How much fun can Aspen stand? | AspenTimes.com
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How much fun can Aspen stand?

Charles AgarAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly
ALL |

ASPEN Private jets crowd the airport and vehicle traffic snakes in a long queue through the Entrance to Aspen onto Main Street.The sidewalks are a circus of grinning tourists and fashionistas with a smattering of world luminaries and glitterati and theres just nowhere to park.Like it or not, Aspens busy summer is in full swing, and summer events from the kickoff of the Food & Wine Classic to Ruggerfest in September are big business. Nearly every weekend features something special, from the many Jazz Aspen/Snowmass and Aspen Music Festival and School concerts, to theater productions, Aspen Institute gatherings, fun runs, bike races, art happenings, theater productions and the Saturday market.But what is the impact on the town and its people? Depends on who you ask.Many will point out that summer events are vital to the economy. But others say Aspen has become a zoo in summer.Its just too much like Disneyland, said one of a handful of locals in front of Clarks Market recently.Some Aspenites decry the traffic and the chaotic atmosphere during major summer events, and many say pricey events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Food & Wine Classic exclude locals.As a property manager coming to town all the time, I really feel the effect, said Andy Poole, a recent transplant from the Vail valley.Poole said some of Aspens big events are on weekdays when locals are working, and many events are designed solely for out-of-town guests, or are too pricey for year-round residents who receive no benefit.Public safety officers with the Aspen Police department say theyve seen a sharp increase in fender benders in recent years, likely as a result of increased congestion, and many locals are frustrated by the crowded sidewalks, the inability to find a dinner table, the hectic atmosphere.We might be near the upper limit of the events that we can serve, said Mayor Mick Ireland. We cant be the venue for everybody.But Ireland stressed that summer events are important and bring the next generation of visitors to town.For me, were plenty busy, said City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss. The summer is quite active and you have to consider the stress that events place on the towns infrastructure.Events are vital to the local economy, DeVilbiss said, but must be planned carefully.We dont have an in-depth knowledge of what the capacity is, said longtime local L.J. Erspamer, who called for a balance between the resort and the community.Most of us agree that we need both, Erspamer said.But many say special events are the essence of Aspen summers. Sara Adams, a native New Yorker, said Aspens many cultural events are one reason she moved to town.I think its good for the town and attracts different types of people, Adams said, adding that locals always can volunteer or find free or cheap tickets to the more pricey events.Youre never bored because theres always something to do, said Clarks Market employee Debbie Lester. Except, she added, for the parking; Lester doesnt go to events in Snowmass Village anymore because of parking hassles.Jim Wilson and his wife, Madelyn, used to visit Aspen from their Los Angeles home to ski, but now come in summer solely for the music festivals. And we like the bike trails, he said.Members of the business community say summer events are vital to the town.Our event lineup in the summer is the envy of every resort town in the Western U.S., said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations firm.Other mountain resorts can offer just as much scenery and shopping, Tomcich said, but Aspens lineup of culture and outdoor activities attracts people the world over.Without the summer events, I wouldnt be in business, said Terry Butler, owner of the Residence Hotel and president of the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission.Aspen might get pretty busy on big weekends such as July 4th, she admitted, but that buzz is lifes blood for Aspen.Anyone who makes a living in Aspen knows that without these festivals we dont have anything, Butler said, adding that people who complain about crowds probably dont have a stake in the Aspen economy.Warren Klug, general manager of Aspen Square, said special events are a major attraction to his guests.There are so many more reasons to spend time here, Klug said, from classical or jazz music to dabbling in big ideas at the Aspen Institute. People can pick and choose what they want and they can also decide to lounge around the pool here.Furthermore, added former Commercial Core and Lodging Commission (CCLC) member Andrew Kole, some of Aspens marquee events draw national attention, which equates to advertising that Aspen couldnt afford to buy. Such exposure is especially important during an economic downturn, he added.

In the late 1990s, Aspen hotel occupancy and retail began to slump, according to Debbie Braun, president and CEO of Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA).And the situation only got worse after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which spurred Aspen City Council to create a special events committee to revitalize the local economy, Braun said. Aspen got busy attracting special events.Resort officials, city staff, local non-profits and members of Aspen cultural institutions looked to the models of the long-running Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Institute and decided to beef up the summer and offseason.ACRA staff members produce a handful of special events, including the upcoming Aspen Arts Festival, and act as the umbrella marketing group for July 4 events. ACRA also acts as the marketing arm for the city, and consults with would-be event producers.The chamber granted some $75,000 to the Aspen Institutes Ideas Festival, now in its fourth year.Braun feels summer activities are at a good level, but said the shoulder seasons and holes in the current schedule, such as the one created by the departure of the HBOs U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, are wide open for new niche happenings.While many in Aspen cry for a balance between resort and community, Braun said its important not to separate the two, but to strive for harmony in events that bolster the community.Courting special events is not a new strategy to attract destination visitors. Nearby Snowmass Village has a marketing department specifically geared to special events, including the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in June, the free concert series on Fanny Hill, mountain bike races at Snowmass ski area and a hot-air ballooning festival in September.Nestled deep in southwestern Colorados San Juan Mountains, the town of Telluride has so many festivals that locals created the Telluride Nothing Festival in 1991. The event website explains that locals wanted to finally enjoy all the things that make life in a small town so special no crowds or traffic.But ACRAs Braun said its not just about festivals in Aspen. Film and television shoots, for example, are on the rise in town. Last years taping of Top Chef in Aspen brought national attention without stressing the infrastructure. The chamber also looks to large groups, seminars and business-incentive travelers as another important market.Braun stressed that ACRA is careful not to overload city departments or make life difficult for locals.If you think its packed already, were protecting you, Braun said.Not everyone fits the Aspen event schedule, Braun said, and ACRA staff help weed out events that arent good for town. HBO, for example, recently proposed a boxing festival for Aspen, and a few event producers pitched elaborate bike races on busy summer weekends, Braun said.The ultimate decision, she said, belongs to Aspen City Hall.City Clerk Kathryn Koch fields online event applications and takes them to officials from zoning, environmental health, streets, parks and risk management. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority also reviews special event requests.Applicants tell us what they want to do and we try to help them have a really great event that doesnt negatively impact the city, Koch said. In general, we say yes.Most Aspen events are recurring, she said, and city staffers can usually approve or update an application as needed.But occasionally Koch must say no, as she did with a recent bike race producer who wanted to close Hunter Street (in front of the Wienerstube) for two days in high season.We said, this is not a good idea, Koch said, and the committee suggested the event run in September instead. [The applicant] is going to rethink his race plans and come back for 2009.In April, City Council looked at the number of special events and the cost to city departments and concluded that the balance was right then.To folks who are frustrated by Aspens carnival atmosphere, Braun reminds them that many celebrated amenities in town from open space to affordable housing are made possible by sales tax and bed taxes collected during the towns busiest times.And with gas prices skyrocketing and recession clouds on the horizon, Braun said, many Coloradans planning staycations are choosing Aspen as an affordable drive from the Front Range.

Summer events cost city departments $214,000 in 2007, according to a City Council memo.But the boon to local businesses from events is important to the local economy, according to Jeff Woods, manager of parks and recreation with the city of Aspen.His department, which maintains Wagner Park, Rio Grande Park and other special-event locations, bears the brunt of the cost some $100,000 according to the memo.Recreation is the primary focus of the parks department, Woods said. So hes careful not to overbook area parks. Seeking a balance between special events and local recreation not only ensures that locals have a place to toss a Frisbee, but that grass in area parks isnt ruined, Woods said.I think were at our limit, he said, but his staff reviews any new event application and weighs the community benefit.The police department has also struck a good balance with events and event planners, according to Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor.Most local events now are really under control and up to speed, Pryor said.Event organizers usually hire private security companies, and Pryor said his department has a good working relationship with those who stage returning events.July Fourth, for example, fell on a Friday this year and was very busy, according to Pryor. His officers made a handful of misdemeanor arrests, he said, but it was not out of control.Aspen cops and Pitkin County sheriffs deputies often assist U.S. Secret Service officers when major dignitaries are in town, and big events require a certain level of awareness on his staff.Its how it should be, Pryor said of the summer schedule. But expand it much more and its pretty draining.These quality-of-life type events are good for all of us and enrich the living experience here, said city councilman Dwayne Romero, adding that special events add intangible value to the town.What is important, according to Romero, is reaching some balance by assuring that taxpayer money benefits taxpayers. Supporting a vibrant local economy is an important piece of that.Romero said the town runs as a larger system connecting tourism, lodging, local businesses and local lifestyles.We try to sense whether that trade-off is in balance and whether special events are too much of a good thing.cagar@aspentimes.com


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