Story of the Decade: The 2010s in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley
Each decade in modern Aspen has a distinct identity. The rebirth of the old mining town as a would-be utopia and ski resort in the 1940s. The ski bum revolution of the 1970s. The glitz and “Aspen Extreme” fashions of the 1990s.
So what defined the 2010s?
It’s the EDM-soundtracked era of Strafe jackets and Aspen Blondes at the Aspen Brewing Company, of uphilling and SUP-ing, of Roaring Fork Swap and Sky Mountain Park and Snowmasstadon.
It was a remarkable economic bounce-back from the Great Recession. Some argue it’s the moment when the billionaires actually forced out the millionaires and anybody with less than seven figures in the bank fought futilely for scraps. When downtown Aspen’s buildings got bigger and too many long-running local businesses shuttered. A period when Aspen typified a divided country’s widening economic inequality.
But, on the bright side, it was also the decade that brought Snowmass Base Village and a new midvalley community at Willits Town Center, when Aspen got serious about climate change and the Roaring Fork Valley meaningfully addressed the community’s struggles with mental health. When the nation rooted for locals competing in three winter Olympics and Aspen hosted the World Cup Finals and Colorado got legal weed.
As the decade winds down, this is an attempt at a rough first draft of history for Aspen in the 2010s.
Pick up the Dec. 26 edition of the Aspen Times Weekly as we look at the questions that will define the 2020s in the Roaring Fork Valley.
THE HOUSING CRISIS GOT WORSE.
Despite the decade-long drumbeat of government initiatives, new affordable housing developments and land acquisitions to grow the number of deed-restricted homes in the Aspen area, it only got more difficult for people to live near Aspen on Aspen wages.
A recent housing study found the housing shortage in Aspen and Snowmass grew from about 2,500 in 2001 to a shortfall of 3,000 in 2017 and projected a 3,400-unit deficit by 2027. That’s despite new Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority developments like Burlingame Ranch II over the decade and despite current plans for more workforce housing.
It’s the main contributor to a labor shortage that ski- and service-industry leaders now recognize as an existential threat to Aspen’s ability to continue operating as a world-class resort. As restaurateur Ryan Sweeney put it to the Times last month: “We are reaching a breaking point in this town.”
After the post-recession tourist economy started booming again around 2012, available jobs began outpacing available housing by the thousands. Disruptive forces like the Airbnb short-term homestay service took remaining free market rentals out of the reach of people who live here and can’t buy in a place where the gap between median home price and what the average family can afford is $1.4 million, exacerbating the long-running trend of new luxury vacation homes replacing scraped long-term rentals.
BUT PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION GOT WAY BETTER.
With a key $25 million federal grant in 2011 and local planning that stretched back to 2001, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority launched the nation’s first rural bus rapid transit system in 2013, with new buses, lanes and stations. Ridership has trended upward from 4.85 million annual riders pre-BRT in 2008 to exceeding 5.2 million in 2017. Convenient and dependable, the system transformed the way locals move around and commute, with express buses running between Aspen and Glenwood Springs as frequently as every 10 minutes during peak hours.
By 2017, an estimated 7,500 people were commuting daily to Aspen and Snowmass from downvalley and a growing number were coming from more affordable but farther-flung communities as distant as Parachute and Gypsum.
MARK HUNT BOUGHT UP DOWNTOWN ASPEN.
The downtown core of Aspen was controlled and defined by fewer and fewer players through the decade, with developer Mark Hunt bursting on the scene in 2013 and 2014, buying 13 commercial properties downtown and since then spending more than $100 million — with financial backers unknown to the public — to buy and redevelop swaths of the commercial core. Hunt and his backers’ splashy downtown play was enough to overshadow the Hecht family, whose purchases and redevelopments on the east side of downtown dominated development debates in the early part of the 2010s and whose build-out of “Hechtville” on the blocks adjacent to the new Aspen Art Museum has reshaped Aspen’s business district.
WHILE THE CITY STRUGGLED TO REIN IN DEVELOPMENT.
Debate around new development and mourning lost buildings and businesses are nothing new for Aspen. But angst grew through the 2010s and birthed a new political anti-growth movement in the city.
The Given Institute, a beloved building designed by Harry Weese in 1972 and built on a property long held by the Paepcke family, was demolished in 2011 to make way for a private family compound. Favorite old Aspen restaurants like Little Annie’s Eating House, Main Street Bakery, the Weinerstube, Johnny McGuire’s and Boogie’s Diner closed in quick succession.
“I am sad,” longtime local hotelier Terry Butler told the Times in 2016. “Our mom-and-pops are vanishing. I just don’t want our downtown core to lose the heart and soul of our mountain town.”
As small hotels like the Aspen Mountain Lodge and Hotel Lenado were razed and rebuilt as private properties, a City Council lodge incentive package sought to save existing smaller lodges through financial sweeteners and breaks on affordable housing requirements. It passed in August 2014 but the council repealed it after a petition campaign led by future city Councilman Bert Myrin.
Voters in 2015 then passed a measure that took the power to give breaks to developers out of the hands of elected leaders, putting any variance or exemption on the ballot.
The anticipated pace of downtown development was so fast that the city passed a 28-foot height restriction on buildings in 2012 and an emergency ordinance in 2016 that completely froze all development applications in the commercial core while officials rewrote the land use code.
A citizen committee worked on a policy to ban chain stories in 2016 and the city passed a version of it in 2017, though its many exemptions disappointed supporters. The city also passed a new land use code in 2017 aimed at taming downtown development.
“This period is going to be remembered for that height restriction and for losing local businesses,” Mayor Torre concluded.
SKICO ENTERED THE PASS WARS.
Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass reshaped the ski pass market following its introduction in 2008, incentivizing skiers who don’t live in a ski town to buy in with an affordable pass to multiple resorts. Its success threatened the viability of expensive one-resort lift tickets like Aspen’s.
Aspen Skiing Co. got in the game in 2012 when officials hatched plans for a ski pass to rival Vail’s. The Mountain Collective was born as a collaboration among four independent resorts and added additional ski areas in the winters that followed. Skio’s owners, the Lester Crown family of Chicago and KSL Capital Partners, took the competition a step further in 2017: They formed what would become Alterra Mountain Co. and went on a resort-buying spree. In 2018 Alterra rolled out the Ikon Pass, which granted access to 14 resorts owned by Alterra and several other affiliated ski areas, such as Aspen-Snowmass.
The Ikon’s first winter included some local backlash against the new Aspen skiers, who were blamed for perceived longer lift lines. CEO Mike Kaplan called the griping “blatant snobbery.” This winter brings a new reciprocity program for Aspen Premier Pass holders, allowing access to all the Ikon mountains.
EXTREME WEATHER & CLIMATE CATASTROPHE HIT HOME.
Drought and wildfire were the norm throughout Colorado and the West in the 2010s. Following the prolonged local drought of 2017 and 2018, the near-calamitous Lake Christine Fire raged in the midvalley beginning July 3, 2018, and kept burning into the autumn. Sparked by an illegally used tracer round at the Basalt Public Shooting Range, it would burn more than 12,500 acres on Basalt Mountain, evacuate 500 households, destroy three homes, threaten whole neighborhoods and — as flames hit energy infrastructure — very nearly shut down the upper valley’s electrical grid. The fact that nobody died and that more homes weren’t lost is to the credit of the hundreds of local and federal firefighters who beat back the flames and became the local heroes of the decade.
Flash flooding in the area of the burn scar followed in summer 2019.
Lake Christine came after years of campfire bans, canceled firework displays, water-use restrictions and warnings from scientists that fire and flood were inevitable in a warming climate. The factors that created the tinder-box conditions in the local forest are expected to persist.
In between the fire and floods in Basalt, extreme winter weather brought a historic and landscape-altering avalanche to the mountains in spring 2019, including an unprecedented mile-wide slide on Highlands Ridge, another that covered Castle Creek Road in debris and slides that tore through swaths of forest on Independence Pass. Statewide, the season’s avalanches killed eight people.
WHILE LOCAL LEADERS GREW BOLDER ON CLIMATE CHANGE.
Political support for renewable energy development and sustainable building transformed through the decade. Sometime between voters’ rejection of the city of Aspen’s Castle Creek hydro-electric plant in 2012 and Pitkin County commissioners’ unanimous approval of a new 35-acre solar farm this year, the winds shifted.
Early in the 2010s, climate action gestures like municipal plastic bag bans and Skico replacing incandescent lighbulbs with efficient ones earned environmental plaudits. By the end of the decade, valley leaders were aiming for global impact. Mayor Steve Skadron went to Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference and Skico officials went to Washington to lobby on climate, while the company integrated climate activism prominently into its operations, including the “Give a Flake” campaign that encourages and enables skiers to contact national leaders to act on climate.
“We’re all doing a lot individually to green up our open operations, green up our lifestyle, but it’s not enough,” Skico CEO Mike Kaplan said in 2018.
The city of Aspen’s electric system went 100% renewable in 2015, with Mayor Skadron making the case around the world that the Aspen model could be duplicated and scaled for larger grids. This year, Basalt and Pitkin County declared climate emergencies and pledged to overhaul operations aimed at net-zero energy use.
ESPECIALLY HOLY CROSS ENERGY.
Local climate activists, the Community Office of Resource Efficiency and Skico began setting their sights on the board of directors of Holy Cross Energy in 2009, campaigning for new candidates that would prioritize clean energy and get off of coal-burning plants. Normally sleepy electric co-op elections became hotly contested affairs and local proxy battles for global climate action, with environmentalists winning out.
With the new leadership, by 2017, the utility was on the vanguard of clean energy development and hired new CEO Bryan Hannegan straight from his tenure at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Aggressively adding renewables to its mix, the utility — serving some 43,000 residents in Western Colorado — has outpaced its renewable goals and expects to reach 70% carbon-free electricity by 2021, about 10 years ahead of schedule.
“Holy Cross basically became a climate organization, thanks to the evolution of the board,” Skico Senior Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler said.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES IMPROVED.
The Aspen Hope Center changed the conversation about mental health in the valley and transformed how crises are handled since its founding in 2010. The valley’s outsized suicide rate and prevalent mental health struggles were already well known, but a 2009 needs assessment found a crippling deficit in access to help during a crisis. The nonprofit — initiated by Sandy Iglehart following her daughter’s death by suicide — addressed the deficit with a 24-hour crisis line where a human will always answer the phone and developed stabilization programs that get people help without institutionalizing them.
“We needed a place where there was no barrier to treatment, no appointment times, no wait times,” Iglehart said.
The center hosted a town hall that filled the Wheeler Opera House in 2014, following a stretch of four suicides in a two-week period, and launched a “We Can Talk” outreach and education program to spread the word about the Hope Center’s services and de-stigmatize mental health issues.
By the end of the decade, the Hope Center was serving about 900 high-risk clients annually and guiding an average of 45 people a year through the stabilization program.
“The Hope Center was the tipping point,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, noting additional positive strides in the 2010s like voter support of the Healthy Community Fund tax to bankroll human services and the addition of an Aspen Police Department officer devoted to assisting homeless, addicted or mentally ill people who had previously ended up in jail.
THE WORLD CUP WENT BIG, THEN WENT HOME.
The International Ski Federation pushed Aspen Skiing Co. to update the old Lift 1A chair on the west side of Aspen Mountain, which serves the race course where World Cup races have regularly run since the 1950. Without action on the lift, the federation moved Aspen’s November women’s World Cup race from Aspen to Killington, Vermont, in 2017.
But first, the FIS came back for a grand finale (for now) in Aspen in the spring of 2017, hosting the World Cup Finals on Ajax with festive international crowds and the ski world’s eyes on Aspen. It marked the first time the finals were held outside Europe since 1997 and the first men’s World Cup races in Aspen since 2001. But no public plans for a World Cup return have been announced since, as Skico slowly moves toward upgrading the lift. Speaking of which …
BUT THE LIFT ONE BALLOT VICTORY COULD BRING IT BACK.
A proposal to redevelop the Lift One base area went to Aspen voters in March 2019, and passed by just 26 votes following contentious local debate and some $300,000 in campaign spending by its proponents. Opponents criticizing the project’s lack of affordable housing and construction traffic spent about $15,000. The “yes” vote green-lit 320,000 square feet of commercial development, including the Lift One Lodge time-share project and a new hotel dubbed Gorsuch Haus, along with bars, restaurants, a ski museum and a new lift that might lure the World Cup back to town.
“That vote was the insight of the decade,” said Mayor Torre, who opposed the development. “The community is here, but outside wealth and development won the day.”
Despite that vote, the future of Lift One is unclear heading into the 2020s and may be slow going, as Lift One Lodge developers Aaron and Michael Brown announced they were leaving their partnership with developer Jeff Gorsuch this summer, only to return to the table in December.
THE MIDVALLEY BLOOMED.
A planned 500,000-square-foot mix of commercial and residential space called Willits Town Center in Basalt was stifled by the recession and sat dormant for three years until 2011, when Whole Foods Market came back on board and opened as its “anchor tenant” in 2012. Slowly over the rest of the decade, the strip mall grew into a new urban center in the midvalley with diverse restaurants, retail shops, wellness and beauty services, condos, a hotel and a performance venue trial run of The Arts Campus at Willits.
A long-debated development across Highway 82, Ace Lane’s “Tree Farm” of 340 homes and 135,000 square feet of commercial space, finally won approval from the Eagle County commissioners in May 2019, clearing the way for yet more residential and commercial action in the midvalley.
BASE VILLAGE GOT BUILT, FINALLY.
Snowmass Base Village, the 1 million-square-foot development at the bottom of Snowmass Ski Area, celebrated a grand opening in late 2018 after a long and bumpy road. The development to reshape Snowmass’ base won approval in 2004 and construction started in 2005 but halted in 2008 as financing dried up in the Great Recession. It remained, in 2014, partially built and partially opened with a handful of businesses operating on the plaza beside a massive hole in the ground.
Better late than never is the prevailing sentiment on Base Village, which quickly became a hub of Snowmass social life last winter and now includes the Limelight Hotel and amenities for kids and adults alike.
SOME RECREATION AREAS GOT CROWDED AND MESSY.
The combination of Colorado’s booming population — soon to surpass 6 million full-time residents — and the lure of social media likes combined to create a spike in overuse and tragic deaths in Aspen area recreation and backcountry areas.
The U.S. Forest Service instituted reservation systems at Hanging Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs in 2018-19 to deal with overcrowding and ecological abuse, with more restrictions to come on popular backcountry hikes like the Four Pass Loop.
Floating partiers were trashing the Northstar Nature Preserve and full-moon uphill ragers were doing the same on Buttermilk by 2015. Public information campaigns and public shaming largely quelled those problems by 2019.
The summer of 2017 saw nine deaths by hikers and climbers in the mountains near Aspen, in what DiSalvo referred to as “the summer of death.” Mountain Rescue Aspen and local authorities launched a “Peak Safety” public information campaign in response, aimed largely at Front Range visitors, that raised awareness of the dangers of technical climbs in the area.
“When I got here during the recession in 2011, the question was, ‘How are we going to get people to visit?’” quipped Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. “Now it’s, ‘How do we lock the door?’”
SKY MOUNTAIN PARK WAS BORN.
The county spent $17 million in 2010 to buy 800-plus acres of land from the Droste family, who planned to build a new subdivision on the rugged stretch of mountain situated between Aspen and Snowmass Village.
“There have been other great projects over the years,” Commissioner George Newman said at the time, “but for what it offers the community, this is as great an achievement as we’ve ever had.”
For mountain bikers, that proved true. Trails started opening on the property — dubbed Sky Mountain Park — in 2011 and it grew into a new recreational hub for the upper valley, complemented by a spate of new trail development in Snowmass Village and in the Hunter Creek Valley.
The county’s open space programs also helped fuel a re-emergence of local agriculture, which began leasing to farmers and ranchers in 2017 as the national locavore movement took hold in Aspen.
SO WAS THE NEW ASPEN ART MUSEUM.
The doors opened on the new downtown Aspen Art Museum in August 2014, unveiling the $45 million lattice-wrapped building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, solidifying Aspen’s place as a force in the contemporary art world and ending (well, mostly ending) years of controversy over the three-story building’s approval.
The road there included a public vote rejecting a museum on Galena Plaza (2009) followed by an unusual approval that came through a lawsuit settlement between the city of Aspen and a Hecht family development (2010).
Free and open to the public, with affordable programs for kids and a popular café on its rooftop, the museum steadily won over much of the local community, while the museum became a year-round tourist destination. By 2019, attendance had skyrocketed to 75,000 annually, tripling since 2008 at its old riverside location.
A TROVE OF ICE AGE FOSSILS SURFACED IN SNOWMASS.
Backhoe driver Jesse Steele, in October 2010, accidentally unearthed the first of what would be some 36,000 Ice Age fossils at a Snowmass Village site that captivated the world.
Unsurfaced during a construction project expanding the Ziegler Reservoir, the dig site’s bounty included fossilized bones of mammoths, mastodons and prehistoric plants while paleontologists noted the site’s rarity for its high altitude and quality of preservation.
“This is no ordinary discovery,” Kirk Johnson, the Denver Museum of Science and Nature curator who oversaw the excavation, said in 2011. “This is something very special.”
AND WE LEGALIZED IT.
Statewide votes in 2012 and 2013 cleared the way for recreational marijuana shops, which soon proliferated in Aspen. Jordan Lewis, of the Silverpeak cannabis dispensary, obtained the first retail license in Aspen and opened in 2013. More followed in Aspen – where they’re now nearly as common as coffee shops – and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. The last municipal holdout, Snowmass Village, allowed its first shop to open this winter.
“In the last seven years, it hasn’t ruined our morality, it hasn’t stopped people from coming to Aspen,” Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said. “To the contrary, it’s been a boon to Aspen and Colorado.”
For more details on the decade in cannabis, see Katie Shapiro’s related High Country column here.
2010 … Sheriff Bob Braudis retires … Seven locals compete at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver … Dan Sheridan fired from après-ski gig at Skico bar Sneaky’s for playing “Big Money” … Charlie Sheen pleads guilty to misdemeanor assault after Christmas attack on wife … Aspen Valley Hospital breaks ground on $178 million expansion … Scott Tipton unseats Congressman John Salazar in “Tea Party” wave election …
2011 … Runway extension opens at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport … Occupy Aspen sets up in Paepcke Park … Free taxi driver Phil Sullivan jailed for operating without commercial license … Snowmobilers, bikers and conservationists battle over “Hidden Gems” wilderness designation campaign … Ski instructor Lee Mulcahy banned from Skico properties … Ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin, age 16, earns first World Cup top 10 finish in slalom competition on Aspen Mountain …
2012 … Snowboarder Shaun White scores perfect 100 in X Games superpipe comp … Six frozen cow carcasses discovered in hut near Conundrum Hot Springs … Family rents entire Hotel Jerome for million-dollar bat mitzvah … Michelle Obama and daughters ski Buttermilk over President’s Day weekend … Infinite Monkey Theorem throws inaugural ‘Wine at the Mine’ party during Food & Wine Classic … Pitkin County votes 68% for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney …
2013 … Penthouse owners above Aspen Brewing Co. file 23 noise complaints and take bar to court … Caleb Moore dies after snowmobile accident at X Games … Belly Up Aspen makes Rolling Stone’s “Best Clubs in America” list …
2014 … Laurie Cohen-Ringler and Robin Margolin become first same-sex couple to legally marry in Pitkin County … Four locals in competition at the Winter Olympics in Sochi … Private plane crash kills pilot at Sardy Field … Nancy Pfister murdered in Buttermilk home … Locals’ parking scam nets $800,000 of free parking … Snoop Dogg headlines new X Games music festival … Tortoise art draws protest at Aspen Art Museum … Airport marijuana amnesty boxes allow visitors to drop off marijuana before outbound flights …
2015 … Video of rough Aspen police arrest of local teen goes viral … Anand Giridharadas criticizes elite Aspen Institute philanthropists in Aspen Action Forum speech … Krabloonik Dog Sledding owner Dan MacEachen pleads guilty to animal cruelty … “Liberty Salons” and Ralph Steadman at the Gonzo Gallery …
2016 … Conman James Hogan found squatting in shack on Aspen Mountain … Aspen Music Festival completes $80 million makeover of Castle Creek campus … Pitkin County votes 70% for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump … Aspen Club closes … Stevie Wonder headlines Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience …
2017 …NBA agent Dan Fegan killed in Highway 82 crash … Lance Armstrong’s old bike stolen from sheriff’s house, returned … Neighbors at Mike Pence vacation home hang “Make America Gay Again” flag … Aspen Ideas Festival offers “millennial pass” and expands public events …
2018 … Alex Ferreira wins ski halfpipe silver medal at Winter Olympics in China … AI Weiwei comes to Anderson Ranch Arts Center … Lawsuit settlement cancels gas drilling leases in Thompson Divide after yearslong fight from conservationists …
2019 … Body cameras adopted by local law enforcement … Local students join Global Climate Strike … Dogs on Smuggler Mountain Road high on marijuana on local trails from eating human feces … Aspen School District superintendent John Maloy retires following parent petition for ouster … Former Aspen City Councilman Derek Johnson pleads guilty to felony fraud for black market ski operation.