said.
(Editor’s note: This story was updated to indicate the Braun Hut System received land from the Spence and Oakes families.)
U.S. Ski & Snowboard on Tuesday announced the final U.S. World Cup schedule, a lineup that includes the Aspen World Cup from March 3 to 5 on Aspen Mountain. Those races will include a men’s super-G and two men’s downhills.