Newsmakers 2013: Honorable mentions
December 31, 2013
Maroon Bells close during government shutdown
On Oct. 1, the U.S. government closed all nonessential services for 17 days after Congress couldn't come up with a budget to fund the feds.
National parks took a hard hit, as did most all U.S. Forest Service activities. That translated into the partial closing of Maroon Creek Road, cutting off motor-vehicle access to the Maroon Bells at the most popular time of the year to visit the area.
The Bells are considered one of the most photographed areas in Colorado, and losing car access — as well as having all the Forest Service campgrounds, parking lots and restrooms closed during the shutdown — cost the Forest Service between $20,000 and $30,000 in campground and vehicular fees.
Those totals don't include how much businesses in Aspen and the surrounding area lost when would-be visitors didn't come to the valley because of the Bells being closed.
It was also difficult to put a price tag on the level of frustration that many visitors felt after they arrived in Aspen to visit the Bells and then found out the only way they could access Maroon Lake would be to hike between three and five miles from the closest allowable parking area.
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— Michael McLaughlin
Downtown noise debate
On numerous occasions during the year, what some have characterized as a battle for Aspen's soul was waged downtown.
The issue was noise, and it pitted solitude-seeking residents against restaurant-bar owners and musicians. The issue will spill over into early 2014 because of a trial scheduled for Jan. 15 in Aspen Municipal Court on citations that were issued by the Aspen Police Department against Aspen Brewing Co., which has a tasting room on East Hopkins Avenue.
To proponents of live music, the issue is much bigger than whether they should adhere to city-imposed maximum noise levels or recognize that amplifiers are not allowed on the Cooper and Hyman pedestrian malls.
The Aspen City Council is supposed to take up the noise issue during a work session sometime early this year. One option it will have is raising the maximum allowable decibel levels in the commercial core. Before 9 p.m., the limit is 65 decibels in the downtown area. After 9 p.m., it drops to 60 decibels.
The problem with that, critics of the city's noise ordinance say, is that a conversation at a normal volume between two people can rise to 60 or 65 decibels.
Police were called dozens of times during the year to investigate noise complaints not only in the Hyman and Hopkins pedestrian malls but also East Hopkins Avenue's restaurant row.
— Andre Salvail
Chitty gets 20 years in cocaine case
The 20-year sentence handed down to former Aspen resident Montgomery Chitty marked the final punishment in a cocaine-trafficking case that implicated a number of local residents.
Chitty was 62 at the time of his Sept. 9 sentencing hearing in the U.S. District Court of Denver, where a jury trial was held in April. The jury found Chitty guilty of conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. He was arrested in February 2012 in Big Pine Key, Fla., nearly nine months after Drug Enforcement Administration agents snared 10 people in May 2011, including six in the Aspen-Snowmass area, on conspiracy charges that they trafficked more than 200 kilograms of cocaine between Aspen and Los Angeles over a 15-year period.
Chitty's prison sentence was significantly longer than those of others implicated as part of the investigation. Chitty was the only defendant who went to trial, while the other defendants reached plea deals. Among them was Aspen resident Wayne Alan Reid, 66, considered by investigators as the orchestrator of the cocaine ring. In March, a federal judge sentenced Reid to 53 months in prison. According to court documents in the Reid case, "The defendant agrees to provide truthful, complete and accurate information, and agrees to cooperate fully with the government."
Chitty is appealing his sentence.
— Rick Carroll
Early snow bodes well for Aspen
The 2013 ski season on Aspen Mountain opened Nov. 16, almost two weeks before the scheduled Thanksgiving opening. Not only was there an early opening for locals to celebrate, but the conditions were outstanding, with a 16-inch base and 4 inches of fluffy powder covering plenty of untouched terrain for skiers to shred.
On opening day, Aspen Mountain reported 216 acres and 21 trails open with three lifts operating.
Cold weather and lots of snow on top of the mountain added to the excellent early conditions. The cold allowed Skico to make plenty of man-made snow that made for a solid base.
And it got even better. A heavy snow moved in opening night, dropping 10 inches of new powder for day two on Aspen Mountain.
The 2013 early snowfall might seem even better after such a disappointing early ski season in 2012. Aspen recorded 24 inches of snow this November, compared with none in November 2012.
December had a tough act to follow but came through for Aspen skiers, with 43 inches of new snow. The unusually cold weather during the first two weeks of December, coupled with 20 inches of new snow in that period, made for some of the best light powder a skier could ask for.
— Michael McLaughlin
Scanlon handles the hot seat
Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon's first full year on the job was anything but dull.
Before he was even officially in his seat, he had to decide how to fix a police department in turmoil. Police Chief Roderick O'Connor wanted to remain in his job but had lost a vote of confidence from his staff. They were highly critical of his management style.
Scanlon, who once was a top administrator in Mission, Kan., weighed the situation and determined O'Connor couldn't salvage the situation and effectively lead the department. That led to the resignation of a top cop highly popular in the community.
Scanlon took a second decisive stance on the equally controversial debate over the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park. The town government had already decided to team with Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. to buy the mobile-home park more than one year before Scanlon took his post. Community Development Corp., a nonprofit connected to Roaring Fork Valley philanthropist George Stranahan, planned to get approvals for a hotel on its half of the property and use proceeds to relocate the households in 35 mobile homes.
The town's role was to reduce the flood risk on the Roaring Fork River, develop a park and raise the Community Development Corp. property out of the floodplain.
Scanlon hired an outside financial consultant to gauge the economic viability of Community Development Corp.'s plan and determined it wouldn't work. He wanted to keep the river work on schedule, so the town took over the controversial role of evicting the residents and providing them with relocation assistance of $15,000 to $22,000 per household.
Scanlon and Judi Tippetts, assistant town manager, crafted a ballot question to get the river work done more quickly without requiring a property tax increase. Basalt voters approved issuing general obligation bonds that will be paid back through the town's existing sales tax for open space and parks as well as money from the general fund.
— Scott Condon
Tejay van Garderen and the USA Pro Challenge
The third time was more than a charm for Tejay van Garderen.
Right before the 2013 edition of the USA Pro Challenge cycling stage race in Colorado, van Garderen moved to Aspen with his young family — to the hometown of his wife, Jessica Phillips.
Right after the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, van Garderen moved the prestigious first-place trophy into his new home.
Welcome to Aspen, Tejay van Garderen — winner of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge after finishing second overall in 2012 and third overall in 2011.
Van Garderen, the 25-year-old BMC rider who grew up in Montana, led the seven-stage race around Colorado for the final four days, finishing 1 minute, 30 seconds ahead of Swiss teammate Mathias Frank.
His Colorado overall win came after the first multi-stage race victory of his career — the Tour of California in May.
Van Garderen, who moved to Fort Collins for his senior year in high school (Rocky Mountain), sealed his victory with a record-setting performance in the Vail Time Trial, where he won by more than 4 seconds.
Then, he rode in front of his former high school friends on the penultimate stage of the 2013 race that finished in downtown Fort Collins.
Boulder's Tom Danielson, of the Colorado-based Garmin-Sharp team, was third overall in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, 1:42 behind van Garderen. Slovakia's Peter Sagan, who came to Aspen two weeks early for high-altitude training, won four stages in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, including the opening Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.
The third edition of the USA Pro Challenge began Aug. 19 in Aspen with 16 teams and 128 riders. The 593-mile event ended with 108 riders.
— Dale Strode
The Jeff Walker search
For 11 days in March, large groups of emergency authorities and volunteers searched the Highland Bowl area in an attempt to find Jeff Walker, a 55-year-old Aspen resident and wine purveyor.
A snowboarder located his body on March 20 in an area of U.S. Forest Service land considered permanently closed to skiers. The evidence suggested that he took his life on March 7.
More than 350 relatives and friends paid their respects at a memorial at the Aspen Chapel, where they remembered him fondly for his charisma, his zest for the outdoors and a passion for good food and fine wine. A native of Maryland, Walker moved to Aspen in 1992.
During the service, no mention was made of the motive. Privately, friends and investigators confided that he had financial problems.
— Andre Salvail
Coach Sirko steps down
The Aspen High School football team, after seven consecutive state playoff appearances, headed into a major transition when longtime head coach Mike Sirko stepped down at the end of the 2013 season.
Before the veteran Colorado prep coach took over seven years earlier, Aspen had struggled to post winning records in football. The Skiers' last previous playoff appearance came in the 1970s.
The very first team coached by Sirko in Aspen posted a winning record.
One year later, the Skiers won their first playoff game in 40 years.
"I want to thank all my coaches and players here," Sirko said. "This wouldn't have been possible without their contributions."
He specifically credited the work of Reuben Burbach, his son-in-law and defensive coordinator, and son Nick Sirko, also a longtime assistant coach in the Aspen program.
Sirko, who took over in a hiring controversy with his wife (Diana Sirko) the Aspen superintendent, endured the tumultuous start and trooped the Skiers into the playoffs for seven years in a row.
Sirko, in fact, posted 17 consecutive winning seasons at three different Colorado high school programs — Aspen, Doherty and Rampart.
His 1998 team at Rampart High School in Colorado Springs went 14-0 and won the state championship.
Sirko also is a member of the exclusive 200 club — Colorado high school football coaches with 200 victories. Sirko compiled 237 prep victories in Colorado, starting with his days at Montrose and Hotchkiss.
He ranks sixth all-time in Colorado high school football wins.
A native of football-crazed western Pennsylvania, Sirko grew up with football in his blood.
He came west to play football at Western State College in Gunnison.
"And I never left Colorado," Sirko said. "I'm really happy with what we've done here in Aspen. And we did it with solid coaching and teaching."
— Dale Strode
Willits gets its groove on
In the first full year that Whole Foods Market was open, Willits Town Center hit its stride.
The Basalt neighborhood is different things to different people. For some, it's hailed as a bustling commercial core that has saved Basalt's ailing budget through sales tax revenues after the lean years of the recession. For others, it's cursed as a taste of the suburbs in Anywhere, USA.
It boasts a combination of homegrown stores and national powerhouses. Bristlecone Mountain Sports and Basalt Bike and Ski, both of which relocated from Basalt's commercial core, appear to be thriving. Whole Foods' drawing power also has attracted national companies like Starbucks to a new location and Verizon to a more prominent site.
The success of Willits has helped the town refill its coffers. Sales tax revenue for August, one of the busiest months for the resort town, was 25 percent higher than the same month the year before. For the fiscal year to date, reflecting revenue from December through July, revenue was up 22 percent.
Mariner Real Estate Management Inc., the owner and developer of Willits Town Center, wants to build off its success. So far it has developed less than half of the roughly 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space approved by Basalt. Mariner applied last fall to alter its approvals to reflect market conditions and spur more development. One major request is for a waiver of an estimated $250,000 in building and land-use fees to make a proposed hotel more economically viable. Mariner also wants a financial contribution from the town government of $75,000 annually for 10 years to help build the lodging. The request hasn't been reviewed yet by the town staff or council.
— Scott Condon