Ex-Aspen mayors eye January panel talk concerning downtown chains | AspenTimes.com

Ex-Aspen mayors eye January panel talk concerning downtown chains

Two former Aspen mayors known for their progressive policymaking won over City Council on Monday to keep talks alive over tempering the influx of downtown chains.

Bill Stirling, Aspen's mayor from 1983 to 1991, and John Bennett, the city's top elected official from 1991 to 1999, said they are organizing a January community forum to address the future of corporate stores in Aspen. The forum would invite Aspen's most prolific landlords — Ron Garfield, Andy Hecht, Mark Hunt, Tony Mazza, Frank Woods and others — to offer their takes on retail economics in Aspen, as well as downtown-shop owners and members of City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission, Bennett and Stirling said. The forum would be managed by a "neutral moderator," they said.

A best-case outcome from the meeting would be that a consensus would be reached among the attendees, with the council possibly implementing that agreement into some sort of legislation in the form of an ordinance.

"We're not committing to anything, of course," Mayor Steve Skadron said about the proposal. "But we are in general support of the direction you are taking."

Were a consensus about chain stores reached, other possibilities, such as a citizen referendum to place a chain-related question on the May ballot, or the City Council drafting its own ballot question, would be off the table.

"This has nothing to do with banning chains," Stirling said. "It has to do with acknowledging the downtown character and the historic aspects of it … and to retain the scale and balance that will help us go forward."

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Bennett and Stirling are part of a group that introduced a proposal to City Council in November about placing restrictions on new chain stores in the downtown core.

The council, however, last week agreed the now is not the time for it to entertain a policy on chains, given that the city currently is in the final stages of revising the its land-use code as the moratorium on certain development applications winds down at the end of February.

Bennett and Stirling's objectives about regulating chain stores are clear, and they didn't shy away from expressing rhetoric about their concerns. Bennett offered that more chains "would really spell the death of Aspen as a unique and special community."

Their remarks, which came during the public-comments portion of the meeting, followed statements from real estate appraiser Randy Gold, who argued that chain stores benefit the local economy in ways other stores can't.

"The national and international retailers, with their high-priced goods, do a lot of good for our retail sales taxes, the kind of programs we like to support in this town and our city budget," he said. "They offer excellent-paying jobs that small businesses cannot compete with."

Gold called the argument that regulating chains would force landlords to lower their rents a "fallacy."

Even if building owners slashed their rental rates from $200 to $100 per square foot, retailers leasing a 1,000-square-foot space "would have to gross $1 million a year to make that prudent," he said.

Skadron said he'll be ready to take up the debate at a later time, but first things first.

"Our first priority is completing the moratorium and not burdening staff or impeding that progress," he said.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com