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On the road to recovery?

Trying to get a grip on the health of Aspen’s economy is about as difficult as a rafter finding a perfect line down the Roaring Fork River in these days of drought.

For every statistic showing signs that the economy is sputtering to life, there is other data that indicates the trials and travails that started with the imaginary Y2K scare are still haunting us. Economic recovery has been like rolling a rock uphill – it isn’t impossible, but it’s pretty damn tough.

On the bright side is anecdotal evidence from real estate agents that calls have been coming in fast and furious since the Fourth of July from buyers with pent-up demands.

On the other hand, statistics tracked by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment show there were 529 fewer construction workers in Pitkin and Garfield counties in 2002 compared to the prior year, a decrease of 10.5 percent.

Retail sales in Aspen jumped 7.5 percent in June. However, for the year to date through June, you have to go all the way back to the first half of 1996 to find a lower sales volume than this year.

Optimists note that business has seemed extremely busy in Aspen during July and, thus far, in August. Pessimists note that Aspen faces some deep-seeded challenges, such as difficult access and trends toward later, shorter stays.

Despite the mix of good and bad indicators, many believe Aspen is on the verge of recovery. Everyone from bankers to real estate agents and from architects to construction company owners reported that the phones started ringing with more regularity this summer.

Aspen may never enjoy the boom of the late 1990s again – records were set for skier visits in winter 1997-98; for real estate sales in 1999; and for retail sales in 2000.

But barring another tragedy like September 11, 2001, a low-snow year like the winter of 2001-02, or another setback for the national economy, business leaders say Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley economy is poised for a strong comeback.

“The fundamentals are still good. That’s my reason for optimism,” said David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co. He came to the valley with a fresh perspective last year after making his mark handling the successful marketing campaign for Whistler/Blackcomb and then heading Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association for the state’s ski areas.

So with all that in mind, we offer an assessment of the current state of the upper valley’s economy in four key sectors: real estate sales, construction, retail sales and general tourism.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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