Firefighters weigh new station site

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department is weighing its options – carefully – about whether to remain headquartered at its Hopkins Avenue fire station or move to a new site on Main Street.

Faced with a momentous decision about its future, a department steering committee is sifting through the pros and cons.

“This is probably the single biggest decision that the board of directors – any of us – will face in our careers,” said Darryl Grob, fire chief. “We’re taking it very seriously.”

The fire department has hired Tom Baker, town manager in Basalt, to facilitate twice-monthly meetings of the steering committee that is charged with making a recommendation to the Aspen Fire Protection District’s board of directors.

The department is shooting for a decision by June, according to Chuck Torinus, the board’s treasurer.

The station has occupied its current site for 40 years. But when the city purchased the Zupancis property at 540 E. Main St. last year, the department was presented with an unexpected offer. It was given first dibs on the parcel, which offers room for a larger station and, perhaps, some housing for firefighters.

The new site – located between the Concept 600 building and the courthouse annex – also provides direct access to the town’s main thoroughfare, Main Street, for emergency vehicles. Early discussion has pegged the land for a potential public safety facility that could include both the fire department and police agencies.

The fire department had, in fact, previously broached the idea of relocating its headquarters to the property with the Zupancis family and was turned down flat. Its sudden availability caught the department off-guard, Grob said.

“All of a sudden, they essentially give the fire department first dibs. It caught us out of the clear blue sky,” he said. “It was a strategic question, and we were not able, strategically, to answer it.”

Hence, Baker’s involvement, Grob said. The department wanted a neutral party to lead it in its deliberations.

“In my heart of hearts, I have an opinion (which he’s not revealing just yet). I think everybody in our organization has an opinion about it,” he said. “We wanted a skilled professional who could guide us.”

It’s human nature to resist change, Grob noted.

“We’re no different,” he said. “It generated a huge knee-jerk reaction on the part of everybody in the organization.”

When the department makes its decision, it will be a well-thought-out one, not a quick reaction, Grob said.

“It’s going to be the right decision all the way around,” he said.

For the steering committee, which includes department volunteers, paid staffers like Grob and three board members, the potential relocation raises broad questions, according to Torinus. It’s not just about, for example, how quickly a firetruck can pull out onto Main Street.

There’s the role of the department in the community fabric and the importance of having the station downtown to consider, as well, he said.

“We have been a vital part of the downtown, no question about that, from day one,” Torinus said. “It is kind of a strong cultural element of Aspen. That definitely is a key factor.”

The Zupancis parcel is only a block away, but it’s removed from the town’s pedestrian hub. Would crowds stream to the firefighters’ Fourth of July barbecue if it was held at the Zupancis property? Would kids hold bake sales out front?

“Can we still instill that kind of atmosphere in the new site?” Torinus mused. “That’s one of the key questions.”

Once the fire department makes its decision, the city can proceed with a civic master planning effort that has focused on the potential future of various city parcels, including the plaza above the Rio Grande Parking garage and the existing fire station site, should the department move.

The Aspen Art Museum has expressed an interest in the downtown parcel, and several City Council members have expressed interest in an arts facility on the Hopkins Avenue property.

“A signature building, in that location, landmarked for the arts would do more for the core than anything else,” said Councilman Tim Semrau during a council retreat late last year.

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