Aspen’s parks and rec gets Austin Weiss as new director, ready to face challenge
New director of city’s parks and recreation department talks about pandemic challenges and a dream job come true
When Austin Weiss took the reins of the city of Aspen’s largest department in an interim capacity five months ago, he didn’t expect the pandemic would tax parks and recreation’s capacity the way it has, but in some respects, it’s been a blessing in disguise.
“I was thrown into the fire pit, and that’s not a bad thing,” said Weiss, who officially became the new director of the city’s parks and recreation department two weeks ago.
He had been getting primed for the job in the past year from his predecessor, Jeff Woods, who had been in the position for 23 years before retiring in June.
But when COVID-19 hit the valley in March, an unexpected surge in people’s interest in getting outside had Weiss and the rest of the parks and recreation department on their toes.
“The first thing we saw was the explosion of trail use,” Weiss said.
Not only does the parks and recreation department oversee thousands of acres of open space in conjunction with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, Weiss also is responsible for the Red Brick Center for the Arts, the special events department and the municipal golf course.
The Aspen Golf Course saw a massive and somewhat overwhelming demand from locals to play, which along with COVID public health orders and protocols, put Weiss and golf director Steve Aitken in response mode.
“The increase of play for the average member was 30%,” Weiss said.
He said he expects the same amount of use this winter on the Nordic trails at the golf course, as well as throughout the entire network.
“We will be grooming right away and we’ll be more aggressive with that,” Weiss said. “We are going to expand on those types of opportunities.”
COVID also has been a challenge in getting and keeping recreation facilities open. The Aspen Recreation Center is open with current public health order restrictions, but the ice garden and the Red Brick Recreation Center are still closed.
The Red Brick closed in mid-November due to a lack of staff because of the amount of people in quarantine or isolation.
Weiss said he expects the Red Brick to open this week, and the ice garden to follow as the city works with the Pitkin County Public Health Department on safety protocols.
The hope is for public skating sessions, and continuing with youth sports like ice hockey and gymnastics that focus on “skills and drills,” which are geared more toward individual activities.
As Weiss has been juggling high usage of parks and trails and new responsibilities, he also had to deal with declining sales tax revenue due to COVID economic impacts.
Budget shortfalls turned out to be less dramatic than what was once estimated, but it was a good exercise in planning nevertheless, Weiss said.
“It was certainly beneficial with that worse-case scenario,” he said, adding that even with budget cuts the department has been able to deliver a product for the masses. “Recreation, parks and golf … they have all been saviors in COVID.”
Once the pandemic has eased up, Weiss and his team will look ahead at new initiatives like more open space acquisitions and new trail connections.
“There are lots of projects on the horizon but we want to get through COVID first,” Weiss said.
Two of those projects will be the development of Galena Plaza and the Dolinsek Gardens as a part of the Lift One Corridor project at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side.
Weiss said he had the benefit of being guided by Woods for several months.
“I give him so much credit,” Weiss said. “I feel blessed because the things we do in parks and rec is why we live here and (this job) is a dream come true.”
Weiss is a 23-year Aspen resident and has been working for the city since 2001 — first as trails manager for the parks department, then as open space and natural resources manager, as well as parks and open space director.
Woods said Weiss was a solid choice to lead the department into the future.
“Austin’s strong background in parks and open space, combined with his passion for recreation, make him the ideal leader for this team,” he said in a prepared statement. “Austin and his amazing team will continue to provide the high level of service and innovation that Aspen has come to expect from the parks and recreation department.”
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