City backs off on hiring a downtown manager

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Backing off on its plan to hire a downtown manager, the Aspen City Council agreed Tuesday to bring in an outside consultant to figure out how to fix whatever’s ailing the resort’s downtown retail environment.

The consultant’s work may point to the need for a downtown manager, but filling the position now is premature, concurred council members, Aspen Chamber Resort Association officials and a handful of local merchants.

In April, the council agreed to advertise the manager’s post, with a salary of $60,000 to $80,000, and hire someone for a trial year.

The ACRA was tabbed to put up $25,000 of the $100,000 budget for the post, but the chamber isn’t in a position to provide that sum, according to Rick Jones, a local tax attorney and new chairman of the ACRA board.

The position has never been advertised, and the business community isn’t sure government can fix Aspen’s problems with the manager, he added.

“I’m not so sure we know what we want to do with this position,” he said.

The job description for the post is impossibly broad for one individual, added Councilwoman Rachel Richards.

“I guess I’m really still trying to figure out what this person is,” agreed Andy Modell, ACRA board member and the producer of the Aspen Catalogue.

Retailers envision the downtown manager as someone who works as a liaison between the merchants and the city to implement things that need to be done to improve the vitality of the downtown core, he said.

“I think, if I’m not mistaken, the retailers are very excited about that opportunity,” Modell said.

But identifying what exactly needs to be done should be the job of the consultant – someone the city envisioned hiring along with the downtown manager anyway, council members ultimately decided.

The city received three proposals from consultants; two will be re-interviewed later this week by a team of business representatives and city staffers. The consultant is to analyze the local retail situation, identify the problems and come up with solutions.

“To me, the first thing to do is hire this consultant, get an answer to these three questions and then decide what to do about it,” said Councilman Tim Semrau.

The consultant is expected to cost $50,000 to $70,000, said Steve Barwick, city manager.

Councilman Terry Paulson balked at paying someone to tell the city what it already knows, but agreed to proceed, so long as the consultant focuses on formulating solutions rather than re-studying the problems.

Councilman Torre alone opposed the expenditure, preferring to spend the money on solutions instead of a consultant.

Virtually everyone, however, agreed Aspen’s woes aren’t entirely linked to a national economic downturn.

“I think there are many things we can do to improve our downtown core – not just sit back and say, `Oh, it’s the national economy,'” said Stephanie Williams, manager at Gucci.

Aspen’s intimidating paid parking program, vacant shop spaces in the core and lack of activity after 6 p.m. are all problems, Williams said, citing what she hears from customers.

“Our customer has a problem with Aspen – that’s our problem,” Modell said, quizzing the council on whether it has the courage to implement the fixes that are recommended.

“We have to be willing, as a city, to implement those solutions,” he said. “We have to have the backbone to do something about it.”

Some of the solutions may fall on the business community’s shoulders, Mayor Helen Klanderud responded.

“We all have to be committed, in our own spheres, to take the steps that need to be taken,” she said.

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