Aspen in crisis: How far can $6M go in a valley ravaged by a virus?

Here are some of the dozens of ideas floated from area business representatives and nonprofits based on a recent listening tour on how the city of Aspen can help them during the COVID-19 crisis:

• Subsidize or waive rent for businesses and employees.

• Offer punch cards for breakfast/lunch in town for $100 that offer $200 worth of food for local workers, at least those laid off or furloughed.

• Local lunch subsidies for locals when restaurants open to help them get back on their feet.

• Continue free parking in the core.

• Reduce permit fees, waive permit extension fees, and streamline the approval process for smaller remodel jobs, similar to what was done in the Great Recession.

• Utilize more “flat fee” types of permits.

• Waive or reduce all business fees, including license renewals, for the next 12 months.

• Execute small loans ($10,000 or less) to local businesses generally along the SBA guideline and forgive them if the companies meet the criteria set by the city.

• City match ACRA’s utilization of $500,000 from reserves to develop marketing strategy and stimulate the economy.

• Subsidize cost of RFTA passes for employers/employees.

• Subsidize cost of ski passes for employers and employees for winter 2020-21.

• Relax public regulations for food and beverage, i.e., leverage unused pedestrian zones for seating, etc. through 2021.

• Unemployment may be higher for those employees than what they would get on an hourly basis — help subsidize the difference.

• Offer reduced cost or free lodging parking permits.

• Some sort of monetary designation for payroll, or essential services in the lodging community would be very helpful.

• Perhaps a percentage of payroll could be contributed by the city — applied universally – 10 or 20 percent.

• Subsidize the lodges that have lower rates this summer, for example a lodge that charged $300 last year, charges $200 this year and city relief funds subsidize the difference. Filling pillow space will fill retail and restaurants.

• Cash to cover losses.

• Similar to food tax refund concept — something like $5 per square foot of a business as a one-time payout.

• Money for payroll.


• $300,000 from the general fund released to Pitkin County to provide financial relief to city of Aspen residents in the areas of housing, utility, food and childcare assistance under the existing county’s qualification’s structure for relief.

$3 million from the city’s general fund for:

• Immediate economic relief disbursement through the Aspen Community Foundation

• Distribution to Aspen area serving nonprofits that provide legal aid and mental health services

• Community at-large COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment

• Rent assistance and loans to stabilize businesses and nonprofits, including providing for a small business loan/stabilization program

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

$1.5 million from the city’s Housing Development Fund for:

• Rent and mortgage assistance for deed-restricted housing units as qualified through Pitkin County Human Services

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

$1 million from the city’s Aspen Kids First Fund for:

• Additional childcare financial aid

• Retaining qualified child care providers and staff in the community.

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

As city of Aspen officials contemplate how to provide relief and stimulate the local economy with $1 million in taxpayer dollars set aside during the COVID-19 crisis, business leaders have offered dozens of ideas on how the government can help.

Representatives from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association earlier this month polled its 740 members on how the city’s total $6 million package could benefit them.

“The urgent need to provide relief to our community is paramount in our recovery,” said ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun in a letter to Aspen City Council. “We also know that real-time insights are critical to detecting shifts in behavior and sentiment so that we can plan appropriately for the future.”

Council last week passed a historic and unprecedented $5.8 million package that has money being drawn from the city’s housing development fund for rent and mortgage relief, the Kids’ First child care fund for subsidies to help families get back to work and from the general fund to help local businesses and other efforts.

“Everyone has so many ideas on how that money is spent,” said Lisa LeMay, regional manager for the Aspen T-Shirt Co. who also represents retailers on the ACRA board. “(The city) has a lot to figure out.”

She said most retail businesses have laid off their employees and are relying on their reserves to get through the next few months.

Retail shops were shuttered by the Pitkin County public health order that called for all non-essential businesses to close, in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.

But those business owners still have to pay rent, utilities, taxes, insurance and other costs associated with their businesses.

LeMay said of the three Aspen store locations operated by the company she works for, one landlord was “extremely generous” on giving relief on rent; another was “medium” and one was not willing to do anything.

“It was shocking to us,” she said, stopping short of providing detailed information.

Once Aspen’s economy slowly reopens with 6-foot social distancing rules likely still in effect and minimal tourism this summer and fall, T-shirt stores are expected to be one of the last retailers to open.

“Everyone’s crisis is going to be a little different,” LeMay said. “There are so many things that can help a business.”

Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s An American Restaurant since 1997, said unfortunately the local economic crisis is more like a $30 million problem, not a $6 million one.

A few thousand dollars on rent relief is nice but won’t solve the long-term effect the virus is having on a destination resort like Aspen, he said.

“I expect nothing from the city and the county but I will be thrilled to get anything,” Yeager said, adding that the best-case scenario is his restaurant being down between 30% and 50% this summer. “Even if we lose money, or break even and cut costs, what do we do in the fall?”

Several store owners and restaurateurs have acknowledged the natural adversarial relationship between tenants and landlords in town, where the average rent hovers around $22,000 a month, according to sources.

“Everyone tries to get along,” Yeager said. “But this is the first time we don’t need to be at odds.”

Yeager this week received funds from the federal government’s payroll protection plan, which is a forgivable loan so he can pay his employees and avoid laying them off.

But not everyone got to the kitty in time — the federal government ran out of money for the program last week.

“There’s a real panic,” said City Councilwoman Ann Mullins, adding that local banks are deluged with small business loan applications and the money is not available. “I think we should use the fund to fill in the gaps.”

Mullins is serving as the liaison to the construction, professional services and real estate industries.

She said getting projects built, putting architects and land-use planners back to work, as well as others in that sector, will reinvigorate part of the economy that’s not dependent on tourism.

But fast-tracking permits for developers to begin construction projects also gives Mullins pause when she thinks about the potential negative impacts on neighboring businesses and the community in general.

Council is expected to take up the issue next week during a work session.

At the outset of the crisis last month, each council member was assigned a different business sector to be an advocate for, Mullins explained.

She said it’s imperative for council to convene soon to discuss what they’ve heard, how to get the different sectors to work with each other and let the experts take it from there.

“The last two-and-a-half weeks we’ve been gathering information and we are lagging,” she said. “We don’t need a perfect plan, … it needs to be well thought out, but we just need to get started.”

Council member Skippy Mesirow, the liaison for retail and outdoor recreations, said he’s spoke to about 60 business owners and engaged with hundreds more via email.

The time to act is now, he said, adding the money should be used to fill in the gaps between federal and state programs.

“There are differing opinions on where the money should go (is it rent or taxes?) and how it should be distributed (is it a loan or a grant? Should rent assistance go to the business or the landlord?),” Mesirow wrote in an email. “The through line is that all the help helps, the financial needs are immediate, and we cannot move at the pace of government.

“We must step up to help those in need now, not tomorrow, so that otherwise solvent loved Aspen businesses do not close unnecessarily,” he continued.

LeMay, ACRA’s retail representative, who hasn’t heard from Mesirow, said last week that taking the long-view is what will help retailers, because recovery is going to be a long, bumpy road.

“(The city money) was approved early enough that they have time to figure it out,” she said. “It does need to be done properly so it’s better to take our time and do it right.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who is the liaison for the lodging and hospitality industry, agrees taking a holistic approach to all business sectors’ needs, desires and issues is important before funding criteria is set.

It’s important that when it’s time to accommodate guests in local lodges and condos it’s done safely, Hauenstein said, so helping to provide masks for employees and guests should be part of the expenditure, as well as some sort of testing to determine whether certain people are immune to the disease and are free to move about the community.

Mullins said she wants the city to fund a coordinated mask effort for other front line employees as well.

She also noted that the city could subsidize restaurants to provide low-cost meals for residents, which gets people back to work, and customers spending money.

“The city in a unique way could help these businesses,” Mullins said.

Yeager said whichever way the city allocates the money, it shouldn’t be in the business of handing out loans.

“Going into debt is not the answer,” Yeager said. “It’s the kiss of death for small businesses.”

ACRA has formed eight different task forces to help businesses with relief and recovery, with the latter being the primary focus for the chamber.

“There’s a lot going on and I feel like it’s all coordinated,” Braun said, adding ACRA is working closely with city officials who are currently formulating criteria for the relief package. “I feel really good with the people we are working with who know how to respond.”

While there may be uncertainty and fear out there, veteran business representatives expressed their hopes for a bright future on the other side of COVID-19.

LeMay told her employees, who are at home collecting unemployment, to spend this down time improving themselves in some way; she’s learning Spanish.

“We will grow as a community and we will come out stronger than ever,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time to recover from this, but if we can make it to December, then we’ll make it.”

Yeager said bars and restaurants will always be part of society and he’ll always be involved, whether Jimmy’s makes it or not.

“I really know that people are doing the best they can right now,” he said. “I’m optimistic our landlords will support us and I’m optimistic that our vendors will support us and I’m optimistic that our customers will support us.”

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