City to hire downtown manager
Aspen Times Staff Writer
A new government position, a downtown manager, will get a one-year trial run to figure out what’s ailing Aspen’s downtown retail environment and what might be done about it.
City Council members, after debating the job description, how long they’re willing to fund it and whether the individual ought to be an employee of the city or the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, narrowed the scope of duties and agreed to try it for a year.
Formal action to appropriate money will come later, but at a work session Monday, council members gave the nod to spending $75,000 on the post, with the ACRA putting another $25,000 toward the effort. The salary for the position will be in the $60,000 to $80,000 range, plus benefits, according to City Manager Steve Barwick.
“I’m looking at this being a local person. This needs to be someone who knows the players and can talk to them,” he said.
An outside consultant to work with the downtown manager will also be needed, at an added cost that has not yet been determined, Barwick said.
The idea for a downtown manager arose during last year’s discussions by the Economic Sustainability Committee, a group of business, government and nonprofit representatives charged with coming up with recommendations to improve Aspen’s economic climate. It was a joint effort of the city, ACRA and the Aspen Institute Community Forum.
A subcommittee recommended hiring a downtown manager for three years to delve into a daunting range of assignments that one council member termed “a recipe for failure.”
“Some of the tasks in here are, I think, absolutely impossible. It would take God and God’s son …,” said Councilman Tim Semrau. “It seems to me this is a three-year shot in the dark.”
Councilman Tom McCabe objected to handing oversight of the position over to the ACRA, though that was the council’s initial intent, since the chamber board only meets once a month and the city is footing most of the bill.
“If the city’s putting up the money, and we want oversight … we should be the boss, period,” he said, getting agreement from other council members.
But Councilman Terry Paulson wondered why the proposed responsibilities of the downtown manager aren’t the job of ACRA President Hana Pevny.
“To me, this is the ACRA’s job. Why she’s not in charge of this, I don’t understand,” he said.
In other communities, it is a chamber function, Barwick conceded.
As originally envisioned, the downtown manager was to coordinate downtown landlords, retailers, commercial real estate brokers and the ACRA to work on a healthy mix of businesses in the core.
Council members narrowed that scope for the one-year effort in hopes of gaining an accurate picture of what is going on in the core and, in working with the outside consultant, figuring out what changes might enhance the downtown retail experience.
The city is currently compiling the results of a survey of downtown businesses, and the next step may include surveying summer and winter shoppers, Barwick said.
“We do not know who our retail customer is,” he said. “Nobody is asking our customers what they like, what they don’t like, what they were hoping to find.”
McCabe questioned what the city can do about improving the retail experience, even if it can pinpoint a problem.
High rents are often pegged for blame, he noted. “We can’t do anything about it anyway,” he said. “We have several large components that we don’t control even a little bit.
“We can identify the problem … but then, realistically, what are we going to do about it?”
Paulson offered his own gut suspicions – that the cost of a lift ticket and lodging here have priced out the middle-class visitor and have led to a retail core that caters to a wealthy clientele. It shouldn’t take a year’s worth of work to figure out what’s going on, he argued.
“I think we need to hear from our own people here – what works and what doesn’t work, or what their perceptions are,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud.
In the end, it may not be city government, but the business community that has to be willing to make any recommended changes to improve the retail environment, Barwick said.
“It’s a matter of the business community buying off on it,” he said.
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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