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Basalt finds innovative way to aid Rocky Mountain Institute’s relocation

The contractor for Rocky Mountain Institute used a crane last week to put the frame of the new office and innovation center into place. The building will be located just west of downtown, along the Roaring Fork River.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

The Basalt town government found a creative way to help the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute construct a new office building and innovation center located a stone’s throw from downtown.

Instead of making the institute pay $1.25 million for the town-owned land as well as public and site improvements, the town traded for six affordable housing units the nonprofit owns on Snowmass Creek Road.

“You are exchanging things that each of you need,” Town Manager Mike Scanlon said.

The affordable housing was valued at $1.2 million by an independent appraiser. The $50,000 that Rocky Mountain Institute still owes the town will be offset by in-kind services over an undefined time. The services will include the town’s free use of meeting space at the institute’s facility.

Land costs in the Roaring Fork Valley are often the Achilles’ heel for nonprofits that want to secure their future by owning property. The town sold the institute the site where Taqueria el Nopal restaurant was formerly located for $595,000. In addition, the institute was on the hook for $93,500 of work to fill in the site with dirt and gravel to raise it out of the floodplain and another $520,700 for public improvements associated with the project, such as parking and road alterations. There were additional development charges of about $41,000 that it owed.

Coughing up $1.25 million would have made the project that much more difficult for the Rocky Mountain Institute to proceed, so town officials came up with the idea of acquiring the affordable housing.

The institute owns eight acres with six two-bedroom, 1½-bathroom apartments. They are located a little more than 1 mile from Highway 82. It will be allowed to lease the units for up to two years for its employees, then the town will control who occupies them. Scanlon said he will talk to Pitkin County about making them available for rent or possibly for sale to county employees. Either way, he said, the town will make money on its investment.

Helping the Rocky Mountain Institute relocate from the Windstar property, which it sold last year, to Basalt is also seen as critical to helping revitalize Basalt’s downtown. The traditional commercial core has been weakened by the emergence of Willits Town Center 4 miles away, where Whole Foods Market is the anchor. Downtown continues to try to redefine itself.

Rocky Mountain Institute is a worldwide leader in energy-efficiency initiatives and renewable-energy use. The green construction used to build its innovation center will showcase many of the ideals it wants to share with the construction industry.

“It will be one of the most efficient buildings in the world,” institute co-founder and chief scientist Amory Lovins told The Aspen Times in the fall.

The Rocky Mountain Institute took an option on the town property in December 2010. It broke ground on the 15,610-square-foot office and innovation center in October.

The institute budgeted $7.5 million to construct the building and undertake a tenant finish comparable to what an owner-occupier would take in the free market. It is estimated that 90 percent of the commercial office buildings in the U.S. are less than 25,000 square feet, according to the institute’s research. More than half are owner occupied. The institute’s priority was to undertake a replicable process and educate builders that their investments in energy efficiency will pay off in the long run.

Rocky Mountain Institute officials have said roughly 50 employees will eventually be located at the Basalt office. They said they also will regularly host 25 to 30 attendees of workshops on renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainability.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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