Skico: Housing efforts blessed, cursed by politics |

Skico: Housing efforts blessed, cursed by politics

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at how the Aspen Skiing Co. stacks up with other ski area operators in Colorado in providing employee housing.

Aspen Skiing Co. officials acknowledge they haven’t built as much employee housing as some other ski area operators in Colorado, but they claim there are a couple of good reasons for it.

The upper valley’s political process has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to housing issues for the valley’s largest employer, according to Bill Kane, Skico vice president of planning and development.

The blessing is that the upper valley has dealt with housing issues for nearly 25 years.

“We’ve had a Housing Authority effort ongoing since 1975. Other resorts haven’t,” Kane noted.

The curse, he said, is that bickering among special interest groups has essentially paralyzed the process of approving new employee housing projects in recent years.

“The delivery of housing is much more hellacious here,” he said. Lags behind competitors When dorm units at Aspen Highlands Village become available, starting this fall, the Skico will have 106 housing units available for 142 employees.

The Aspen Times discovered in a survey that five of seven major resorts in the state provide more housing for employees than the Skico. Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge, Steamboat and Winter Park all provide more.

But Kane said a fair comparison must look beyond the resort operators and at the surrounding communities. The governments of Aspen and Pitkin County have taken much of the local initiative in addressing affordable housing concerns, he said.

In fact, the local Housing Authority is recognized as a leader and its programs studied as a model for other resorts. Kane noted that the Housing Authority has about 2,000 units under its ownership or supervisory umbrella.

With the governments taking the initiative and tax funds being funneled into its programs, much of the pressure was removed from employers in the Aspen area for providing housing. Government subsidized housing has benefited the Skico and virtually every other local business.

Other ski area operators haven’t had the benefit of a government housing program, so they were forced to tackle housing themselves. Vail and Eagle County, for example, are years behind Aspen and Pitkin County in housing efforts.

So it comes as little surprise that Vail Resorts Inc. has housing for 1,500 employees in Vail and Beaver Creek – significantly more than the Skico. Seasonal need Where the Skico hasn’t benefited greatly from the Housing Authority’s efforts is in seasonal housing, said Kane. The authority has focused on long-term rental and sales units. The Skico’s biggest need is seasonal housing.

Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources, has noted on several occasions that his recruiters have had little trouble spurring interest in Aspen among prospective employees. They run into trouble when the prospects learn no housing is available.

If he had housing to offer, Laing previously said, he could fill virtually every opening with a qualified candidate.

The Skico has stepped up to try to answer the need for seasonal housing, but that’s when it has run into the curse of Aspen’s highly politicized process, according to Kane.

More often than not, employee housing projects have been shot down in recent years due to opposition from neighbors, Kane said. It has affected the governments’ own projects as well as those proposed by the Skico.

Kane and Skico spokeswoman Rose Abello both stressed that Aspen’s level of public debate and scrutiny is probably greater than that of any other resort community. Building housing at other ski towns isn’t as complicated, time-consuming or costly as it is in Aspen. Stuck in the system The Skico has three projects in the local government review system that, if approved, would more than quadruple the number of employees it can house.

After several months of preapplication consultations with Pitkin County and the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Buttermilk master plan was submitted to the county in January 1999. That plan includes 73 employee housing units for 185 employees at the Buttermilk base.

Under review by the town of Snowmass Village is a Skico application for the Snowmass Lodge and Club, which includes 60 housing units for 160 employees.

The Skico is also negotiating a partnership with the town for a project called the Draw at Snowmass, which includes 50 units for 150 employees.

If approved, the Skico could end up with 289 housing units for an estimated 637 employees. That would make the company one of the most aggressive in Colorado in housing its workers.

But did the Skico wait too long before responding to the affordable housing crisis in the valley?

Kane, who has been with the company for less than four years, said he wouldn’t second guess his predecessors. With the benefit of hindsight, he said, “you can always say, yeah, sure, we should have started sooner.”

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