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Free land for visitor center?

Janet Urquhart

Developers of a planned Aspen Visitor Center building on Main Street are willing to give the space intended for the center and chamber offices to the city at no charge.

Lowell Meyer, co-owner of the property, announced the offer during a press conference Thursday at City Hall.

Several City Council members expressed delight and surprise with the contribution of space that the city had intended to purchase for $1.03 million and then lease to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

Opponents of the project, however, said the new deal won’t halt their plans to file petitions challenging the city’s approval of the building and seeking a public vote on the plan. They suggested Meyer’s offer is an attempt to subvert public opposition to what they contend is a poor locale for the visitor center.

“It’s interesting that he would give the property like that,” said Councilman Terry Paulson. “It sounds like a better deal, but it really isn’t.”

But Meyer, who owns the property at the corner of Galena and Main streets with California partner Gary Freedman, said there was no ulterior motive to the decision.

“There’s nothing to read into it,” he said.

The project won City Council approval in April with a 3-2 vote, but Meyer said he found the victory “bittersweet,” given the split vote and questions from some quarters about the use of taxpayer dollars to buy the space, given the city’s other potential needs.

“This project is something I strongly believed in,” Meyer said. “I decided to put my money where my mouth is.”

Mayor Helen Klanderud said she was “stunned” when she was told about the offer earlier this week. “I think this is the ultimate in the public-private partnership.”

Councilman Tim Semrau praised Meyer for following in a long tradition of public contributions in the community.

“I think it’s rather fabulous that you’re doing it today,” he said Thursday.

But Paulson, who was informed Wednesday about Thursday morning’s press conference, complained that he was left out of the loop on the

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details while other council members knew about the latest development in advance. He charged his colleagues with behind-the-scenes “gang-of-three decision making” and concluded that acceptance of the property is a done deal.

Councilman Torre, on vacation in Florida, said he wasn’t aware of either the press conference or Meyer’s offer. He voted against the project along with Paulson.

“It doesn’t change my opinion,” Torre said. “The finances are just one issue of it.”

But opponents of the project, who say they have enough signatures to force the project to a public vote if the council won’t reconsider its approval, seemed uncertain about the impact of yesterday’s announcement on their campaign.

Some citizens feel the constrained downtown corner is the wrong place for a visitor center, but others objected to the use of taxpayer dollars on the project without a public vote. A gift of the 2,260 square feet slated for the ACRA offices and visitor center renders the latter objection moot.

Circulators of the petitions say they plan to submit them to the city clerk’s office late next week.

Hana Pevny, chamber president, predicted the petition initiative would face a protest, but didn’t elaborate on the grounds for such a challenge.

Meanwhile, the petition initiative remains valid, according to City Clerk Kathryn Koch. The ordinance adopted by the council to approve the visitor center building, which is the focus of the initiative petitions, makes no reference to the city’s purchase of space within the project, she said.

The city had planned to buy the space for $1.03 million, or, roughly $82,000 a year for 20 years. Leasing the space to the ACRA would leave the city with an annual net cost of about $42,000.

That cost is eliminated with the gift of the property. As yet, there has been no discussion about renegotiating the lease with the ACRA in light of the latest deal, Pevny said.

“It could result in lower rent or who knows what,” City Manager Steve Barwick said.

The deal gives the city more flexibility in what it charges the ACRA, noted Councilwoman Rachel Richards. It also gives the city more options for future use of the space, she said, should the visitor center someday be relocated to a transit hub on the outskirts of town.

The proposed visitor center and ACRA offices will be part of a redeveloped office building on Main Street next to the US Bank. Free-market housing and additional office space are also planned in what will be a three-story building on its Main Street facade.

Some of the strongest objections to the project have come from condo owners in the recently redeveloped Galena Lofts, located directly behind the proposed new building. Condos with views of Aspen Mountain will lose them if the visitor center building is constructed.

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


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