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Re-energizing ski towns

Jane Stebbins

Colorado resort town officials are starting to believe their towns have reached their waning years – and something must be done to reverse the aging trend.They hear it from the tourists, and they see it in their coffers. Tourists complain that everything looks the same, that nothing’s changed over the years, that things aren’t as vibrant as they used to be. And then there are all those real estate offices.This four-part series of stories, produced by the Summit Daily News, is about the challenges that ski towns face, how they are trying to reverse the perceived trend and the successes they’ve had so far.Although they face similar challenges, the towns all got their starts in different ways.Aspen, originally a silver-mining town, was built on Walter Paepcke’s post-World War II vision of a Rocky Mountain cultural center that would attract everyone from international artists, world-class ski racers, famed writers, movie stars and other moguls.

Over the years, it won the hearts of the rich and famous, with its steep skiing in the winter and festivals in the summer.But Aspen’s allure seems to have faded. Tourists and locals complain that Aspen is losing its soul, that its downtown is no longer vibrant, that too many stores cater to the rich, and that its nightlife has withered.Most locals can no longer afford to live in a town where “affordable housing” has been listed for as much as $1 million. Years of catering to the ultra-rich has led to ultra-expensive commercial lease rates – up to $140 a square foot. Storefronts sit vacant, but lease rates remain high. Aspen’s retail sales rebounded in 2004, but spent at least a couple of years in a declining or flat mode, much like those in other resort towns.Throw in the national economic slump over the past two to three years, improvements to competing ski resorts, and a loss of market share to the cruise industry and other destinations, and it could spell disaster for ski towns that don’t change with the times.Consultant Ford Frick said the destination market – Aspen’s prime audience – has been hit hard in recent years, and other skiers are hitting the slopes closer to home, notably ski areas east of Glitter Gulch.Henry Beer, Frick’s partner in a 2003 study of Aspen’s retail environment, said Aspen needs places where people can just “be,” hanging out and people-watching and (hopefully) spending a little money. One of the ways to encourage such behaviors is to increase density in the core, which helps concentrate people there, but can also invite political controversy.

Other High Country resort towns share the same challenges.Breckenridge started as a mining town, then dried up and faded away until the advent of skiing. Unlike its tony siblings to the west – Vail and Aspen – it didn’t cater to upscale visitors, preferring to identify itself as a “real” town. Still, Breckenridge officials, too, are trying to boost the town’s vitality.”We’re not doing this because the town is dated,” said Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen. “It [renovation] makes the town work so much better. People like to hang out and do things. Pedestrian-friendly, storefront things, landscaping – it all lends itself well to keeping you ahead of the game.”We need to give them a vacation they’ll remember, one they’ll return for,” Gagen said.Vail, constructed in the 1960s and ’70s in a faux-Bavarian style, is also undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

“Vail needs a little freshening up,” said Stan Zelmer, town manager. “We need to bring it into the current times. We have a window of opportunity, and we’re going to jump through that window.”With little land left on which to build anew, two hotels, the village streetscape and the Lionshead area are all under redevelopment. As they plot the future look of Vail, town officials are also seeking the right mix of retail stores, restaurants and other businesses.”People like different things,” Zelmer said. “Not everybody skis or hikes. Some come for a restaurant, some come to have a cup of coffee and sit out on the plaza We have a tremendous amounts of opportunity. We just have to keep trying to bring those things together.”Unlike Vail, Snowmass Village has plenty of raw land to fill, and recently approved a new base village to carry it into the future, about 1 million square feet of new development.Carey Shanks, the economic resources director for the town, said the town must be “critically massed with a vital and vibrant commercial core” to be successful. The Aspen Skiing Co. and resort developer Intrawest are cooperating on the project.”We don’t have a critical mass,” Shanks said. “What people are looking for doesn’t exist in Snowmass. There hasn’t been a lot of redevelopment over the years. People want to be there, but they want to see something new and fresh.”

Across the board, ski towns are scrambling to stay competitive.”When there are external forces, you need to respond,” said John Francis, owner of the Gateway Building in Snowmass. “We’ve got aging properties, dated architecture – it’s typical in the mountains now. Everything that came out of the ground in the 1960s is shorter and darker; there is economic vitality in new things. Las Vegas, they do it there on an hourly basis.”Downvalley from Aspen and Snowmass Village, Glenwood Springs is experiencing growing pains of a different sort. Born as a hot-springs retreat for people who suffered from numerous ailments, Glenwood has grown to accommodate many of Aspen’s worker bees. And today, with thousands of skiers, tourists and commuters passing through every day, Glenwood’s main street is too small to accommodate traffic without destroying downtown business.”That’s our No. 1 concern,” said Andrew McGregor, community development director. “Glenwood Springs has talked for [years] about the pros and cons of relocating Highway 82. It has those funny geometrics of getting off the interstate, doing the candy-cane loop back to the south, and most of the roads weren’t designed for the volumes we have today.”The ultimate goal is to make the downtown core a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

“Crossing Grand Avenue is not always a pleasant experience when you have five lanes of traffic coming at you in two directions and three in the other two directions,” McGregor said. “Maintaining that historic feel in the modern vehicular obsession is kind of a conundrum.”City leaders also face the challenge of balancing retail with residential in the downtown core – particularly as a big-box commercial development, anchored by Lowes and Target, rises just a mile from downtown.The particulars in each town vary, but they’re all asking a similar question:”Do we still look fresh?” asked Breckenridge’s Gagen. “I think it does look fresh. The only thing nicer would be if a ton of retail people came knocking at our door, saying, ‘I want to be in; this is the place to be.’ “Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at jstebbins@summitdaily.com


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