Council at a loss over loss of landmarks | AspenTimes.com

Council at a loss over loss of landmarks

Abigail Eagye

The imminent sale of Explore Booksellers and Bistro stole the spotlight at Monday night’s City Council meeting. A visibly frustrated council seemed willing to support any reasonable idea to save the bookstore, but none of the council members found a viable option on the table, particularly with so little time to act.

Several citizens implored the council to take immediate action to help preserve the bookstore. Local historic preservationist Les Holst even asked the council to offer $2 million in matching funds to help an as-yet-nonexistent nonprofit group purchase the bookstore.

“This is a very nebulous plan that’s been suggested,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud. “I would have a difficult time supporting that.”

All the council members seemed willing to jump on board a realistic effort to help save Explore, but they were reluctant to commit to such a large financial sum without a clear plan and ample time to discuss it.

Klanderud also expressed concern over what appears to be a trend of asking the council to maintain popular community businesses by having the city buy them, although she supported taking steps to find alternative means of saving those ventures.

“I see this as a much bigger discussion,” she said.

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The mayor noted that voters twice have refused to use public funds to purchase private businesses. The council has entertained similar talks to buy two other venerable landmarks, the Isis Theatre and the now defunct Motherlode restaurant, but failed to find enough public support.

Klanderud and councilmen Jack Johnson and J.E. DeVilbiss questioned the wisdom of beginning such a practice.

“I don’t know where the heck you would stop,” DeVilbiss said. “There are so many things here in Aspen.”

“It’s not as though it’s a risky investment,” Johnson said, suggesting that the city wouldn’t lose money in such a venture. “It may be a risky policy to begin.”

Johnson didn’t rule out the idea completely, however, saying merely that “I don’t know that it’s wise to commit to it tonight.”

Holst stressed the importance of historic properties in the community, quoting the mantra the city of Santa Fe, N.M., adopted: “A town without history has no future.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone at this table who doesn’t understand,” Klanderud said in response to Holst’s pleadings.

“Explore is an important part of the cultural fabric of the community,” DeVilbiss said. But “it’s a personal thing to me, and I have an obligation to deal with taxpayer funds.”

Councilman Torre was concerned about a greater trend of developers who show no concern for the town’s history.

“Now we’re seeing people buying properties like this, and they don’t care at all about the historic usage,” he said. “We have more and more of the development dollar that doesn’t give a damn.”

Torre wanted the council to investigate whatever tools are at its disposal to save businesses that function as cornerstones of the community.

“What are the steps, and what are the measures that are at our fingertips in order to preserve something like this,” he asked. “I don’t even know.”

Despite a clear desire by all the council members to do whatever they could to save Explore, none of them were comfortable with the limited options available and the short time frame for action.

“I do not know the city of Aspen should be putting $2 million into this in the next four days,” Johnson said. “In fact, I think that would be rash.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards made a motion to offer $100,000 in matching funds but found no immediate support. Johnson and Torre, however, said they would support offering that much money in the right situation.

All seemed willing to entertain any unexplored ideas at Tuesday’s work session.

“I do not think the conversation has to stop,” Klanderud said. “I think we ought to make a great plea to the community … that they get involved in a private effort.”

Ultimately, the council was left wringing its hands over Explore, but all members underscored the urgency of finding a solution to the overarching problem of how to preserve what Holst called the “profound meeting places” that are the core of Aspen’s unique community.

“I will listen to anything you have to say,” Johnson told Holst.

After agreeing there was nothing it could do for Explore on the spot, the council met behind closed doors to discuss the fate of the Isis.

Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is abby@aspentimes.com