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Sailing the ARC out of stormy waters

John Colson
Aspen Skating Club member Julia Anderson, 15, performs a routine as coach Peggy Behr looks on at the ARC's Lewis Ice Arena. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)
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It’s called the ARC, pronounced just like Noah’s biblical boat.And there are those who believe it might just represent a similar kind of rescue for Aspen’s future in the increasingly competitive ski resort market.The Aspen Recreation Center, an 82,460-square-foot structure that houses the Aspen Youth Center (a separate nonprofit entity), two swimming pools, an NHL-sized ice rink, a climbing tower, a fitness center and other amenities, opened in April 2003 and is now the centerpiece of the city government’s “recreation division.”

At the Lewis Ice Arena, guests can watch, or take part in, everything from skating lessons for the public to hockey games and figure skaters practicing their routines. A weekend adult hockey tournament is scheduled for April 21-23, to be held both at the Lewis Ice Arena and the older Aspen Ice Garden on Hyman Avenue in town.You can learn to swim in the James E. Moore Pool, whether in beginners lessons, stroke development or master swim sessions. Or you might want to get some exercise in the lap pool, where the lanes are heavily used in early morning, lunchtime and evenings. Or you might want to bring the family for wading and frolicking in the adjacent Leisure Pool, with its water spray features, Lazy River, 150-foot water slide and “mock Jacuzzi” for the kids.Regular classes take place at the centrally located Climbing Tower, and just about any time of the day you can see kids, teens and adults trying their hands (and arms and feet) on the various routes.Kim and Paddy Allen and their two young children, who live in the Common Ground employee housing neighborhood, are regular and frequent ARC users.”We use it as our gym,” said Kim. She works at the Aspen Business Center, he works in town, and they both go to the ARC several times a week to work out in the lap pool or the “cardio room” where the fitness equipment is. She is using the ARC to train for a summer “sprint triathlon” in Denver.

“But it’s also a great family place to go,” she continued, noting that she typically takes her two sons, Finn, 6, and Connor, 3, two or three times a week. “We even go sometimes on a weeknight, just to get out of the house.”Connor and Mom will splash around in the Leisure Pool or hang out with other kids in the babysitting room, while Finn takes hockey lessons every Thursday in preparation for joining one of the local teams. And they use the other facilities, including the climbing tower and the outdoor sledding hill.”For the amount that we use it, we find it extremely reasonable,” said Kim. They’re using the $500 six-month family pass until they can afford $800 for an annual family pass.”There’s not a whole lot for kids to do indoors around here,” said Kim, noting that the ARC is perfect in inclement weather, “and we all live in these tiny, affordable housing units.”

The ARC cost more than $20 million in public and private funds to build, and is projected to cost the city some $800,000 in annual subsidies to keep it open, in 2006 and into the future.But the bang that Aspen gets for the buck is worth it, at least in the eyes of regular users, not to mention the managers and politicians who created and continue to operate the ARC.There were critics during the ARC’s formative stages, of course. Some viewed it as a money pit and a drag on the city’s budget. Others wanted to see it in a downtown location, or felt the city blew it by not including certain amenities. But the critics’ numbers were small and their voices have all but disappeared from the public discourse.In general, most observers concede, as the ARC celebrates its third year, it has won the hearts, minds and bodies of the public. But, admitted recreation director Tim Anderson, it hasn’t happened “without some growing pains.”For example, by the end of 2004 the city had been told by a consulting firm that its initial hopes of holding ARC subsidies to about $300,000 a year were “overly optimistic.”The subsidy grew to more than $880,000 by the end of the ARC’s second year of business, and has hovered near that level ever since. Anderson and Aspen Parks Director Jeff Woods hope that growing revenues from user fees will soon whittle the subsidy to somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000.The overall ARC budget has hovered around $2 million for the past two years (2005 was the first full year of operation), with revenues of just over $1 million in 2004 and $1.13 million in 2005.A major problem arose in fall 2004, when the city realized that the wrong paint had been used on the pool’s metal fittings, and that underwater metal parts were rusting away. The entire ARC had to be closed for three and a half months while the pool was repainted at a cost of about a half-million dollars; a lawsuit by the city to recoup those extra costs and others, totaling roughly $1.1 million, is still working its way through the courts.

The city expected to serve an average of 600 people per day, a number that has yet to be achieved, according to Anderson. Although computer software tallies the users who pay a fee or use their Fun Pass at the front door, he added, the software does not keep track of “passive users,” such as the fans who watch the popular hockey games from the bleachers, or a woman who reads a book while her child scales the climbing tower.Anderson estimated last week that between 180,000 and 190,000 people use the ARC every year, which corresponds to about 500 per day.And, he cheerily reported, the number continues to grow, owing to program expansions, new physical amenities and scheduling changes as city officials have learned more about what the public wants to do at the ARC.

“We have been growing ever since the day we opened the doors,” Anderson said, contrary to what many urban areas have experienced.Urban rec centers typically attract a huge number of customers when they first open, but then watch the numbers drop as time passes. Not so in Aspen, which has grown by by expanding its offerings and responding to community suggestions.”Once we understood the personality of the building … we started paying attention to the programming needs,” Anderson said. He and other city officials polled users and made operational changes based on the responses. Again, however, Anderson’s belief is based on estimates and not hard numbers.City officials omitted a fitness room from the original ARC plan because they did not want the taxpayer-supported ARC to be criticized for competing with local athletic clubs. But as time went on, Anderson projected that a fitness center could ultimately bring in 100 users per day and $100,000 in additional revenue. The city spent more than $68,000 in capital reserve funds, and placed weight resistance and aerobic equipment in a space near the front door that was originally seen as a public meeting room. If demand warrants it, the ARC’s fitness component may expand even more.Another modification, planned for next year in response to community requests, Anderson said, is the addition of outdoor pools, which were part of the original plan but were dropped because of their high cost.

Voters approved a measure last year that allowed the city to keep five years worth of excess tax revenues, possibly up to $3 million, that under the Colorado law would have been returned to taxpayers. Some $700,000 of that money is slated for new pools.Anderson said the city plans to hold public meetings later this year to determine what kind of pools the community wants. Construction is planned for next year on the east side of the existing building.Of course, some programming changes do not involve new equipment or facilities, such as the Adult Night functions that have been organized twice and proved popular with single adults looking for a place to have fun that is not a crowded, smoky bar. No one under 21 is admitted, and beer and food are served in what Woods called “a very laid-back, casual atmosphere.” There have been some critics of the Adult Night, such as longtime Aspen Daily News columnist Sheldon Fingerman.”I just think having an Adult Night, having beer as a draw, sends a really bad message,” Fingerman said. “Don’t serve beer or alcohol at the ARC. It flies in the face of what the ARC stands for,” which is alcohol- and drug-free recreation for people of all ages.Group use of the ARC is another important part of the facility’s financial profile. Local organizations and clubs hold sporting events that draw competitors from around the region.For instance, the fact that Aspen has two ice sheets enabled the Aspen Youth Hockey program to host a tournament last fall that Anderson said brought in 100 teams and countless supporting adults over three weekends. Officials believe the event brought perhaps $500,000 to local businesses in hotel reservations, family dinners and other activities. A swim meet last year also brought 400 swimmers and their supporters into town, and both events brought in rental revenues to the ARC.

Another important change, which Anderson and Woods believe will boost user numbers and revenues, was a decision to reach out to downvalley residents, second-home owners and resort visitors.Initially, residency requirements made the ARC too expensive for many out-of-county citizens. But recent changes to the pricing structure have attracted downvalley residents and second-home owners, said Anderson and Woods. Currently, downvalley users pay the same daily fees as Aspen residents, and only slightly higher rates for the Recreation Fun Pass. These changes have bolstered revenues and broadened the ARC’s community appeal.Second-home owners, who were classified as visitors, now get in-town rates if they own property in Aspen, and valley rates if their property is outside the city limits.

And then there is the growing use by resort visitors.”We’re finding a huge number of guests at the end of the ski day making the ARC their après-ski venue,” Anderson said.The pools, the ice rink and the climbing tower are all getting more use from visiting out-of-town families, both winter and summer. “It’s become a great enhancement to a vacation,” Anderson added.The ARC has begun working with the Aspen Skiing Co. and various hotel concierges to get the word out about the ARC, both to Skico employees and visitors.And that, according to Anderson and Woods, may even help Aspen’s competitive position in the ski industry, in which many resorts boast a wide range of activities in addition to on-mountain sports as a draw for tourists.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com


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