Mountain Character: Michael Behrendt, one of Aspen’s last local lodge owners
December 6, 2015
Before Aspen's elected leaders decided in August to kick the Base2 Lodge proposal to voters, City Council Chambers spilled over with residents anxious about the outcome.
One of them was Michael Behrendt. Behrendt, who has owned the St. Mortiz Lodge since 1970, didn't offer a rambling statement about the project nor surpass his allotted time to speak. Rather, he summed up his feelings en route to the exit door.
"Shame on you!" he shouted at City Council members.
Suffice it to say, Behrendt was opposed to the project and believed the council should have rescinded their June ordinance for Base2 instead of letting the electorate decide. In November, the lodge that would replace the Conoco service station on Main Street failed convincingly at the polls, with nearly 63 percent of the vote opposed to the development.
"Rather than give a speech, I thought one sentence would do the trick," Behrendt said. "They knew darn well what the result would be, yet they went ahead and did it. I don't fault them for thinking they're doing good things, but they're not in tune with the voters at all."
Behrendt once sat on the council from 1973 to 1981, six of those years during Mayor Stacy Standley's reign, one defined by strict growth control. Elected officials Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman — Behrendt is among many who credit them for arresting the pace of growth — also were elected officials during that era of progressive politics.
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Behrendt ran again in 2009 for a seat on City Council and lost, something he's perfectly fine with.
"I'm in the last part of my life, and I don't want to spend it trying to stop people from trampling on this valley," he said. "It shouldn't be necessary, really."
Unapologetically a slow-growther, Behrendt said, "If you go up the gondola and look back down, what you see is these blocks of solid structures with flat roofs. What you realize is, we're filling every available inch."
He added: "You've got this group in town who think there are great commercial opportunities, but you've got another group that's discreet, that this is the community we live in and want. And we don't want to be like Vail, which is fine for them."
But in spite of differences among Aspen residents, Behrendt said it's worth it.
"One of the cool things about living in Aspen is you get to follow people's lives," he said. "You get to know each other, and when I go into City Market, people that were political foes back then give me a hug."
More than politics
Behrendt, 75, has served on the boards of a number of nonprofit groups, one being Touchstone, the now-defunct mental-health organization run by Helen Klanderud. Behrendt had a background in psychology, having studied the field in college.
But when Behrendt, who grew up in Iowa, moved to Aspen in 1969 with his then-wife, he toiled around in odd jobs, including one as manager at the Continental Inn, until learning the St. Moritz Lodge, decrepit as it were, was up for sale. Behrendt had $3,000 to his name, enough to make a down payment for his $103,000 purchase of the St. Moritz. That was 1970. Today, the Pitkin County Assessor's Office gives it an actual value of more than $3 million.
"Everyone laughed at me because it was so much for that derelict, which was going to be torn down," he said. "And that became my life."
Built in 1957, the St. Moritz also is one of the few remaining locally operated lodges in town.
"When I took over, the swimming pool was full of trash, the building was full of hippies not paying rent and I put an announcement up that very reasonable rents would be charge heretofore," he said. "And it was vacated like rats leaving a ship."
One sentiment in town is that Aspen lacks enough affordable lodging to cater to the younger set. With average nightly rates of at least $500 in Aspen during the high season, the St. Moritz, hardly lavish but a place to lay your head, asks for as much as $259 during Christmas week. The lodge consists of 13 hotel rooms with bathrooms, eight rooms with kitchenettes and a bath, four condo-type rental units, roughly 24 hostel spaces and three employee-housing units. The hostel spaces run $39 a night on average, doubling in price during Christmas week, Behrendt said. Behrendt, who married his longtime partner earlier this year, lives in his funky home next door.
Behrendt has two grown daughters from his first marriage. One works for the city of Aspen, the other lives in Arizona. He didn't know he had a third child until she introduced herself to him decades ago when she was 18. The two forged a bond, a relationship more friendly than father-daughter, Behrendt said. Last year, the mother of three died. She was in her mid-40s.
"She had struggled with discipline," he said. "She was raised by a rigid, evangelical family, and she rebelled," he said, noting "she died a horrible death last year. We had a pretty good relationship, and she was pretty heroic to the end. But life isn't fair."
All in all, however, Behrendt said life can't be much better in Aspen. He has traveled the world, and sailed it, too.
"I love the business, I love the town, I love the life and I love the skiing," he said. "And it has been profitable to be in a ski lodge. Those of us who stayed in the business are making fine money. If we sell, we'd make two or three times as much, but we're making a fine living."
Emphasizing he has no designs to sell the St. Moritz, Behrendt declared, "I live in Aspen! Put an exclamation point on both sides. Why would I sell that?"