Protestors not horsing around in Wagner Park; group pushing back on snow polo move
The location of the World Snow Polo Championship is becoming unbridled as a consortium of local residents are lobbying Aspen’s elected officials to walk back their blessing of Wagner Park as the event venue in December.
Aspen City Council members have received more than a dozen emails since last week after Andrew Israel, a staunch supporter of keeping Wagner Park open to public use, started a Facebook page called “Protect Wagner Park.”
He asked the more than 230 Facebook page members to email their elected officials asking them to return the snow polo event to Rio Grande Park, where it’s been held for the past five years.
The majority of City Council agreed last month after a roughly 20-minute discussion at the end of a six-hour work session to close Wagner Park to public use to accommodate the two-day event, but will require eight days for setup and breakdown.
Mayor Torre said Friday council will reconsider the request to move the event to Wagner.
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He shared with The Aspen Times his email response to those who’ve contacted him.
“Thanks to you and everyone who has shared input on Wagner Park and maintaining public access to our parks,” Torre wrote. “I do agree that the priority is for open access and as a gathering space for families and friends. I will continue to support that as the top priority. I also support the usage that the community supports as a venue for events that have community benefit. Council will have an opportunity to reconsider this event, and reaffirm the policy around using public parks for events.”
Israel, who has challenged the city in previous years about the damage the horses create on the turf, as well as closing off a public space in downtown Aspen, said he doesn’t understand why in the middle of a pandemic the city wants to draw a crowd of spectators.
He added that the city is giving no credence to history.
“I’m not anti-polo or anti-event, I’m pro-park,” he said last week. “I have very high expectations for City Council and city staff, and in this case their lack of perspective and failure to remember history has them making decisions that I believe are contrary to the public’s best interest.”
Councilwoman Ann Mullins said last week when rejecting a proposed multi-week event in Wagner Park that she doesn’t support private, commercial and exclusive use of public spaces.
She said days later that snow polo’s duration is not as long as the winter village that was proposed, and that she didn’t hear any public opposition, or public comment, about the Wagner venue when council discussed it.
The discussion occurred at around 10 p.m. on Oct. 12 during a virtual work session when public comment is typically not allowed.
Mullins, who is serving her final year of her two four-year terms, was on council in 2013 when it decided to move snow polo to Rio Grande.
Trotting toward vitality
Nancy Lesley, the city’s director of special events and marketing, said the organizer, Aspen Valley Polo Club, asked for a one-time move to Wagner Park.
“The Winter in Aspen Vitality team (comprised of many city departments) felt that during the COVID pandemic, this type of activation of the park would be an appropriate request,” she wrote in an email last week.
Lesley said city staff determined that making snow at Rio Grande is far more cumbersome than at Wagner due to the location of an available hydrant, and the footprint of snow polo is somewhat smaller this year due to COVID-19 public health order restrictions.
In its application for the special event, the polo club, run by longtime local residents Marc and Melissa Ganzi, it is stated that there would not be a large VIP tent and bleachers accommodating 500 people as has been the case in the past.
Instead, those areas would be closed to the public and several smaller tents for sponsors and their guests would be erected for no more than 50 people, which is the limit under current Pitkin County public health orders.
City officials said the event will bring some vitality into the center of town, which has been challenging due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“It would be great to put a win in the column for a traditional event before the end of the year,” Lesley told council at its October work session.
The city began in 2013 requiring event organizers to ensure there was a 12-inch compacted snow surface to protect the turf, which has required snowmaking.
That was after the debacle in 2010 when a previous operator held the event in Wagner and due to a lack of snow, the turf was destroyed and cost the city $900,000 to fix it.
Snow polo moved to Marolt Open Space in 2011 and 2012, before elected officials moved it back to Wagner in 2013 when the Ganzis took the event over.
After more criticism levied by Israel and other citizens, the city moved the event to Rio Grande in 2014 with the same snow surface restrictions.
Matt Kuhn, the city’s park and open space director, said they’ve learned a lot over the years in managing the event.
“We’ve worked with the organizer to lessen the turf impacts,” he said, adding there is a $25,000 bond attached to the special event permit so there is another level of scrutiny to ensure protection of the park. “We feel comfortable to manage the event at Wagner.”
The compacted snow in Wagner this year will provide protection for possible other activations that city officials are considering this winter, said Austin Weiss, interim parks and recreation manager.
“We’ve been looking for space in the downtown core to vitalize space and we can activate that park and get some energy there,” he said.
Kuhn said the snow polo event won’t happen if there isn’t enough water, which the city is under stage II restrictions due to current drought conditions.
Tyler Christoff, the city’s director of utilities, said his department will be continually tracking and reevaluating conditions in real-time to make a determination of whether municipal water can be used for snowmaking.
Weiss also noted that the Ruggerfest and the Motherlode volleyball tournament have a far bigger impact on Wagner than snow polo has.
Israel told council in 2013 that Wagner is closed roughly 120 days a year, including for re-sodding and preparation for the annual Food & Wine in Aspen event.
Having it closed for another event there is “intrusive,” he said last week. “Rio Grande gets less impact than Wagner does.”
There has been debate over the location of where snow polo should be held since it first arrived in town in 2001, when it was first at Rio Grande.
It has gone back and forth between Wagner and Rio ever since.
“The city of Aspen should be the stewards of the park,” he said. “I have witnessed so many poor decisions made about Wagner Park over the years, that I challenge their stewardship.”
He has hired a lawyer and has reviewed over 600 emails and documents related to snow polo. He also has established Protect Wagner Park as a Colorado nonprofit.
Chris Bryan, an attorney at Garfield & Hecht law firm, sent a letter on Friday to city department heads and City Council, on behalf of his client, Protect Wagner Park.
“My client is primarily concerned about the stewardship of the park and maximizing the public’s access to it,” the letter reads in part. “My client feels that these important concepts are often secondary considerations behind commercial interests, but they shouldn’t be. As its name suggests, my client and its members are motivated to preserve Wagner Park and to maintain public spaces for the public. … If the event proceeds to Wagner Park, you can expect a very strong and public objection from my client. That objection will be supported by significant research and detail, public comment from a wide array of opponents, and vehement concern that Wagner Park is once again being rented out to the highest bidder.”
Israel noted that in the special events application that Aspen Valley Polo Club indicated it would be OK with Rio Grande but preferred Wagner.
Wagner is more ideal, organizers have said in the past, because the backdrop for TV cameras and social media posts show Aspen Mountain and the picturesque downtown. It also is closer to the event sponsor St. Regis, which caters the event.
If the event was held at Rio Grande this year, the backdrop would be the city’s 37,5000-square-foot office building that is under construction.
Israel said he is not trying to put a wet blanket on the event, he just wants the public to be able to use Wagner Park as it was intended when Pitkin County deeded the property to the city in 1999.
“This is a public asset,” he said, adding that the city administration does not have the historical knowledge of the issues related to the use of Wagner Park. “It’s a lack of institutional control.”
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