Lift One project on Aspen Mountain in peril
One of Aspen’s largest development projects in decades, this one at the western base of Aspen Mountain, is in jeopardy.
The developers of Lift One Lodge, one of the key partners in the Lift One corridor project, declared this week they are walking away because of their eroding confidence in the Gorsuch Haus group. Their decision comes after voters in March narrowly approved the development in a divisive contest that touched on some of the town’s most debated issues ranging from lodging and the future of skiing to preservation and the environment.
The developers of Lift One Lodge, in a July 17-dated letter written by Aspen attorney Bart Johnson to three city officials, said they will use the previous entitlements they have to build a lodge on the mountain. Those 10-year entitlements, set to expire in November 2021, are similar to the version they presented to voters earlier this year.
Lift One and Gorsuch developers combined to spend roughly $300,000 on campaign advertising promoting the passage of the ballot question, which gave approval to the 107,000-square-foot Lift One Lodge, which would have 34 fractional and six full-interest condominiums, and the 64,000-square-foot, 81-room Gorsuch Haus luxury hotel.
In passing the question, voters also blessed a skiers’ services space, restaurants, bars, a ski museum and a parking garage. The total square footage stood at about 320,000.
The pullout by the Lift One Lodge group, however, muddies up the entire deal.
“The Lift One Lodge team is truly sorry for themselves, the city and its guests and residents,” the letter concludes.
Brothers Aaron and Michael Brown, owners of two Main Street lodges and the face of the Lift One Project, declined to comment and said the letter adequately captures what drove their team’s decision.
Jeff Gorsuch, a principal in the Gorsuch Haus who actively campaigned for the project, said Friday he was “dumbstruck and a little perplexed” by Lift One’s letter, which city officials introduced to the Gorsuch team and other key players in the project — including Aspen Skiing Co. — before a stakeholders meeting Thursday morning.
“It was a little bit surprising and shocking to everybody who was at the meeting,” Gorsuch said.
Lift One representatives, as stated in their letter to City Attorney Jim True, Community Development Department Director Jessica Garrow and her second-in-command, Jennifer Phelan, did not attend the meeting.
“I think it’s a shame for the voters, and it’s a shame for the community,” Gorsuch said.
Also caught off-guard was Skico, which has much riding on the project.
“We were surprised and disappointed with the Lift One Lodge decision to cease working on the Lift One Corridor project in favor of their 2011 entitlements,” a statement from Skico said. “We remain committed to our part in the collaborative project. We hope to continue to work with all parties involved to deliver the project that was approved by voters.”
By 26 votes, Aspen’s electorate approved the Lift One Corridor Plan in a 1,555-1,529 decision in the March 6 election.
It was an emotionally charged election in a town passionate about its skiing and its surroundings, with residents asked to vote on a proposal hatched in negotiations among the Lift One and Gorsuch developers, Skico and the municipal government. One of the biggest selling points to voters was bringing the replacement for Lift 1A down the mountain another 500 feet from its current lower terminal location to Dean Street.
“Obviously the lift coming down is the linchpin that we all rallied behind,” Michael Brown said the night the election’s tallies were announced.
As of Friday night it was unclear how Lift One’s decision will affect the voter-approved lift, but Gorsuch inferred that too much work has been put into the project to walk away. In both an interview with and a statement submitted to The Aspen Times, Gorsuch expressed a desire to keep the project going and frustration with the Brown brothers.
“Since March, our team has acted in good faith working towards accomplishing the various design and planning tasks required to achieve this goal for Aspen,” the statement said. “With our team, Bryan (Peterson) and I have every intention of helping Aspen achieve its dream of returning Lift 1A to town, making it possible to host World Cup races once again, and restoring vitality and lodging to Aspen’s original base area where the magic of skiing began.”
The harshly worded letter, however, cast skepticism on the Gorsuch team’s ability to meet their obligations in a matter satisfactory to the Lift One Lodge developers.
“There are several reasons for this decision,” the letter stated. “Perhaps most importantly, my client has not been able to get a sufficient level of comfort that the Gorsuch Haus project will move forward on a timely basis to ensure construction of the new lift. The Lift One Lodge team is extremely concerned about proceeding with their reviewed plan if there is no assurance the new lift will get built as intended.”
Other reasons for the split, according to the letter, are because the “Gorsuch Haus project is being marketed for sale, we have no way of knowing who the buyer will be, when or whether a sale will close, or whether the new owner will share Lift One Lodge’s level of commitment to the project. Thus, because of my client’s assessment of the elapsed time, unkept promises, inevitable interdiction of financial third parties and the approaching deadlines required under the voter-approved plan, as well as the economic risks, my client does not see any alternative other than to stop work on the new project and focus on the old.”
The letter’s assertions are not true, Gorsuch said.
“We’ve acted with every intention and purpose with good faith and authenticity,” he said. “I’ve raised my kids and family here. You’ve got to read between the lines: Why would somebody exit a process after all of the years and time and effort they spent on it? Their needs aren’t being met. It’s more about them.”
That the Gorsuch Haus project is seeking investors is hardly unique in the development world, Gorsuch said, and it does not mean that he and others are flipping it. Gorsuch said he and other team members remain committed to the project.
“We are exploring the value and talking about a recapitalization,” he said. “These kinds of things occur in development in every town across the country.”
The Gorsuch group from before the election remains intact now, Gorsuch said. Partner Lowe Enterprises also remains on board, he said. Jim DeFrancia, president of Lowe Enterprises, could not be immediately reached Friday night.
“Aspen’s voters approved a great plan with so many community benefits — a Ski History Museum, a great park, a new lift in town, and dining and lodging where it belongs,” Gorsuch’s statement said. “We urge the Browns to recommit to this fantastic vision for the community’s future.”