Can City Hall help Aspen out of this ditch? |

Can City Hall help Aspen out of this ditch?

ASPEN ” Aspen’s economy has become the buzzword this campaign season and nearly all of the City Council candidates are positioning themselves as leaders who can pull the town out of the recession.

The majority of the nine council and four mayoral candidates say their runs for office were prompted in part by Aspen’s worsening economy. But how much can an Aspen elected official do to turn around the local economy when global and national forces continue to drive the decline?

Very little, according to some voters who say the economy is not a deciding factor when they cast their votes.

“No, it’s not what I am looking for,” said a local ski patroller while sipping a Budweiser at Bentley’s. He added that decades-old issues of traffic, growth management and affordable housing still weigh heavily on his mind.

“They can’t do anything, just like Obama can’t fix the economy,” he said.

But elected officials can provide leadership, protect the community and keep it the special place locals have come to love, many observers believe. The local economy will sort itself out and rebound eventually.

“As a citizen, I’m more concerned about elected officials not panicking and doing something stupid,” said longtime resident Frank Peters, referring to relaxing growth controls in an effort to stimulate the economy.

“You’ve got to keep your eye on the one thing that keeps Aspen different,” Peters added. “Don’t throw out our land-use policies.”

Setting the stage

Land-use and growth management policies have not been the center of conversation thus far in the campaign, which is a departure from prior elections.

In their stumping to win a council seat, candidates have focused on stimulating the local economy because that’s what they think is on the minds of most residents. Many are reeling from job losses and business owners are trying to stay afloat.

Candidates’ ideas range from marketing Aspen as more affordable and inclusive, to extending the summer season for second-home owners with more classical music, to adding special events in an effort to draw more tourists and creating jobs by establishing a “new energy economy.”

There has been much debate between candidates on the marketing of Aspen and whether it needs to “rebrand” itself. Most agree that Aspen has a strong brand that should not be changed, but they differ on how to build the resort’s tourism base.

Inside the mind of the voter

Many Aspen residents who plan to go to the polls on May 5 say the marketing debate doesn’t much matter to them, and getting more visitors here should be left to the professionals.

“There are people all over the world trying to figure out how to bring the economy around,” said Aspen voter Lindsay Smith. “People think they can do it with marketing or a catchy logo but that’s not what this is about.”

Anne Byard agrees.

“I don’t believe the council can fix the economy,” she said, adding the council’s No. 1 priority is to keep the mass and scale of development appropriate in town. “I’m more interested in maintaining the character of the town.”

Aspen businessman Don Sheeley said he votes based on what candidate shares his core values. He added that in Aspen, candidates are elected on whether they are likable and well-known.

“When people vote for someone it’s because they like their ideas,” Sheeley said. “I don’t think the economy has anything to do with it.”

Where government can hurt

Regardless, city government does wield enough power to be harmful to local businesses.

“It’s about the atmosphere and tenor of a town toward business, and that is where a government can have significance,” said one local developer who asked not to be identified because of his dealings with the council. “It can have a chilling effect on an entrepreneur or the international businessman.”

The Aspen City Council can make it difficult for a business to either establish itself or remain successful. Land-use regulations, for example, can make it cost-prohibitive for businesses to operate. Local political observers see many past city decisions and policies as anti-business. Red tape in the planning department and a thicket of land-use regulations can delay openings of retail stores and restaurants for months and cost the proprietors huge amounts of money.

So it was in winter 2008 when three 20-something entrepreneurs opened the Aspen Brewing Co. on North Mill Street. The council debated for months how much beer the brewery could serve based on zoning restrictions ” putting the fledgling business in limbo and forcing the rookie owners to hire lawyers to represent them.

Some candidates argue that the council’s decision to implement paid parking more than a dozen years ago still has negative effects on downtown businesses.

One Aspen businessman used the council’s micromanaging of the Hotel Jerome’s redevelopment proposal a few years ago as another example of how government can hurt more than it can help. The end result was that the owners sold the property to a corporation, Rock Resorts. The hotel owners now operate at a loss, he claimed, because the aging building needs renovation and is losing its competitive edge.

“[The council is] living in a fool’s paradise,” he said. “The world has changed but they haven’t.”

Elected officials also run the risk of alienating Aspen’s wealthy population by making negative public statements about them, the business owner said, effectively biting the hand that feeds them. Many second-home owners contribute generously to local nonprofits and underwrite Aspen’s cultural amenities.

Some candidates have criticized current council members for their fiscal irresponsibility in setting this year’s budget and overpaying for land, like the BMC West parcel the city bought in 2008. The parcel next to the Airport Business Center was sold to the city for $18.5 million and is slated to be developed for affordable housing.

Stacy Forster, owner of Taster’s Pizza in Aspen and Snowmass, said the public’s view of elected officials’ fiscal responsibility is important. He thinks that weighs heavily on voters’ minds.

“People are being more conservative fiscally and that is what they want from their representation,” Forster said.

Where government can help

Many candidates are trying to differentiate themselves by touting their financial expertise and business backgrounds. They’ve got plenty of ideas on how to help businesses succeed and resurrect the entrepreneurial spirit in Aspen.

The local government has just as much power to help Aspen’s businesses as it does to hurt them, some argue. The council might be able to prop up the economy by adopting more business-friendly policies and earmarking taxpayer money for specific initiatives.

The council recently gave the Aspen Chamber Resort Association an additional $200,000 to beef up its summer marketing campaign. The council also controls about $600,000 from the 1 percent lodging tax that goes annually to ACRA. The council also gave another $60,000 to the city’s special events department so it can add three new events this year, and perhaps attract more Front Range residents to local athletic events.

The council has absolute control in helping resort properties stay competitive by approving the redevelopment of aging buildings in the downtown core.

The city government also sets policy that protects the balance of the resort and community. Several years ago the council changed the land use code to encourage hotel owners to offer small, more inexpensive lodge rooms in their inventories. The Limelight Lodge is a result of that regulation. The family-run hotel offers rooms for as low as $89 a night.

But with new development comes change. Many longtime locals rely on elected officials to carry Aspen through challenging times but at the same time, stay true to the town’s roots.

“It’s about values,” said Aspen resident Jesse Boyce. “Things come and go but the problems stay the same. I care about the long-term health of Aspen.”


“We need to get the attention of the world that Aspen is inclusive, welcoming and affordable.” – Mick Ireland

“With the right community, government and business leadership, we can lead Aspen out of the trough we are in.” – Marilyn Marks

“We need to market to a target customer who can support all elements of our economy: skiing, lodging, the arts, restaurants, bars and retail, which includes clothing, galleries, jewelry, etc.” – Andrew Kole

“It’s important for the mayor to provide the tools of success to those who have the knowledge to succeed.” – LJ Erspamer


“I want to work with business leaders, ACRA, retailers, restaurants, Skico, Aspen organizations and others to achieve our shared goal of prosperity, and maintaining quality of life and the Aspen experience.” – Torre

“The boom let us get really, really sloppy. If I had run my business the way the city has run its business, I wouldn’t have a business.” – Michael Behrendt

“Our current council is out of touch with financial reality. They just don’t get it.” – Michael Wampler

“The government should do no harm.” – Adam Frisch

“I believe my background as a successful entrepreneur and business operator in Aspen will help me address the needs and concerns of the local business community.” – Derek Johnson

“We have to realign the economy to its tourism base.” – Jackie Kasabach

“I support our tourism economy. I do not support our speculative real estate economy and I believe it is part of our problems.” – Jack Johnson

“New Energy Economy. The environment, economy and energy are all linked, and are all the top priority … they’re inter-related.” – Jason Lasser

“I think the economy or economic condition of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are a top priority.” – Brian Speck

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User


See more