Council left no room for negotiation in Aspen Power Plant denial
making their pitches
Members of City Council were bombarded with emails Tuesday about the Aspen Power Plant. Below are excerpts from some of those emails.
• “This is an outstanding opportunity for a cool, collaborative workspace for local entrepreneurs and small businesses!”
• “Simply put, this is a public building that should be used 100% for the public’s use and not for a subsidized ‘for profit’ business.”
• “Logic dictates that the city end the current lease negotiation as untenable and use the building for its immediate space needs.”
• “We have enough bars. I haven’t met any visitor that could not find a bar.”
• “I think the project is an outstanding service to the community and alone should be supported on those merits.”
• “The Power Plant project was born out of passion and practical ingenuity — this project has the potential to not just shape Aspen, but the modern ski town.”
• “It seems like the APP is more of a utopian vision than reality.”
In the hours leading up to City Council’s rejection of the Aspen Power Plant lease, the board’s members were hit with a steady stream of emails and phone calls for and against the project. On Facebook, pleas were made by Power Plant members to their supporters to show up to Tuesday’s meeting and rally in their support.
The same day, council members met with each other individually to see which way they were leaning with their decision.
And the night before, Mayor Steve Skadron, Councilman Adam Frisch and Aspen Brewing Co. owner Duncan Clauss met over beers to discuss the Power Plant’s fate, one unfavorable for a group of young entrepreneurs who met a wall of opposition from neighbors, the nonprofit community and Aspen’s old guard.
Before a standing-room-only crowd in City Council Chambers, one by one the elected officials delivered their reasons for not approving the lease for 590 N. Mill St., the city-owned, riverside building that once housed the Aspen Art Museum.
“I was surprised,” said the Power Plant’s attorney, Chris Bryan, on Wednesday. “I was expecting this would be a work session where the council and the applicant would go over the red lines of the lease that I gave to Jim True,” the city’s head attorney.
But it was the Power Plant group’s designs to become a nonprofit that drove, in part, the council’s decision to deny the lease.
At their last private meeting to discuss the lease, council members told the group’s organizers they would not support a nonprofit model, which centered around the Aspen Power Plant achieving tax-exempt status from the IRS. The Power Plant organization would be the landlord for four tenants — a restaurant that would serve alcohol, a television studio for Aspen 82, an events programmer run by Aspen 82 and a 65-space office setting for entrepreneurs.
“I did tell Duncan (Clauss, the owner of Aspen Brewing Co. who would run the restaurant) that I wasn’t supporting their decision to be a 501(c)(3),” Skadron said of his meeting with Clauss on the eve of the rejection.
Becoming a tax-exempt organization meant the Aspen Power Plant would not have to go through zoning hoops because it would be eligible to occupy the building that sits on publicly zoned land. Public zones allow nonprofit entities.
Likewise, Councilwoman Ann Mullins was opposed to the nonprofit plan, partly because it could have taken up to six months for the Power Plant to receive the designation from the IRS, provided the federal agency granted it. Also, the project the council approved had been touted by its operators as a for-profit venture.
“My issue was that it was a somewhat different proposal than when they were selected,” she said. “We did ask them at that (private meeting) not to come back as a 510(c)(3).”
But last week, the Power Plant’s intentions to take the nonprofit route were unveiled in the terms of its lease proposal the city made public Friday.
Bryan said the decision was made to “eliminate any arguments about zoning by complying as best as possible with the zoning. … We did everything that they asked of us to make this process as easy as possible.”
Another course could have been to propose a zoning overlay for the property, which would require City Council to approve it through an ordinance. But council members, worried about a repeat of last year’s Base2 Lodge flap, weren’t receptive of that idea either. Base2 was approved by the council in June 2015; it sparked a citizen referendum that ultimately took the proposal to Aspen voters, with 63 percent in opposition at the November elections.
“An ordinance-referendum scenario would surely end up at the polls where the (Aspen Power Plant) would go down in flames,” fired off Aspen resident Elizabeth Milias in her Red Ant blog issued Tuesday. Milias also was part of the Oklahoma Flats contingent against the Power Plant. “And they know it. The IRS hoax is all they can hope for.”
Also clouding the matter was the municipal government’s plans to build a new City Hall near Rio Grande Park. That deal is far from done, but when City Council approved the Power Plant’s proposal in March 2015, a new City Hall wasn’t in the board’s immediate purview. Last summer, however, the potential for new municipal building entered the public eye, driven by a November advisory question in which Aspen voters approved converting the existing City Hall into a community center.
If the city were to move ahead with a new government building, workers would be displaced. Skadron said the Mill Street building could house some of those employees.
“It became unexpectedly complex and it was exceptionally complicated,” Skadron said of the process. “Part of that complexity didn’t enter until a year ago when the City Hall conversation started. I think the council needed to think through about this critical community space.”
Council members also were feeling pressure from both sides to either get the deal done or reject it. Power Plant supporters often referred to the project’s foes as the “vocal minority.”
Mullins and Skadron said they read the emails and took phone calls, and their decision wasn’t made until Tuesday.
“There was no wheeling and dealing going on, at least for myself,” Mullins said. “I was really struggling with making the right decision.”
Skadron said he didn’t write his prepared statement, which he read at the meeting, until 3:30 p.m. that day.
“There was nothing that had been plotted or strategized by City Council,” he said. “But there was leeriness by the council with this. It was causing great discomfort.”
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