Battle lines drawn in Base2 debate | AspenTimes.com

Battle lines drawn in Base2 debate

Rick Carroll and Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times

An ample number of questions hang over the November election that will determine whether Base2 Lodge gets built on Main Street.

Does Aspen really have a shortage of affordable tourist accommodations? Will the room rates at Base2 hover in the $200 range as developer Mark Hunt has pledged? Are the opponents of Base2 mainly longtime locals who don't want to see another nail driven or brick laid in Aspen?

The questions don't end there, and neither does the campaign spin from both sides.

Hunt's proposal for the 37-room lodge, like many proposed developments, has driven a wedge through the community. But unlike many developments before it (with the exception of the Ritz-Carlton, now the St. Regis Aspen Resort), Aspen voters will have a say on the matter.

That's because of a successful petition drive by foes of Base2 who forced Aspen City Council to put the lodge in voters' hands. The council approved Base2 with a series of concessions June 1, prompting the petition effort.

The BASE2 PROPONENTS

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Reuben Sadowsky, 27, plans to vote for Base2. But it's not just because he supports the first erection of an Aspen lodge in some 20 years.

Sadowsky also sees Base2 as being a lively gathering place for Aspen's younger set, the millennials, a demographic Aspen Skiing Co. has said it needs to attract to town. And if a lodge isn't built at 232 E. Main Street, which currently is inhabited by a Conoco gas station, Hunt can simply build a bank or drugstore, something you'll be hard pressed to hear Aspenites say the town lacks.

"I think there are a lot of young people who know about Aspen and want to experience it," Sadowsky said.

But they can't, he said, because Aspen isn't affordable for his demographic.

"I think affordable lodging, a cool hotel, is much better than whatever else it would be, be it retail space, a bank, a drugstore. This is a chance for us to direct the town in a way we want it. I think that's a rare opportunity for us."

Skico Chief Operating Officer Dave Perry has long been an advocate of more lodging in Aspen. He recently wrote a letter to the local newspapers identifying a litany of inns that have closed since the mid-1990s, from Alpine Lodge to Ullr Lodge. Aspen has lost 20 percent of its beds over the past two decades, he argued, and as resort town, it can't sustain the trend and remain competitive with other ski towns.

Those defunct lodges, he suggested in an interview with The Aspen Times, have diminished the town's reputation as a global-skiing destination.

"It saddens me that all of these lodges with character are disappearing," he said. "But now we have this opportunity. We're at a crossroads where we can continue the decline or we can do something to reverse it."

Perry said Base2 is one step in Aspen's "embracing the millennial generation."

Opponents to Base2 argue that City Council gave it too many waivers, which is why the petition drive took off.

"The setbacks and other variances, I think that's for the community to decide," Perry said. "Is this an appropriate place for new lodging? I think it's a good spot, and frankly, I have a hard time seeing what's so bad about it."

Sadowsky also argued that if young people don't visit Aspen because of its lofty prices, they won't move here, either. He pointed to his mother, the publisher of Aspen Peak magazine who was Aspen's first female ski patroller. She could afford to live in Aspen when she moved here, but today's youth don't have the same opportunities.

"I'm not always seeing faces of kids who want to come back and move here," he said. "I want to see more opportunities for them to come here."

Likewise, Gordon Bronson, who set up the campaign committee in support of Base2, said his parents were visitors to Aspen before they moved here. The visit-then-move scenario no longer exists in Aspen, he said.

"I think this project will go a long way towards helping solve that problem," he said.

Former City Councilman Dwayne Romero, now a consultant to Hunt, said Hunt has yet to line up a hotel operator. Hunt also has said that Base1 lodge, which already has approvals to be built at the Buckhorn Arms Building across the street from City Market on East Cooper Avenue, would compliment Base2. Romero said it is likely both lodges would be run by the same operator.

"It's not going to be a big-brand operator because (the lodges) are too small," Romero said. "I think he would find an operator that resonates with the core values, the funky, fun energy that the space hopes to create and the city has already been doing the last 40 years."

The business community appears to be behind Base2.

Aspen Chamber Resort Association President Debbie Braun said the organization's board unanimously approved a resolution in support of Base2 — along with the tax questions for the Aspen School District and Aspen Valley Hospital — at its September meeting.

"The Base2 Lodge could provide a real opportunity to push occupancy in the shoulder months as it will be more affordable," reads the minutes from last month's Aspen Chamber Resort Association board meeting.

The Base2 OPPONENTS

Some Base2 critics argue that Aspen has enough affordable lodging and doesn't need more, the project is overdeveloped and the city bowed down to Hunt by granting him a number of variances for the project. They also question Hunt's assurances that the lodge will be affordable and he will build underground parking for 15 vehicles.

"This project has become like a box of chocolates," Base2 opponent Maurice Emmer said. "We don't know what we'd actually get until it's too late."

Hunt told at least 100 people gathered at Belly Up on Tuesday night for an Aspen Public Radio forum on the matter that his plans are on file with the town and also on the Base2 website for anyone to see.

The city hasn't shown any intentions to enforce a cap on room rates, and Hunt proposed his parking solution after the City Council referred the lodge to voters.

Base2 critic Ward Hauenstein compared the Base2 development to the Limelight Hotel, whose owners, Skico, said it would have low rates. Limelight's offseason rates started at $210 for guests wanting to book a room for Wednesday.

Building a new hotel to address Aspen's peak tourism weeks, such as Christmas and the Fourth of July, won't change expenses because the rooms will float at the free-market rate, Aspen City Councilman Bert Myrin said.

Myrin also said he's "not convinced we need more pillows" and that Aspen has empty pillows not being used.

He said Stay Aspen Snowmass' central reservations concept is an outdated model for measuring occupancy because it only accounts for a certain number of participating lodges.

Myrin identified affordable-lodging alternatives in Aspen, such as homeowners who independently rent their homes as well as nightly rentals advertised on such sites as craigslist and Airbnb.

"We may need better management of our lodging inventory, but the solution isn't to build more," Myrin said. "We need to solve it by better inventory management."

Base2 critic Marcia Goshorn argued that Aspen has plenty of existing affordable lodges, such as the Tyrolean, Hearthstone House, Aspen Mountain Lodge and the St. Moritz, among others.

And the Base2 opponents who do recognize a legitimate need for affordable lodging in Aspen contend it would be better at another location.

"The Aspen Area Community Plan has called for more affordable lodging," Hauenstein said. "If that's what people want, it could be somewhere. The city gave away so much in variances and mitigation for affordable housing, I just think it's improper at that site."

Among the variances Hunt received was a 1.6 employee-housing credit, along with setbacks and increased building size.

Hauenstein said Aspen doesn't need more visitors. "When Aspen's at it's busiest, it's absolutely bonkers."

He recalled a conversation with Hunt, in which the developer discussed the growth and development opportunities in Aspen.

"That's where some of the disconnect lies," Hauenstein said. "Between those that want more rooms, more rooms, more rooms, more density, and more occupancy."

Hauenstein said what makes Aspen unique is its small-town element, and the city "will destroy what we love about this town" with further urbanization of downtown.

Many Base2 critics have expressed concern over Aspen losing its small town character with the development of a large hotel in the downtown core.

The city has no business being in the lodging business and has done much to give Hunt what he wants, Goshorn said.

Emmer agreed.

"The city shouldn't be telling the developer what to build," Emmer said. "That is not the city's skill set."