Governor explains wildfire comments, | AspenTimes.com

Governor explains wildfire comments,

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Gov. Bill Owens said this week that many of Colorado’s economic woes are similar to those going on around the country.

“This downturn is something other states are feeling, too,” he said in a brief interview with The Aspen Times on Monday.

Owens, who was in town for a cocktail reception at a technology summit at the St. Regis Hotel, said he has been doing everything he can to promote the state in the aftermath of this summer’s devastating wildfires.

He has been interviewed by numerous national media outlets and has worked with the state tourism office to educate television viewers in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Tourism officials around the state and in the valley were sharply critical of the governor earlier this summer. Some thought he was unnecessarily exaggerating the wildfires that were consuming more than 100,000 acres at the start of summer tourist season.

Shortly after the Coal Seam fire torched more than two-dozen homes in West Glenwood, Owens told the gathered media from around the state and nation, “All of Colorado is burning.” He followed that statement up a few days later by comparing the ash-filled skies of Denver to “nuclear winter.”

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In fact, less than 1 percent of the state burned this year.

Owens nevertheless said he has no regrets about the comments.

“I meant it in terms of our community ? that all Coloradans were affected in one way or another by the fires,” he said.

Local tourism officials generally agree with Owens that the economic woes Colorado has experienced this summer are not unique, but they are not quite ready to let the state’s top elected official off the hook.

“I think it would be nice if our governor would realize that our state’s economy is dependent on tourism,” said Marsha Goshorn, an official with Stay Aspen Snowmass. “When he makes off-the-cuff comments like that, it hurts.”

“I think there are a lot reasons for the downturn, and it’s hard to blame it on one comment, although it didn’t help,” said Hana Pevny, executive director of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

Local observers generally agree that June and July were particularly hard months on tourism-dependant businesses. But they have different takes about what the near-term future looks like.

The business leaders who sit on Pitkin County’s financial advisory board are particularly pessimistic.

June’s sales tax receipts were down 10 percent compared to 2001, and board members think things will only get worse, given the threat of war with Iraq, continued woes in the stock market, impending bankruptcy at United Airlines and the general malaise that’s infected just about everything economic.

They are scheduled to share their outlook Monday with the county commissioners, who are trying to shore up a budget that is dependent on sales taxes for approximately one-third of its revenues.

Pevny, on the other hand, cautiously reckons that the economy is looking up. “The numbers that I’ve seen for the last month have been pretty good in terms of walk-ins,” she said.

Pevny noted that some of Aspen’s competitors for summer business ? such as Vail, Park City, Utah, and Jackson Hole, Wyo. ? have suffered even bigger declines this year.

Ann Wilkinson, vice president of marketing at Stay Aspen Snowmass, had a similar take.

“I think June and July were hit pretty hard, but August and September are looking better, and going into the ski season we’re doing fine. Our bookings are stronger than we expected for the winter season,” she said.

Of the tourism officials interviewed for this story, Wilkinson was the least critical of Owens.

“As soon as anyone flew into DIA and looked up at the sky, it affected them,” Wilkinson said of the visitors who did brave the bad news and threat of a vacation ruined by wildfire.