Five ideas for a better Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Five ideas for a better Aspen

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

While Aspen?s semiannual business shuffle leaves locals shaking their heads over the latest economic casualties, ideas about what could improve a local business?s chances of survival in the long run are making the rounds.

After nine months of work, the Economic Sustainability Committee has issued its recommendations, identifying five ?stumbling blocks? to Aspen?s economic sustainability and a plan of action.

The release of the report comes just as the latest crop of business closures ? Zo?s Sports Bar and Grill, Club Chelsea and NXT, a restaurant/nightclub ? makes headlines. The committee offers no quick-fix solutions, but its ideas could spell better times for the new ventures that take their place, said planning consultant Stan Clauson, who co-chaired the committee.

?We can?t make stores materialize, obviously, but the hope is there will be some targeted efforts that, in the long run, restore some of the vitality,? he said.

In all, the committee recommends 20 actions, but all are centered on five core issues: Support the development and redevelopment of lodging facilities; upgrade and expand Sardy Field in order to attract additional airline service to Aspen; support commercial- and housing-infill opportunities and ways to encourage locally owned and local-serving retailers; rezone the commercial core so that the ground level is reserved for retailers, while office uses go on upper stories; and reinforce and enhance Aspen?s uniqueness.

?I think the report works in the right direction, even though it?s not going to reverse trends that are currently in play on a national level,? Clauson said.

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While the Economic Sustainability Committee and a newly formed Downtown Improvement Group both explore ways to ease Aspen out of the economic slump that spawned both groups? formation in the first place, resort officials concur the town will simply have to weather the storm to some extent, just like everybody else.

?Just because we?re Aspen and we?re unique doesn?t make us immune to what?s happening in the rest of the world,? said ACRA President Hana Pevny, who was in Boulder last week for the Colorado Chamber of Commerce Executives? fall conference.

The conference message can be summed up simply: Tourism and retail sales have dipped statewide, she reported.

But, added Pevny, that doesn?t mean Aspen isn?t in a position to do something to improve its fortunes.

?I think we have to look at what is happening as an opportunity,? she said. ?How do we take this as an opportunity to position ourselves for when the economy recovers??

The Economic Sustainability Committee concluded Aspen can work to create lodging for visitors when tourism rebounds, and the resort can make it easier for people to get here, both by improving the airport and constructing the hotly disputed highway entrance into town.

Other recommended actions include everything from supporting the actions of downtown retailers in their efforts to revitalize the core to studying the potential for a downtown conference/performing arts center and a possible gondola connection between the four Aspen/Snowmass ski areas.

The report also calls for the support of the Downtown Improvement Group, charged with finding ways to invigorate the pedestrian malls and commercial core.

DIG, as it?s known, is already exploring a couple of ideas ? some selective pruning of the trees on the malls to give them a more open feel, carolers on the malls at Christmastime and better mall lighting to make them more inviting at night. The Parks Department will be experimenting with lighting options one night next week.

?I think we can do little, incremental things to make it more attractive to do business here,? said Bill Dinsmoor, chairman of both DIG and the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission. ?But the real change that will precipitate more retailers being in town and less empty spaces is more bodies.?

The latest crop of business closings, though, are a cyclical phenomenon, Dinsmoor reasons.

?I?m not terribly anxious about it,? he said. ?To expect that everybody will survive a bad season and tough it out another year ? it just won?t happen,? he said.

?It truly looks worse than it is,? according to Ruth Kruger, a commercial real estate broker with The Fleisher Co. ?There?s always a turnover in the spring and fall off-season.

?It has definitely been more so than usual,? she conceded.

Still, Kruger estimated the overall vacancy rate in the commercial core earlier this year at roughly 8 percent ? compared to 18 to 21 percent in parts of Denver, she said.

?When you really look at the rest of the world, Aspen?s in damn good shape,? she said.

?The economy goes in cycles. Aspen has really benefited from being insulated from those cycles for a long time. Lo and behold, we might be hitting a cycle.

?I don?t think it?s a bad thing. I think it?s a healthy thing,? Kruger continued. ?We can?t be on an uphill slide forever.?

But while the resort rides out the current lull, it can be working to improve things like access and parking, she said, echoing a couple of the Economic Sustainability Committee’s conclusions.

The committee was a joint project of the ACRA, city of Aspen and Aspen Institute Community Forum. Its report has already been endorsed by the ACRA board of directors.

The committee?s conclusions will be the subject of a presentation to the City Council on Oct. 21, the Aspen Institute on Oct. 23 and the Pitkin County commissioners on Oct. 29.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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