City efforts turned downtown into boomtown
July 21, 2005
Lunchtime on the Mill Street mall is a sight to behold these days. Scores of people eating on restaurant patios that extend well into the mall. Children playing at the fountain or in the giant sandbox next to Wagner Park. A clown or magician working the crowd, both young and old.It’s a far cry from the days not too many years ago when the mall felt empty, even at the height of the tourist season. Remember when it felt like Aspen’s commercial core was turning into a giant (empty) real estate showroom?For now at least, those days seem to be behind us. New shops, ice cream parlors, galleries and restaurants have opened over the last year. The Saturday Market is as crowded as ever. Parking is scarce throughout the day and night. The town feels crowded because it is crowded.Credit for the new reality deserves to be spread around. The economic recovery from the recession and the effects of Sept. 11 no doubt has played a big part. So too has the three-decade effort of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to market Aspen in the summertime. (Many a longtime local can remember the time when summer season began on the Fourth of July and ended on Labor Day.) And the Aspen Skiing Co.’s effort to market Aspen as something other than “quiet by design” has most certainly helped.Credit also goes to the city government. Back in 2003, during the depths of our economic doldrums, the city hired out-of-town consultants to examine and comment on business in the commercial core. Unsurprisingly, the consultants found that stiff regulations aimed at preserving Aspen’s character had left the town “stale and ossified.” “We’ve been so focused on keeping the bad from happening that we haven’t let the good happen,” Rick Jones, chairman of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board, said after hearing from the consultants.The City Council acted by loosening regulations on signs, allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating areas farther into the mall, buying sets of tables and chairs that can be moved around the mall by whoever is using them, building an outdoor fire pit and taking other simple measures to encourage people to spend more time in town. All of those people enjoying themselves on the mall – a three-block open space in the middle of the business district – is a nice reminder of why we closed those streets in the first place. Aspenites in the 1970s wanted a place where people could sit outside and enjoy a drink or a meal or listen to students from the Aspen Music Festival and School. They envisioned a place where people could pause, away from traffic-filled streets, and enjoy one of the most charming towns in the world. By easing up on the rules, the City Council helped restore that vision. If you’ve got any doubts, take a walk at lunchtime into the center of town.