Lift One plan in Aspen parallels 1990 vote on Ritz Carlton

In 1990, coverage of the vote for the Ritz Carlton Hotel, which is not the St. Regis, dominated The Aspen Times Daily.

Twenty-nine years ago almost to the day, Aspen voters were facing a development decision that parallels the Lift One corridor plan, which will be decided in Tuesday’s election.

The campaign to approve or deny the Ritz Carlton hotel, which is now the St. Regis located at the base of Aspen Mountain on Dean Street, was as controversial as they come for Aspen politics.

“That was quite a time,” R.J. Gallagher Jr., who headed up the campaign to get the hotel built, said Friday. “I’m still in therapy.”

Despite foes saying the 285,000-square-foot, 292-room hotel was too big and inappropriate for the base of the mountain, it won by a 3-2 margin in a special election held Feb. 13, 1990.

A similar political battle is happening now over a development proposal a half a block away from the St. Regis. The Lift One question is seeing the same type of community division — pro business and resort versus the old guard, slow-growth proponents.

The Lift One corridor plan is over 320,000 square feet of commercial space, which includes the 107,000-square-foot timeshare project known as the Lift One Lodge and a 64,000-square-foot hotel called the Gorsuch Haus.

In between and among those properties are bars and restaurants, a ski museum, skiers’ services, an underground parking garage and, perhaps the most important, a new chairlift that extends to Dean Street, which is 500 feet farther down the hill than the current Lift 1A.

Just like the Ritz proposal, Aspen City Council referred the Lift One development to voters, albeit for different reasons than the ones that were in front of elected officials in the late 1980s and 1990.

The campaign and community division leading up to the Ritz vote was a bit uglier than what’s happening today surrounding the Lift One plan.

Frank Peters, a councilman who was serving in 1990 and voted to put another alternative on the ballot that was 25 percent smaller than Ritz developer Mohamed Hadid’s proposal, said the heat levied at council by angry mobs with “pitchforks was palpable.”

Peters narrowly escaped being recalled a month after the Ritz vote. He, along with three other council members who were anti-Ritz, faced a recall election in March 1990 over their stance on the development and other issues.

“It was a political uproar,” Peters said, adding that Denver TV satellite trucks were parked outside of City Hall for the February 1990 vote.

That ballot also saw the controversial question of whether to ban the sale of wild animal furs in the city, which was brought forward by then-Mayor Bill Stirling.

Newspaper ads, articles, letters to the editor and guest opinions showed both sides of the Ritz issue arguing at fever pitch.

One headline from The Aspen Times reads, “Ritz debate turns nasty, local men splash, punch each other in restaurant.”

Stirling, who also survived the recall, said the Ritz controversy is very much similar to the Lift One debate.

“It was as intense as this one,” he said, adding that after the March 5 election results are in, life as we know it Aspen will continue. “Aspen is known for its political dilemmas and then sorting out the ramifications after the vote, then everyone starts talking to each other again.”

Also similar to Hadid’s campaign effort for the Ritz, the developers behind Lift One Lodge are outspending their opposition by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Although the vote may be close, campaign finance reports filed at City Hall suggest the battle has taken on David-versus-Goliath proportions when it comes to money,” reads an article printed in The Aspen Times on Feb. 8, 1990.

Hadid poured $187,000 into an advertising and telephone campaign to convince fewer than 4,000 registered Aspen voters. The opposition raised just over $6,000, mostly used for newspaper ads.

Lift One’s issue committee raised roughly $283,000 for advertising, public relations and other mass marketing while their opposition has mustered up $15,000 for more grassroots efforts.

Gallagher said he believes the Lift One developers have put double the amount into the campaign that’s what been reported.

“I’ve never seen a messaging campaign like 1A … our platform was simpler,” he said.

Gallagher said the other difference between the campaigns is that the Ritz had serious, organized opposition while Lift One has some grassroots efforts but not the same magnitude.

Also, Hadid was bringing in a major hotel brand, which Aspen hadn’t seen yet.

“It was a different game,” Gallagher said.

Michael Kinsley, a former Pitkin County commissioner, was quoted in an Aspen Times article Feb. 8, 1990 being against the Ritz.

“We are going to become the kind of town we always said we wouldn’t be,” the article reads. “We don’t want Vail, we want Aspen. Vail is big hotels, Aspen is little hotels.”

John Sarpa, who was senior vice president of the Hadid Development Co., said last week the hotel has become a community asset.

“Think about all of things that have taken place in that facility,” he said about fundraisers, group conferences, concerts, events and other community functions.

And despite the concerns of its size 30 years ago, it seems to blend into town and Aspen Mountain, Sarpa noted.

“I don’t think people mind it much at all,” he said.