Ideas to boost economy in Aspen run the gamut

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Vendors on the malls, a longer runway, more live music and aerial mountain connections – are any or all of the above likely to help stimulate Aspen’s economy?

No one is making any promises – or even recommendations, just yet – but those were among the ideas that emerged during a brainstorming session Wednesday by a group of local business, government and nonprofit representatives.

The Economic Sustainability Group, a joint effort of the city, Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the Aspen Institute Community Forum, is charged with coming up with recommendations to improve Aspen’s business climate.

Yesterday’s discussion produced a list of suggestions that the group will sort through in future debates, but a few themes appeared to garner broad support, such as the need for more guest accommodations and a desire to see tourist and local dollars spent in Aspen versus somewhere else.

“I personally think bed base is critical,” said banker Howie Mallory. “You don’t have the beds, you don’t have the bodies, you don’t have the sales.”

“We need short-term beds and we need more of them,” agreed Molly Campbell, general manager of The Gant and chairwoman of the ACRA board of directors.

“And then we need to fill them,” said Jackie Kasabach, conference manager at The Gant.

Bill Tomcich, president of the Stay Aspen-Snowmass reservations agency, estimates Aspen has lost some 2,000 guest pillows over the past decade. It has also lost airline seats coming into the resort.

“Maybe we lost some of the beds because people couldn’t get here,” he said.

Now, if Aspen were to attract additional airline service, Tomcich wonders if the resort could accommodate the additional guests.

“What comes first? It’s a delicate balance,” he said.

Nonetheless, improvements to the local airport that would allow more types of commercial jets to land in Aspen went on the group’s list of ideas.

City Manager Steve Barwick suggested the group explore ways to boost the economy with dollars that are already here.

“What can we do to keep the money that’s here circulating more before it heads out of town?” he said. “There’s a thousand things that fit into that category.”

If energy costs were reduced through improved energy efficiency in commercial buildings, for example, the operating costs of doing business in Aspen would drop, freeing up dollars that could be spent on something else, Barwick said.

“Part of the drain on the dollars in this community is our own residents shopping at Wal-Mart, at Target, at City Market in El Jebel,” added Mayor Helen Klanderud, an ACRA board member. “I don’t know what that leakage is … but I’ve gotta think it’s substantial.”

“Maybe all these issues warrant a broader discussion, but this certainly does,” Campbell said.

“For me, leakage is why we’re here,” agreed Shellie Roy, a Pitkin County commissioner and ACRA board member.

A different mix of retail businesses and activities might help foster the spending of money in Aspen, members mused.

Ideas ranged from vendors on the pedestrian malls to enliven the downtown core to a live-music venue such as Red Rocks or Vail’s Ford Amphitheater.

Local real estate agent Marc Friedberg suggested the resort again explore gondola connections for its ski areas.

“I think we need to look at enriching the ski experience by linking the mountains,” he said.

Several group members suggested Aspen needs to define its vision of what it hopes to become, where it wants to go, before it can take steps to get there.

“We can’t build ourselves to the sky to create economic sustainability,” Mallory noted. “How much is enough? It’s not an easy answer.”

Aspen could build a mega-mall next to the airport, but that’s probably not an economic stimulus the community wants to pursue, he said.

“I don’t know if we’ve identified where we’re trying to get,” Klanderud agreed. “What’s the something we’re trying to make progress toward?”

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