Construction slump continues in Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com
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Construction slump continues in Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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ASPEN – Construction activity in unincorporated Pitkin County continued to slide in 2011, while building within the city of Aspen picked up slightly, according to year-end figures compiled by the building departments for both governments.

Both the city and county have trimmed their building staffs in response to the downturn in activity over the past few years, but in the city at least, potential interest in projects began to rebound last year, according to Chris Bendon, community development director. Preapplication conferences and plan reviews in Bendon’s office are the first step in issuing construction-related permits, and Bendon said his staff saw an uptick in those services during 2011, though the number barely exceeded 2010’s totals.

It’s difficult to know if consultations will lead to actual building applications, Bendon added.

“We are seeing more preapplication conferences … more interest in properties – definitely an increase in activity over years past,” he said. “Certainly, it’s not where we were in ’07, ’08.”

The city issued 628 building permits in 2011 worth $134.9 million in construction value. The total includes 339 permits for commercial projects and 289 for residential work. The figures represent new construction, expansion and remodeling work.

In 2010, the city issued 622 permits worth $70.2 million, including 305 permits for commercial projects and 317 for residential.

Both years were an improvement over 2009, when the city issued a total of 567 permits, including 239 for commercial projects and 328 for residential work, with a total value of $65.8 million.

“It feels like it’s thawing out a little bit,” said Mike Metheny, building inspection manager for the city.

The huge jump in overall project value between 2010 and 2011 reflects the Aspen Valley Hospital expansion in large part, he said. That work accounts for $52 million of the 2011 total.

The city expects to see another big project break ground this year, with construction of the new Aspen Art Museum scheduled to begin this spring.

Pitkin County tallied 79 residential construction permits in 2011, worth $68.9 million, plus 29 nonresidential projects worth $7.7 million. The residential numbers are the lowest the county has seen in nearly two decades.

Home construction and remodeling makes up the bulk of the building activity in unincorporated parts of the county. Since 1992, the number of residential building permits issued has dropped below 100 only twice, in 2009 and last year. During the peak of the building boom, in 2000, the county issued 278 residential permits.

County revenues from building fees have plummeted and are not projected to recover to any large degree in the coming years, according to County Manager Jon Peacock.

“Construction is not coming back. We don’t see the fundamentals for construction coming back in the near future,” he told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors last week. Peacock defined those fundamentals as financing and demand.

When construction was booming, its impacts were regularly a source of complaint in the community, but builder John Olson, a new member of the ACRA board, in part blamed the local government attitude toward the building industry and a lack of development incentives for the continued slump.

“In November, almost every single fee you could pay for construction in the city and the county almost doubled,” he said. “In terms of the new normal, or what the new normal should be, that’s not the way to get there.”

As the local construction industry continues to lag behind pre-recession levels by a significant degree, so does employment in that sector. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, construction accounted for 1,087 jobs in Pitkin County, according to a report compiled for county commissioners. A decade earlier, 1,941 jobs were attributed to construction.

janet@aspentimes.com


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