City of Aspen prepares for next COVID-19 tourism season

Aspen City Council expected to make decisions this week that could affect business climate this summer

People enjoy the sunshine in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

City of Aspen officials are preparing for a second summer tourism season in a pandemic, and they expect it to be as busy if not busier than last year.

Aspen City Council is scheduled for a lengthy work session Tuesday that will cover the municipal government’s finances from 2020, its $6 million relief and recovery efforts and what future assistance will be necessary.

“This pandemic is not over,” Mayor Torre said. “We will continue working with our partners and look for more financial aid and play a guiding role in helping businesses.”

While conditions are expected to continue to improve for retail and restaurant capacity, council likely will extend the city’s outdoor dining right-of-way encroachment policy to allow for more customers in an open-air environment.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began almost a year ago, the city has spent more than $444,000 in waived fees and in-kind staff time for business support, according to Ron LeBlanc, special projects manager.

In the past year, 29 restaurants were activated in the public right of way, with 11 of them on streets utilizing 27 parking spaces. Another 12 used sidewalks and five were on the pedestrian malls.

The city also has spent most of its $6 million that it dedicated in relief and recovery efforts last April. There is just $31,000 remaining of $3 million borrowed from the Wheeler Opera House that went toward small business and individual assistance, and personal protective equipment and temporary staffing to respond to the crisis.

There is still almost $1 million remaining for rent and mortgage relief for people who live in deed-restricted Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority units.

The county had been administering that relief through its financial assistance program, but it suspended it in July. The city is now working with Aspen Family Connections and APCHA to find alternative distribution options, according to City Manager Sara Ott.

Roughly $600,000 is remaining out of a $1 million allocation in the sales-tax funded Kids First Program for financial aid to families, increased staff and health safety measures.

City Finance Director Pete Strecker had originally predicted that last year’s sales tax revenue was to going to drop as much as 34%.

But the economy rebounded as people flocked to the resort community, pouring money into the city’s sales tax stream.

The city ended 2020 with $16 million in sales tax revenue, a 5% decrease over the budgeted $17 million.

Lodging and restaurants took the biggest hit in 2020, with 25% and 12% decreases, respectively, from the previous year, according to Strecker.

City official predict those numbers will improve, and are taking measures to provide an atmosphere for success.

“We are preparing for tourism management and visitor accommodation where heath and safety takes priority,” Torre said, adding there have been conversations about socially distanced outdoor special events. “I’m all for learning how to operate and live with (the virus) so I’m open to it, but public health is still my number one concern.”


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