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Finding the right mix?

Naomi Havlen

Booze is big business in Aspen.Conjure up a few mental images of these local traditions: the Food & Wine Magazine Classic, the après-ski scene, Aspen Crud at the Hotel Jerome, a summer picnic on the listening lawn at the Benedict Music Tent, the most recent Aspen Cocktail Classic. A bottle of wine, a jigger of whisky, or a pint of beer is nearly always part of the picture.But conspicuous consumption of alcohol (as with money, fine dining and other aspects of living large) is just another aspect of Aspen life that’s rarely questioned. In this quintessential resort and party town there’s always been a fair amount of shot-slamming and beer-chugging in the bars, snifter-sipping by the fire and wine-pouring by master sommeliers.Aspen boasts far more than the average number of liquor-selling establishments than most towns of its size. The town has a generally permissive attitude toward drinking and recreational drugs, and police say alcohol is a frequent factor in crimes. However, the town has also shown some creativity in managing the problems created by liquor. Necessity is the mother of invention, so it’s fitting that Aspen has tackled many of the problems that come with hosting thousands of summer and winter revelers.By the numbers The amount of alcohol in Aspen is pretty impressive.Today there are 82 establishments with licenses to sell booze within city limits. That’s one liquor license for every 80 year-round Aspen residents. While that’s in line with other resort towns, Fruita, a similarly sized town near Grand Junction, has a total of 17 liquor licenses in their town, one for every 470 people.The Aspen Liquor Licensing Authority has never turned down a request for a license in its 12-year history. Plenty of businesses have neglected to complete the licensing process once they found out the state requirements, but anyone who has filled out the paperwork correctly, paid the requisite fees and located their establishment sufficiently far away from any schools has always wound up with a license to purvey alcohol in Aspen.There is no limit on the number of licenses that can be issued. If the market would support it, then businesses could conceivably sell alcohol out of every storefront in the commercial core.”We give ’em to everybody and let the market decide,” said Bill Murphy, a member of the liquor licensing authority since the day it began. The board’s policy is not to “medallionize” licenses; they don’t want liquor permits to become artificially valuable, prompting people to buy a business simply because it has a liquor license.And that’s how Aspen came to have 82 licensed liquor purveyors. There’s no reason for the liquor licensing authority to try to cut off that demand at the bars, Murphy said.”Who gives us the power to be moral judges over other people?” Murphy said. “People who want to drink are going to drink somewhere. All limiting licenses would do is make bars more crowded.”As Esary puts it, the licensing board has never denied that there are problems resulting from an excess of alcohol in Aspen.”Is there an alcohol problem in Aspen? Sure,” Esary said. “I don’t think any more than any other resort town. It’s a big part of business.”The problem after the partyBars and restaurants in Aspen’s downtown are typically hopping during the peak times of year. Post-work happy-hour crowds lead into family dinnertime, and after a short lull, local bars and dance clubs fill with younger, more entertainment-centric partyers.On a typical night in Aspen, lines form outside some clubs on the pedestrian malls and there are shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in some of the popular bars. Each evening, uniformed police officers pass through these establishments, observing an organized chaos that tends to fray at the edges as the night goes on.Police respond to calls from bars where fights are brewing, where drinkers get belligerent after bartenders decide they’ve had enough, and where coats, purses and cell phones go missing because of opportunistic thieves.But the night’s arrests don’t end with barroom brawls. In 2003, Aspen Police had a total of 812 arrests, including serious assaults, DUIs, domestic violence incidents and sexual assaults. A total of 555 of those arrests had connections to alcohol use. Assistant Police Chief Richard Pryor said an upward trend in arrests over the past four years indicates that as arrests go up, there’s a corresponding increase in alcohol-related crimes.”I’ve never been to a domestic violence incident in my 20 years here in Aspen that didn’t involve some type of substance abuse, drugs or alcohol,” said Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson. “Does Aspen have a drinking problem? They say that if you have to ask yourself that, then you probably do. Is our problem worse than anywhere else? That’s a matter of opinion.”At the Aspen Counseling Center, clinician Drew Drazin, who specializes in chemical dependency, said that 37.5 percent of clients who came to the center in the last fiscal year reported needing help with substance abuse problems.”Our own analysis is that substance abuse is higher here than nationwide because of the nature of where we live,” Drazin said. “It’s not only the permissive attitudes here, but because this is a resort community.”Drazin said Aspen employers accept more absences from work than they might in bigger cities, where the hiring pool is larger. If an Aspenite has a substance abuse problem, they are much more likely to have an understanding boss who will give them a second, third, or fourth chance to redeem themselves.The history of local attitudes toward alcohol and drugs probably dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, when Aspen was known as a countercultural haven. These days, tourists flock to this resort town to relax and party – whether that means a bottle of wine at dinner or dancing and drinking until 2 a.m.If Drazin’s theory is correct, then the resort-town atmosphere can easily lead to addiction.Josh Goldman, 33, moved to Aspen with his family when he was 7 years old. Growing up, he was immersed in a carefree lifestyle that led him first to drink excessively, and then to experiment with drugs.”When you’re here, and there’s so much money and powerful people living here with big houses on the mountainside, and so many parties people throw, this is like the Beverly Hills of Colorado,” Goldman said. “I got caught up in that lifestyle, and it is fun and exciting for a while, but there’s a backlash.”As he entered his 30s, Goldman started to notice his friends moving away, getting married and having kids. He felt like they were progressing in their lives, and he was just lying to everyone about his substance abuse. He was losing weight, losing friends and working as a personal trainer while showing up occasionally with a hangover.Finally, a DUI arrest was what brought him out of the haze. He entered counseling, got involved in local 12-step programs and began to do something with his life. He has since graduated from the police academy in Glenwood Springs.Goldman has now been sober for two years. He’s not interested in blaming his past on the local permissive attitudes towards alcohol and drugs.”I love Aspen, I think it’s a wonderful place and I’m not against anything that goes on here because I’ve been on both sides of the track,” he said. “The DUI changed my life, and some people don’t learn from that when it happens.”How Aspen deals with drinkingTwenty young men, each the size of a linebacker, sat at City Hall a couple of weeks ago for a discussion about alcohol sales in Aspen.The men were bartenders and bouncers from local bars like Shooter’s, Bentleys, the Lava Room and Cooper Street Pier. These guys have the girth to keep a disgruntled drinker at bay, but at this round-table discussion for liquor industry employees they were listening to Aspen police discuss the finer points of the relationship between cops and alcohol servers.The discussions, held several times each year, include everything from dealing with problem customers to reporting an incident to the police. The bartenders and bouncers are the first line of defense in handling what the liquor licensing board’s Gary Esary calls “under, over, after” problems: customers who are underage, overserved, or drinking after hours.It’s one way that Aspen works to corral the effects of heavy liquor consumption. The town may have a healthy share of places to buy or drink liquor, but there are also a number of programs in place to deal with trouble that arises when people booze it up for a good time.At the round-table meeting, police hit every topic a liquor industry employee might need, including keeping an eye on how much a bleary-eyed patron is having to drink, thoroughly checking IDs at the door and how to be a good witness until police get to the scene of a fight.But even when they’re not called to the scene of a rowdy bar, Aspen police walk through bars and clubs each night just to “fly the flag,” as Murray puts it.”We want to be very visible and present, so locals will realize that the cops can show up at any time, and tourists will see friendly cops and know that it’s a safe bar,” he said.At the Aspen Liquor Licensing Authority, Esary and Murray say that there’s an extra level of scrutiny for those seeking licenses for late-night establishments.”Trouble goes downhill, and the guys who are open the latest wind up getting all the drunks,” Esary said. “We encourage them to call the police, and tell them we understand that late-night places are going to have more police contact. It’s the way that they deal with the police that becomes important.”To police Chief Ryerson, the relationship between law enforcement and bars isn’t just putting the smack down on troublemakers. It’s a cooperative relationship meant to strengthen local business.”We’re not trying to catch them doing something wrong, but to help them get it right and remind them that we’re there to help them out,” he said. “We’re in the business of public safety. Our goal is to contribute to the well-being and safety of the community.”Another part of this proactive approach is Tipsy Taxi. Funded entirely by donations, Tipsy Taxi is a 21-year-old program that offers free taxi rides, 365 days a year, to those who have had too much to drink. (See story, page A10.)The Roaring Fork Valley also has a flourishing community of recovering alcoholics – as demonstrated by the 21 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that occur each week in Aspen alone. The counseling center’s Drazin said it didn’t used to be that way.”In the last 13 years that I’ve been here, Aspen has definitely moved forward and been more discriminate about trying to help these people,” he said. “Years ago it used to be that as people began to recover, they’d have to leave town because we didn’t have the recovery programs we do now. Now you don’t have to.”In 2003, 75 percent of the Aspen Counseling Center’s intensive outpatient chemical dependency program participants were graduated successfully. Hopefully, Drazin said, the participants who didn’t drop out or get thrown out will continue with less formal treatment, as through local support groups.Aspen’s reputation for excess, drinking and otherwise, probably isn’t going anywhere soon. Ryerson said any good business ultimately benefits the community, although he wishes this town’s standing among resorts had a little less to do with alcohol.”I’d love to have Aspen known for being something other than the No. 1 nightlife resort in the country,” Ryerson said.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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