Report offers critical look at Aspen economy
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Aspen has lost economic ground over the past decade and faces hurdles to its future economic health, according to a newly updated report that takes a critical look at the resort’s fortunes and puts plenty of focus on the state of tourist accommodations.
The 2013 Economic Sustainability Report was unveiled Thursday at a spring business luncheon at Aspen Meadows, hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and city of Aspen. The chamber commissioned an update of a 2002 study that, as it turned out, documented many of the same challenges Aspen faces now.
“When we pulled it out and looked at it, we thought somebody wrote it today,” said Debbie Braun, chamber president.
The updated report offers a bleak assessment of Aspen’s economy, noting stagnation in the local job market and declining wages.
Retail sales have rebounded more quickly in Aspen than at other Colorado resorts, city officials noted in Thursday’s State of the City report, which also was part of the luncheon presentations, as was an update from Pitkin County. But factor in inflation and the city’s retail economy has seen no real growth for six years, the sustainability report concluded.
Lodging data over a 20-year period also suggest a slow, steady erosion of economic vitality, the report said, though summer occupancy has rebounded over the past few years.
“It’s not a sustainable foundation for the community all of us aspire to be,” Braun said.
The report, produced by an Aspen Chamber committee with research by Ford Frick, of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver, offered a grimmer summation: “We look back over the past decade and see unacceptable economic stagnation, flat employment levels, declining household incomes; anemic skier and visitor totals, an aging consumer market and no real retail sales growth. Efforts to remodel, redevelop and renovate are continually stymied by a daunting entanglement of regulations. As a community, we cannot simply rest on our past laurels and hope that a national economic resurgence will somehow carry us into the future.”
The new report also assessed how well the community responded to initiatives outlined in 2002. For example, the resort has seen some improvement in its tourist facilities, a goal in 2002, with both new hotels and significant remodels of other properties. However, the inability to revitalize the area at the base of Aspen Mountain’s Lift 1A is singled out as a failure. Plans for a large hotel there have been withdrawn, and townhomes are now contemplated for a key property on the west side of South Aspen Street, below the lift.
“That’s an area that just really calls out for some kind of rejuvenation, in our mind,” said Donnie Lee, chairman of the Aspen Chamber board of directors, suggesting the future of World Cup racing, which takes place on the 1A side, could be affected by what does or does not transpire there. The report, too, concludes that redevelopment of the area could assure continued World Cup racing in Aspen.
“World Cup racing demands a world-class area, and we don’t have it,” said Helen Klanderud, a chamber board member and chairwoman of the Sustainability Report Committee.
The report issues seven “community challenges.” Facilitating the development of at least one new lodging property in the commercial core is one of them. So is establishing a redevelopment program for the Lift 1A neighborhood and removing barriers to the renovation of lodging and condo units.
The report is intended to jump-start a community conversation, according to chamber officials, and discussion already has begun on some of the issues it identifies.
Lodging is one of them, said Chris Bendon, city community development director. The city has inventoried its lodging, including condos, and analyzed occupancy trends with an eye toward new development and redevelopment initiatives.
“Developing a new lodge in Aspen is on many people’s anti-bucket list – those things you never want to do,” he said.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, however, urged caution in the “gentrification” of the lodging base, suggesting that a similar transformation of the West End residential neighborhood led to an “unpopulated ghost town” there.
“I ask to pause and consider the impact before we spiff everything up,” he said. “Is the community going to be better off when the Hotel Lenado and Mountain House stop being lodges and become private residences for corporate retreats?”
The report also urges efforts to secure diverse air service, through it does not advocate paying subsidies, or revenue guarantees, to airlines – a step other resorts have taken. The report does call for proceeding with construction of an expanded commercial terminal with improved space for travelers and airlines.
“Obviously, the price and availability of seats into Aspen is of paramount concern,” City Manager Steve Barwick said. Commercial air service is an issue that’s worked on constantly by resort officials and local governments, he said.
The report also recommends continued efforts to improve the vitality of the downtown commercial core, another area where ongoing city efforts – removing the “gobbledy-gook” from the sign code, for example – could play a role, Bendon said.
Looking forward, the report suggests that Aspen harness its natural energy, which comes from being both a ski town and an international, culture-driven destination, to propel it to the next level of excellence.
“We need to challenge ourselves to be the best local resort community and the best resort, offer the most vital and vibrant commercial core, and continue to be the best option among a host of competitor resorts,” it states.
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