Aspen’s new city manager ready to right the ship
Now that Sara Ott has secured the Aspen City Manager job, she said she’s ready to embark on a listening tour to find out what the community wants its government to be focusing on.
“As a community, we need to do some priority setting,” she said earlier this month on her first day as the permanent replacement to former city manager Steve Barwick.
Prior to being asked to resign in January, Barwick reigned over the municipal government for 19 years, which is considered a long tenure compared to other places.
Ott, though she has been interim city manager since February, represents a significant change at the top that will eventually be felt in the community, according to Aspen’s elected officials who chose her over 63 other candidates.
“I’m interested in walking neighborhoods with people who live in them,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about opportunities for drop-in (sessions) at maybe a local business or a park. … I want to meet people where they are, go to them.”
There is a lot of work to be done as Ott settles into the job, including staffing up the city manager’s office that has two vacancies.
Ott left the assistant city manager seat to fill in for Barwick’s departure. Her colleague, former assistant city manager Barry Crook, was asked to resign in December.
“It’s been total triage since January,” Ott said. “I’ll be using the time in the next few months to sort it out.”
She said as the top administrator of the city government, it’s her obligation to see if she can bring the parties back to the table to sort out the voter-approved Lift One development at the base of Aspen Mountain.
Michael and Aaron Brown, the developers of Lift One Lodge, one of the key partners in the Lift One corridor project, declared in July they were walking away because of their eroding confidence in the Gorsuch Haus group.
In March, Aspen voters narrowly approved more than 320,000 square feet of commercial space, including the timeshare project that is Lift One Lodge and the Gorsuch Haus, an 81-room luxury hotel at the western base of Aspen Mountain.
Along with those properties came a new chairlift to Dean Street, a ski museum, a bar and restaurant, an underground parking garage and open space that would serve as a return ski way in the winter and gardens in the summer.
Most of that is gone now, including the chairlift coming down the hill 500 feet farther than it is currently, as well as a $4.36 million city contribution.
Instead, the Browns are relying on their 2011-approved project, which includes roughly 100,000 square feet with 22 timeshare units and five residential condos.
“I think it’s a conversation we need to have; I feel an obligation to the taxpayers to see if we have a deal. … It’s unfortunate if not,” Ott said. “The parties need to restore trust in one another and everyone has to go in with good intent.”
Outside of Lift One, Ott said she wants to have some in-depth conversations with her bosses, Aspen City Council, to see what priorities they want to focus on.
She added that she’s been thinking about creating a strategic plan based on community and council feedback that would outlive elected officials’ tenure.
“Most communities have strategic plans,” Ott said.
Council has been clear that it wants to focus on creating affordable housing and child care opportunities.
The city is moving forward with building hundreds of affordable housing units, with a big chunk being planned at the Harbert Lumberyard property, which the government bought in 2007.
The city is asking for public feedback on that site, as well as others, on what should be built there.
“There are a lot of wants coming from the community on the lumberyard,” Ott said. “We can’t put everything the town needs on that site; we have to work on reality, not dreams.”
Ott, 41, and her family moved to Aspen in 2017 from Ohio when she took the assistant city manager job.
“In the last two and a half years, my husband and I have realized that we live in a highly engaged community that has a commitment to addressing long-term issues that will outlive all of us,” she said.
In the past eight months as interim city manager, Ott said she has learned that the municipality has some catching up to do with best practices internally with staff and operations, and externally with citizens in how they access and use government services.
Ott said she feels there has been some progress made since she took over in two key areas: the city’s communication with the community and the municipal government’s relationship with Pitkin County, both of which were strained in recent years.
“I believe I had a little part in that,” she said, while acknowledging that council members, county commissioners and county manager Jon Peacock have worked toward better relationships this year. “It’s paying dividends in the community.”
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