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Sopris Foundation brings town leaders from throughout the West to Aspen

Joel Stonington

Next weekend, leaders of Western towns are converging on Aspen to discuss the same issues the valley deals with – energy, land use, affordable housing and growth.The Sopris Foundation conference, “Innovative Ideas for a New West,” is an invitation-only event for elected officials, entrepreneurs, ranchers, farmers, planners and members of the philanthropic community throughout the West. It is, however, open to residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Local officials such as Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud, Councilwoman Rachel Richards, and county commissioners Dorothea Farris and Michael Owsley, have signed up.Officials are coming from Telluride and Frisco, as well as Moab and Park City, Utah; Taos and Santa Fe, N.M.; and Bozeman, Mont. The director of the planning from Montrose is attending, as is the director of the chamber of commerce from Albuquerque, N.M. Bruce Babbit, former secretary of the interior, and Richard Swett, former ambassador to Denmark, will be among the speakers. The conference, running May 12-14, follows in the footsteps of five previous State of the World conferences the Sopris Foundation put on. John McBride, a local developer and rancher who helped start the Sopris Foundation, said the previous conferences the group put on were more political. The foundation brought speakers last year such as Amy Goodman and Jim Hightower, major voices of the progressive movement.”I don’t know if we accomplished anything,” said McBride, who added that he wanted to narrow the focus to the West and talk about tangible ways to make change in the region. “We wanted to do something different this year,” said Sopris Foundation director Piper S. Foster. “We want to focus more on solutions.”Foster would like to bring ideas to the table that decision-makers can implement at any time and put those ideas in their hands. “We’re trying really hard to get people outside of the choir to join us,” Foster said. “I called every city council member and mayor in 30-plus cities. I just cold called them. I also called economic development councils and chambers of commerce.”She said that during those calls, she stayed away from progressive buzzwords.”I’ve been really careful to not use words like ‘sprawl’ or ‘sustainable,'” she continued, saying that terms like “oil-free energy,” “commuting a work force” and “affordable housing” are modes of speaking that didn’t put anyone off.”People would say, ‘Oh, you’re speaking my language,'” she said. “I’d start to have these long conversations with mayors. I began to learn more about specific issues facing their community.”One large issue in the West is affordable housing. For example, much like other places in the West, Missoula, Mont., saw house prices double during the ’90s while wages rose a mere 2 percent. Betsy Hands will be speaking at the conference about homeWORD, the organization she works for in Missoula. During the last 10 years, homeWORD has gained national recognition as affordable and green housing developer. Hands will bring some of that group’s ideas to the table. “Our models focus on how to combine green ideas with affordable housing,” she said. “I want to try and tie together a correlation to affordability with how we develop our land.”Hands said she hopes the dialogue will help everyone figure out how other communities solve problems. The original idea for the conference sprung out of a need for communication between people who have found solutions, like Hands, and some officials Foster spoke to in an area like Sublette County, Wyo., which is going through an oil and gas boom. With oil and gas workers filling the 300 hotel rooms, local government has felt an instantaneous need for solutions to development pressure. “They don’t know where to put people,” Foster said. “The issues will likely be even more fundamental than we realized.”McBride, a major force behind developing the Aspen Business Center, said he hopes to share some of the things he learned from being a developer in this area.”I’m in a good position to know a lot of ideas that work and a lot that don’t work,” he said. “As a developer I know how easy it is to screw up the land. As a rancher I know how hard it is to save the land. As a pilot I know the difference.”Mostly, he wants to provide an arena for people doing interesting things to come here and talk about them.”Hey,” he said. “It’s not fluff stuff.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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