Talking business in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Talking business in Carbondale

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

Nikki Jost, director of human resources for the Roaring Fork School District, spoke on a panel at Tuesday's business conference along with Mark Gould, center, and Louis Meyer. (Kelley Cox/Post Independent)

CARBONDALE ” Business owners need to get more active in solving the Roaring Fork Valley’s growing housing crisis and other problems, concluded panelists and participants at a business conference this week.

The answer could be to enter into public-private partnerships with government.

“There is a lot of work that we all have to do as business owners,” Nikki Jost, human resources director for the Roaring Fork School District, told a gathering of business owners and community leaders Tuesday at the annual Carbondale Business Conference.

A participant in the conference, which convened to give business executives a chance to discuss some of the pressing issues facing the region, called the district ” which employs a staff of roughly 895 ” “one of the biggest employers we have.”

Those issues included seeking ways to expand and improve the valley’s work force, dealing with growing transportation problems, and coming up with solutions for a regional housing crunch resulting from rising property values that prevent regular workers from living in the towns where they work.

Mark Gould, president of Gould Construction, maintained that the region’s work force needs to increase by 30 percent to meet the demands of the many businesses that operate in the area between Aspen and Parachute, including the rapidly expanding gas exploration industry in western Garfield County, which is siphoning off workers from the hospitality industry and other businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley.

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If the work force can’t be expanded, he said, “We’re all going to be fighting for the same group of employees,” and he said the lack of affordable housing throughout the region is making matters worse as workers quit jobs that require long commutes up the Roaring Fork River valley in favor of jobs closer to home in downvalley communities.

What is needed, Gould declared, is “rooftops for the workers, instead of rooftops for the Gulfstream passengers” who come to the area to occupy second homes for short periods of time.

One participant said something needs to be done to erase the perception among some groups that “affordable housing” has a negative effect on neighboring property values.

Right, Louis Meyer, president of the Schmueser Gordon Meyer engineering firm, concurred saying the proper outlook is that “they become a wonderful amenity to your community.”

Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, noting that many people prefer to turn to local governments for solutions to the housing issue, declared simply, “The government can’t fix this crisis alone.

“We need your help,” she continued. “We need well-rounded partnerships” involving government at all levels and the private sector.

An audience member suggested that government needs to make it more attractive for private developers to build affordable housing as part of larger projects, whether through financial incentives or density bonuses. Houpt responded that while most local governments do offer some such incentives, it is not getting the job done. But more narrowly focused public-private partnerships might do better, she said.

Houpt said that while Pitkin County and Aspen are “well ahead in units,” referring to the resort’s determined efforts to create an affordable housing inventory over the last 25 years or so, other county governments need to pursue similar programs in partnerships with private enterprise.

Carbondale real estate agent Lynn Kirchner declared that “it comes down to education,” pointing to the large number of second homes and other underused dwellings as a possible resource, urging homeowners and landlords to rent rooms to workers at reasonable rates rather than trying to get the highest rent possible.

“We all have to give a little bit to get a lot more” in return, in terms of enhanced community value, she argued.

John Young, the one-time town manager of Snowmass Village, and now a partner in the six-month-old Western Housing Solutions firm, said his firm has been working with governments throughout Colorado and Utah to build affordable housing for the working classes. One such project, he said, is the Keator Grove development in Carbondale, first proposed a decade ago as a partnership of local businesses but has floundered until the Aspen Skiing Co. and its partners recently took it over to create housing for workers. The Keator Grove project is a collaborative effort between the Skico, town of Carbondale, Alpine Bank, Mountain Regional Housing Corp. and Keator Grove LLC/Western Housing Solutions.

Young ticked off a list of financial schemes that encourage private-sector partipation in housing projects, and declared, “We have to get creative.”

A panel of mayors of towns from Basalt to New Castle pointed proudly to a regular meeting among the mayors of the region to deal with regional issues, meetings instigated by Colin Laird and his nonprofit group, Healthy Mountain Communities several years ago.

“There’s now a broader shared understanding of what the issues are, what the tools are … that we’re not in this alone,” said Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig.

The mayors of Glenwood Springs and New Castle, Bruce Christensen and Frank Breslin, credited the increased dialogue among local governments with alerting communities in the Colorado River corridor that they need to act now to create an affordable housing inventory, before rising land prices and other factors drive the cost of housing out of the reach of the work force.

Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux concluded at the end of the session, “We’re going to have to realize that we can’t have everybody who wants to live here, live here,” referring to the rising tide of people from other parts of the U.S. moving to western Colorado..

Drawing laughter from the participants, Duroux quipped, “I don’t have the answers. It’s a difficult thing, and I hope the next generation can deal with it in a better way than we have.”

Carbondale Chamber of Commerce executive director Randi Lowenthal, who organized the conference, said she felt it was a success.

“The goal is to try to get people interested and active, in trying to create solutions and work with public-private partnerships,” she explained. “If we can keep people talking, I think that’s huge.”