Dwayne’s world: A look at Aspen’s high-profile councilman
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” A frequently, if quietly expressed feeling about Aspen City Councilman Dwayne Romero is that he seems too good to be true.
He is president of the largest development firm in the Roaring Fork Valley, Related WestPac. But he consistently gives voice to such community values as the need for affordable housing and making development pay its own way as examples of how he does not fit the traditional developer’s mold.
He has a somewhat military-bearing and speaking-style, believed to stem partly from service in the first Gulf War, which has prompted remarks from some observers.
As Snowmass Village Councilwoman Markey Butler put it: “Sometimes he sounds like he’s the commander,” as he addresses issues and officials. But Butler and others maintain he is always open to compromise and to seeing things as others see them.
“He’s direct; I have found him to be truthful … he has the data, can respond in tough situations,” said Butler, specifically referring to a moment when the town and Related WestPac were haggling over the company’s promise to build a transit center in return for approvals for the Base Village project.
“He was sweating bullets, but he figured out how to get it done,” Butler said.
For someone who was a relative unknown in Aspen and Snomwass until a few years ago, Romero has achieved remarkable prominence through his Aspen City Council work and his new job at Related WestPac; he was even being mentioned as a possible challenger to incumbent Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland in the May municipal election.
About midway through one of several interviews with The Aspen Times, however, Romero said he was no longer thinking of running for mayor.
“I can only carry so much,” he said somberly. Romero, who was elected in 2007, will not be up for re-election until 2011.
“I did consider it,” he said of a mayoral bid.
But, continued the 44-year-old Romero, who is and married with three young daughters, “My plate is full.”
That is at least partly due to the fact that Related WestPac LLC is deep in the process of developing the Base Village project in Snowmass Village, as well as getting set to build a virtual new town in between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, known as Cattle Creek Colorado.
The Base Village project is a billion-dollar, massive development focused on the base area of the Snowmass Ski Area, below the shops and restaurants long known as the Snowmass Mall but originally conceived as the West Village by Snowmass founder Bill Janss. Janss and his partners, in the late 1960s, designed Snowmass as a loose grouping of nodes of development, or “villages,” including an earlier, much smaller version of Base Village than what is now being developed.
The Cattle Creek project has been previously reviewed by Garfield County as Sanders Ranch, Bair Chase and Cattle Creek Crossing, under different developers and different scenarios. As things now stand, it is set up to include about 400 single-family houses, 200 apartments and 400 condos and townhouses, along with considerable commercial space, and possibly a school.
Romero was raised by a single mom in Groves, Texas, which Romero described as “heavy Cajun country.” He was the middle of three boys whose dad left when they were young and whose mom worked at a refinery for more than two decades, while Romero excelled in school, becoming president of his student body and student council and graduating fourth in his class. Rather than end up working in the oil fields or a refinery, he opted to accept a baseball scholarship to West Point as soon as he got out of high school.
Graduating from West Point in 1987, at the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he went into the Army Corps of Engineers and ultimately ended up clearing mine fields and doing other “combat engineer” work in the first Gulf War. He met his wife-to-be, Margaret, in Germany while he was still in the service and she was attending the University of Bordeaux; they married in 1991 in her hometown of Boulder.
Romero left the Army in 1994 and worked for a small real estate firm in Colorado before going back East in 1996 for a Harvard Business School degree. After earning the degree, he was recruited by the national development company owned by Gerald Hines and brought to Aspen.
“It was one of those, ‘Oh, my god, Margaret, you’re not going to believe this’ moments,” he said. “I’d never laid eyes on [Aspen]. I’d never even seen snow until I went to West Point.”
Romero worked for Hines for six years, and then went to work for Klaus Obermeyer for a couple of years, helping to build Obermeyer Place in Aspen before forming Steeplechase Partners, a development management company, with a partner, Jack Donovan.
While at Steeplechase, Romero decided to fulfill a longtime ambition and won a seat on the Aspen City Council in 2007, despite his partner’s misgivings.
“I was surprised that he would expose himself to that level of scrutiny all the time,” Donovan said this week. “But as much as I tried to talk him out of it, I knew he was going to do it anyway.”
In late 2008, Romero was tapped by Related WestPac President Pat Smith to become the company’s chief operating officer. When Smith stepped down earlier this year, Romero took his place.
In addition to his day job, Romero has his City Council duties, which begin with a regular meeting every two weeks, plus six work sessions a month, special meetings, site visits and hours of study to absorb the wealth of information contained in the meeting packets, which average more than 100 pages. Council members each are assigned to liaison duties with outside committees and organizations, and spent uncounted hours answering e-mails and other forms of communication from their constituents.
And on top of all that, his extracurricular activities have included membership in the Aspen Rotary Club, chairmanship of Leadership Aspen (now called Roaring Fork Leadership), past board presidency for the Aspen Historical Society and membership on the board of the Aspen Fire Protection District.
Georgia Hanson, director of the historical society, said Romero agreed to take on the board leadership “largely out of loyalty to me.” The two had met when they both worked for developer Gerald Hines, when Hines built Highlands Village and the River Valley Ranch subdivision near Carbondale.
“The think I appreciated most about Dwayne is, I don’t think history is his primary passion,” Hanson recalled. “But he stepped up to the plate because we needed him.” She said Romero led the society through an election to establish a special taxing district, with its own property tax base, as well as a complicated gift of an Aspen home that belonged to the estate of benefactor Ruth Whyte and resulted in the society adding some $900,000 to its endowment.
“I consider Dwayne a mentor,” added Hanson, calling Romero “one of my most trusted colleagues. I absolutely turn to him whenever I need advice.”
The general consensus among local political and civic officials is that Romero is fair, honest and open in his official dealings, although at least one local official opined that he tends to readily take a developer’s side of things at council meetings.
“Dwayne has only voted against one project that I can recall,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I think Dwayne’s voice on council is an important one,” said fellow Councilman Steve Skadron, “the developer on a slow-growth council.”
Speaking for himself, Romero said, “I would definitely not consider myself a growth-oriented individual.” He said his views are more along the lines of “smart, well-balanced growth.”
As for his place on the council, he said, “I have a set of skills and knowledge … an important set of tools to be brought to the table.” Those attributes, he said, allow him to “quickly get to some of the core issues that may improve an application or steer an application [toward a workable compromise]. I view my role as being a good additive … a constructive role that rounds out the council.”
As an example of his nuanced role, Romero recalled that at a recent council work session he was in favor of new regulations to require developers to either build energy-efficient projects or provide a “mitigation” to the city. He argued for guidelines that would not “let developers think they can just buy their way out” and avoid compliance with energy-efficiency standards.
One City Council episode that was mentioned as exemplifying Romero’s eagerness to take a leading role in policy matters had to do with instructions to city staff about trimming expenses in light of declining sales tax revenues. Some observers, speaking anonymously to avoid creating tensions with a man they consider a friend, said they thought Romero was trying to pose as the only one on the council willing to make hard choices and impose deep cuts. It’s an accusation he denied.
Councilman Skadron said he interpreted Romero’s remarks as an effort to ensure the staff was considering all options, a reading of the episode that Romero agreed with.
“I was pushing to exercise a whole different perspective, a kind on contingency planning,” to make sure there were clear options that would allow the City Council to prepare for the worst in terms of the ongoing economic recession, he said.
But, Skadron said, Romero’s point was muddled “in this lengthy and unclear, roundabout speech.”
Several of those interviewed for this story mentioned that Romero has a way of speaking, particularly under pressure or when it seems he wants to take a middle course in order to achieve a compromise, that is difficult to understand.
“Maybe that’s a little bit of Texas, or a little bit of the military,” said Skadron. “And of course, there’s the pressure of being up there” at the council table, trying to do the job.
“What troubles me is, when he is making a valid point, it might be unclear,” Skadron continued. “His speaking style sometimes clouds his message.”
Romero, who conceded that his military career was a big influence on his life, acknowledged that “I am very much still a victim of some of the jargon” that he picked up in the military.
“We all have our ways of communicating, and sometimes those ways help, and sometimes they don’t help,” he added somewhat ruefully. “I’m far from being perfect … there’s no purposeful kind of Machiavellian intent there [to hide his meaning or mislead listeners].”
He said such mannerisms are deep-seated, instinctive traits that one grows up with and that “go all the way back to childhood. That’s kind of the spice of life.”
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