Basalt mayor says urban exodus is game-changer for towns in Roaring Fork Valley
Demands soar for services, housing, recreation space
The urban exodus that accelerated the number of people moving to mountain towns during the pandemic is likely creating lifestyle changes that are here to stay, according to Basalt Mayor Bill Kane.
Instead of dealing with large numbers of empty second homes and a seasonal economy with welcomed breaks during offseasons, it is likely that Roaring Fork Valley towns will have more robust, year-round economies fueled by growing populations, in Kane’s eyes.
“My take on all of it is the valley is full — it’s just full of people,” he said. “Utilization of the housing stock here is higher than it’s ever been.
“The remote working opportunity for people is a seismic change for our country. I’m not sure it’s going back,” he continued.
Roaring Fork Valley towns used to be places people visited almost exclusively for vacations. It was too backwater for people to bring their careers with them. Now, people are here to stay. They don’t have to live in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. They can fulfill their business obligations from a deck of a home in Basalt’s Hill District.
Kane sees implications good and bad. Basalt’s sales tax revenues were 18% higher in 2021 than 2020. Basalt reaped $9.07 million. The windfall provides extra funding for initiatives such as Basalt Connect, the on-call transit service linking Willits to the other neighborhoods of town.
But a bigger population also brings bigger expectations and bigger headaches.
“I think we have to get used to demand for everything — demand for outdoor recreation, demand for parks and trails, demand for restaurant reservations,” Kane said. “I just think our infrastructure is predicated on a much smaller population base than what is actually here.”
He doesn’t see trends changing. Now that people can live wherever they want to live, the demand for the Roaring Fork Valley lifestyle will be greater than ever. That creates a new set of challenges for elected officials.
“We have to find a way to adjust to this new reality,” Kane said. “I thought at first that last summer was just a post-COVID bubble that would burst. I don’t think so. We are a plum. We are a destination.
“That’s going to be a big challenge for the future, how to navigate around this and do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment,” he continued. “Even the housing debate is a hard conversation. There are limits to how many people the valley can support.”
Kane acknowledged that the job of mayor has changed drastically from what he expected when he was elected two years ago next week. During the 2020 campaign, he championed repairing fractures in the community over the Basalt River Park land-use fight as well as adding some amenities to enhance the lifestyle of Basalt residents. The world went into lockdown during the final weeks of the campaign, and Kane’s first year in office was dominated with dealing with COVID and recovery.
“It was a real challenge to try to govern and convey a sense of confidence to people, and kind of let them know it was going to be all right,” Kane said.
The pandemic also meant that a board with a new mayor and three new council members had to gel virtually rather than in person. The entire first year of business was handled remotely. Kane believes the board coalesced well, but the public largely tuned out.
“It’s not the same chemistry as getting people to come to Town Hall, stand up at the podium and look you in the eye to tell you what’s on their minds,” he said.
While the public isn’t engaging in meetings, voters overwhelmingly approved a town ballot question that sought to extend a portion of the property tax that was set to expire. The question was approved 72% to 28% in the Nov. 2 election. The approval allows Basalt to issue $18 million in new bonds to raise funds for affordable housing, a solar array and improvements to the Midland Avenue streetscape.
It was rewarding to see the margin of victory on the ballot question, Kane said. He credited the staff for a thorough and transparent process with the public.
As a result of the election, the town is working on a plan for a one-half megawatt solar array and battery storage that will make its power supply more sustainable.
Town officials are also planning how to best use about $6 million on affordable housing solutions.
The Midland Avenue streetscape improvements will be phased in over two years.
Kane also anticipates making improvements to parks and trails as well as finalizing plans for the proposed redevelopment of the old Clark’s Market space among big projects in the last half of his four-year term.
At age 76, he is uncertain if he will seek a second term in 2024. He looks forward to keeping the momentum rolling over the next two years.
“This is all great stuff,” Kane said of the town government’s accomplishments and primary goals. “We’re not sniping at one another. This is all positive stuff.
“I’m at the right place at the right time,” he concluded.
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