The newsmakers of 2011
ASPEN – This weekend The Aspen Times, in continuing a tradition started eight years ago, takes a look at the biggest local newsmakers of 2011.The editorial staff selected what it considered the top newsmakers of 2011, and like many a newsroom, opinions were all over the place. We certainly don’t expect all of our readers to agree with our selections, either.What’s newsworthy to some readers might not mean a thing to others. Those readers who carefully examine our choices might regard some of the individuals as attention hounds. And our staff as a whole might not disagree with that assessment, but these people also rattled enough cages in 2011 to instigate some change and provoke dialog on issues that define Aspen, and in some cases beyond the roundabout.Our criteria to select the newsmakers was straightforward: Did the subjects make news? And were their stories compelling or interesting? It’s also important to keep in mind that this is not a popularity contest. As an aside, the top local newsmakers had been featured in the Aspen Times Weekly since 2004. But with that publication being overhauled in November, the annual newsmakers tradition has been relegated to the daily edition.Today, we look our selections for spots 6 through 10, along with the honorable mentions.Be sure to check Sunday’s Aspen Times, when we’ll profile the top five newsmakers of 2011, along with notable personalities who passed on.So here’s a look back at 2011, a year marked by personalities of both city of Aspen and Pitkin County, and the people who live here as well. Locals here are a stubborn, opinionated lot. Issues get personal, opinions inflamed. That’s how the news was defined in 2011.So sit back and enjoy, and a happy New Year to all.
Aspen resident Marilyn Marks’ request to inspect ballots cast in the city’s 2009 election has snowballed into a statewide debate that recently morphed from whether ballots should be public records to whether voters’ constitutional rights to an anonymous ballot are being compromised.As Colorado moves toward 2012 – a presidential election year that could put voting irregularities of any kind in the spotlight (remember the hanging chad?) – Marks’ name is popping up in newspapers around the state. She and other activists, including the Colorado Voter Group, are not only pressing to see ballots but, now, claim large numbers of ballots can be traced back to the voters who cast them. How do they know? County clerks keep saying so, according to Marks.The Colorado Secretary of State has issued guidelines to county clerks to deal with requests for ballots in response to Marks’ appellate court win in her suit against the city of Aspen (the city has appealed the case to the state Supreme Court) and a state legislator from Boulder is seeking input from both county clerks and “ballot transparency” activists on the matter of making ballots public. What legislation might come forth is uncertain.In response to open-records requests for ballots by Marks and others, some clerks have refused to comply, explaining that voting information available to the public makes it possible to trace at least some ballots back to the individuals who cast them. Marks has shifted gears as a result.”We’ve got a major problem that has to get solved before the transparency issue gets solved,” she said. “We’re violating people’s rights to anonymous ballots.”Marks faults either clerk’s office procedures, the shortcomings of a particular voting system or both for creating traceable ballots in a number of counties.In Pitkin County, where Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill has complied with Marks’ recent requests to view ballots, Marks contends procedures protect the anonymity of ballots except in limited instances, when small numbers of a particular ballot type are cast from a particular area on a particular day. That’s a circumstance that can be rectified in future elections, Marks believes.But across the state, she said, the specter of traceable ballots could open election results to challenge in Colorado next year.”Someone will be upset enough to throw Colorado into chaos,” she said.- Janet Urquhart
The year was highlighted by anti-growth efforts aimed at stopping Aspen’s Boomerang affordable-housing project and a public hydropower plant as well as continued debate over a new downtown art museum.The Aspen City Council essentially endorsed all three projects, all of which are in various phases of development.Discussions over how to proceed with redevelopment of the former Boomerang Lodge property occurred off and on over several years. The latest proposal by developer Steve Stunda and the company he represents evolved over nine months of lengthy public hearings and countless comments from opponents, most of them neighbors of the site on West Hopkins Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets.In a split vote, the council blessed plans for a 40-unit project that rises three stories and sits above a parking garage. Neighbor Steve Goldenberg, one of the most outspoken critics, has decried all versions of the building as too large and monolithic, with inadequate parking.The developer, however, changed the project several times throughout the process, including breaking up the building into separate structures, reducing the number of units and eliminating the structure’s fourth floor. Still, Goldenberg and others have joined forces on a lawsuit that challenges the validity of the council’s July 25 approval based on a due-process technicality.Prior to the July vote, Stunda already had obtained city approval in 2006 for a much larger lodge building on the site. The weakened economy in 2008-09 and the city’s creation of a financial incentive program for private developers who build affordable housing led his group to change plans for the property.In other news, the highly-charged debate over the city’s proposed Castle Creek Energy Center continued all year long.On Dec. 12, the City Council voted unanimously to advance the project, conditionally approving a staff request to rezone property off Power Plant Road west of Aspen for a 1,761-square-foot building that would serve as the plant’s operations center.The council made its decision following a full day of lengthy meetings and public comments that questioned the value of a project with escalating costs and a challenge in the form of a lawsuit filed by local landowners.Opponents, many of them landowners within the Castle and Maroon creeks’ watershed, question whether the city’s water rights have expired. They also have voiced numerous concerns about environmental impacts to the creeks should the hydroplant be constructed and put into service, drawing water from the streams.As a political show of force, critics plan to circulate a petition aimed at gathering enough voter signatures to get council members either to revisit the recent decision or allow the land-use matter to be decided in a public referendum.And in another issue involving a controversial development approval, the Aspen Art Museum project moved a step closer to reality with its Aug. 16 ceremonial groundbreaking.The museum will be built on the corner of South Spring Street and East Hyman Avenue, former home of the Wienerstube restaurant.Plans call for a 30,000-square-foot, three-story structure with 12,500 square feet of exhibition space and a faade of wood and glass. A partially enclosed sculpture garden will sit atop the roof of the main building, affording open-air views of Aspen Mountain and the city’s commercial core. The partial roof will cover the deck about 45 feet above the ground.Construction will cost an estimated $30 million and is expected to begin in earnest in the spring.The museum’s board had considered a different site before negotiating a deal for the former Wienerstube property. The Aspen City Council, museum and the property owner announced in June 2010 that as part of a lawsuit settlement between the city and the landowner, the museum would seek to move to the heart of downtown Aspen.Controversy set in, with critics saying that the decision circumvented the normal land-use approval process to push through a project that didn’t comply with zoning rules. Feeling that the plans were too big for the site and the surrounding mixed-use neighborhood, opponents wanted the project to endure the normal application process, which includes a full review by the Planning and Zoning Commission.The council approved the museum’s land-use application following an August 2010 public hearing.- Andre Salvail
Geoff Stump wondered aloud whether freeskiing pupil Torin Yater-Wallace would’ve been invited to last year’s Winter X Games had he not been a Roaring Fork Valley resident.”The X Games wanted a good story,” the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club freestyle coach told The Aspen Times earlier this year, “and they figured this kid might be a good story.”Forget good story. What Yater-Wallace accomplished one late-January night in the Buttermilk superpipe arguably became the story of the winter-sports showcase.The lights were not too bright for this precocious pipe phenom from Basalt. The pressure of performing in front of partisan crowd overflowing with family and friends – or being surrounded by a field of the world’s most accomplished pros – did little to phase the then 15-year-old.By the end of the night, the Aspen High student had a silver medal draped around his neck and a disbelieving smile stretching from ear to ear as he shared the podium with pipe titans Kevin Rolland and Simon Dumont.”I never expected to do anything like this when I was this young,” Yater-Wallace told the Times afterward.”This is definitely something I’ll remember forever.”Yater-Wallace was a relative unknown outside of skiing circles this time last year. He gained a measure of notoriety, however, after scoring top-10 finishes at a Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge and at the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain last December.Not long after, Yater-Wallace received an official X Games invite from ESPN.”I grew up watching guys like Candide Thovax, Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall,” he said. “My whole life, this has definitely been my dream.”Even he likely could not have foreseen this, however – not even after all the practice runs, the hours on end spent on the trampoline and building jumps in his family’s backyard and simulating the moment thousands of times in his head.In Jan. 26’s qualifying round, Yater-Wallace completed a nearly flawless second run that garnered a score of 91- good for third place.Two nights later, he made history.Winter X’s youngest competitor hardly looked overwhelmed – even after a first-run blunder. He regrouped to post an 87.60 in his second run – good for second place behind boyhood idol Dumont.Yater-Wallace saved his best for his final attempt. He opened with an alley-oop flatspin 540 and a double corked 1260. After a 900 and corked 540, he finished things off with an alley-oop double flatspin.Moments later, as television cameras centered on him, Yater-Wallace found out he had rocketed to the top of the leaderboard with a score of 92.66.”I totally was in shock,” mom Stace Wallace admitted later. “It was funny to look at him. He kept saying, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh.'”While Frenchman Rolland displaced Yater-Wallace with the run of the night to win his second consecutive Winter X pipe gold, nothing could temper the teen’s excitement.The kid officially had arrived. And, with a third-place finish soon after at Winter X Games Europe in France, he proved he had staying power.The good news did not stop there. In June, a little more than two months after the International Olympic Committee voted to add ski halfpipe to the docket at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Yater-Wallace was one of nine skiers named to U.S. Freesking’s inaugural Halfpipe Pro Team.What a year. What a first chapter.It’s safe to say this success story is just beginning. Make sure you can see the pipe.- Jon Maletz
Decorated American cyclist Levi Leipheimer has experienced his fair share of Rocky Mountain highs.In 2010, the Montana native won the Leadville 100, breaking the course record former teammate Lance Armstrong set one year earlier in the famed Race Across the Sky.The 38-year-old returned to Colorado in August, this time with a new objective in sight: to compete for the title in the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge – a lung-searing, seven-day, 507-mile test of wills.While he was among the list of expected contenders in Colorado’s first stage race since the Coors Classic, Leipheimer was not a pre-race favorite. That distinction went to riders like Tom Danielson of Boulder and Australia’s Cadel Evans, who ventured to the Centennial State on the heels of his Tour de France victory. Others predicted that a talented crop of Columbian riders – among them Rafael Montiel – would excel in the familiar high-altitude environment.It was Leipheimer who walked away with the yellow jersey, however, after winning what many have deemed the most difficult race ever contested on American soil.”It took some of the best form of my life to beat Christian [Vande Velde] and Tejay [Van Garderen],” Leipheimer told The Associated Press after clinching the win in Denver. “I took the [leader’s] jersey, I lost the jersey. I had to race one of the best time trials of my life to get it back and keep it.”It took every ounce of energy I had.”Leipheimer’s summer was replete with both triumph and disappointment. He was buoyed by victories in the tours of Switzerland and Utah, but likely was disappointed by his result in France; Leipheimer, who four times has logged top-10 Tour de France finishes, crashed multiple times in cycling’s marquee event and wound up 32nd.Regardless, Leipheimer proclaimed he was in the best shape of his career as he prepared to confront the Challenge. No one could dispute that now.Leipheimer emerged as a serious contender early, securing a victory in Stage 1 – a 99.3-mile slog from Salida to Crested Butte – with a late surge.His grasp on the yellow jersey did not last. One day later, in the vaunted “Queen Stage” – the Challenge’s most difficult test, which stretched 130.2 miles from Gunnison to downtown Aspen and included ascents of two mountain passes topping out at more than 12,000 feet – Leipheimer relinquished the lead to Van Garderen. He resumed his spot on top of the leaderboard soon after, however, following an impressive performance in the Vail time trial, where he logged his 63rd professional stage win.From there – as the race wound from Avon to Steamboat Springs and down to Breckenridge, then from Golden to the packed steps of the state Capitol building – Leipheimer maintained his grasp on the yellow jersey.He proved to be up to the Challenge.”It’s hard to put into words to describe the emotion,” Leipheimer told The Denver Post. “When I was 13 years old, I watched the Tour de France on television and read magazines about the Coors Classic and the battles between Andy Hampsten and [Greg] LeMond and [Bernard] Hinault on those roads in Colorado.”Now to be here, 25 years later and experience the size and scope of this race is beyond belief. I wouldn’t expect this many people to come out for this race. That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the West, and the Tour of California produces enormous crowds. [Sunday] really raised the bar.”Just wait until next summer.- Jon Maletz
Sometimes Aspen just can’t avoid the dark side of the celebrity spotlight. Such was the case with the Dec. 3 arrest of Brooke Mueller in downtown Aspen. Aspen police busted the ex-wife of Charlie Sheen after they’d been tipped off that she had assaulted another woman at the Belly Up night club. Police found Mueller cutting the rug at the Escobar nightclub, took her outside and arrested her. There, they found her allegedly in possession of some 4 to 5 grams of cocaine, and booked her into Pitkin County Jail on a pending felony charge of cocaine possession with intent to distribute, and a misdemeanor count of assault.No sooner had Mueller, 34, of Los Angeles, posted $11,000 bond were tabloid websites trumpeting the arrest and looking for every new, juicy tidbit about the troubled party girl. Was she in rehab? How were the twin boys she made with Sheen? And so on.Here in Aspen, though, there’s still a case to be handled. Mueller is due in Pitkin County District Court on Jan. 23 to be advised of the charges, which Chief Deputy District Attorney Arnie Mordkin has yet to file.Mordkin actually knows Mueller from a previous court case, but she was sitting on the other side. On Christmas Day 2009, Sheen allegedly threatened Mueller with a knife at the West End Aspen home in which she was staying for the holidays.Mordkin prosecuted Sheen for the assault on his then-wife. The former star of the hit CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men” pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in an agreement with the DA’s office in exchange for the dismissal of felony charges of menacing and criminal mischief.Mueller and Sheen later divorced.”She’s obviously a person who attracts a lot of media attention, and we will handle this case just like we handle all cases,” Mordkin said. “She’ll get treated like we treat everybody else.”- Rick Carroll
• Airport runway expansion: Resort officials in Aspen and Snowmass feted the landing of an American Eagle flight at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in mid-December. It took years to get it here.Paving the way for American’s nonstop service from Dallas and Los Angeles is 1,000 feet. The additional runway length eases weight restrictions that forced carriers to leave seats empty in order to take off with sufficient fuel – particularly in hot weather, but during the winter months, as well.”We couldn’t make the numbers work prior to that 1,000 feet,” said Gary Foss, vice president of planning and marketing for AmericanAirlines.The $15.4 million runway project, paid for primarily with Federal Aviation Administration funds, entered the planning and environmental process in 2004. Construction took place this year, finishing in time for ski season. The added length doesn’t open the airport to larger jets – weight and wing-span limits are unchanged – but resort officials have long hoped the project would open the airport to more regional service and, potentially, different types of regional jets.The runway, now 8,000 feet long, has an added benefit for aviation fans. The new pavement on the south end of the runway gives passersby on Highway 82 a much improved view of aircraft of all types as pilots taxi into position for takeoff.- Janet Urquhart• PUC gets it Phil: He wasn’t exactly a political prisoner, but Woody Creek resident Philip Sullivan spent a week in Pitkin County Jail in March for taking a stand against the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.The reason: Sullivan, 75, violated Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols’ order for him to stop taking tips from passengers via his so-called free-taxi service, which he operated without a commercial carrier’s license.The PUC had been on Sullivan’s case for the last few years and had taken him to court, where twice Nichols found him guilty of violating her injunction, issued in 2010.Sullivan never denied he violated the order. In fact, shortly after he was released from jail – Nichols sentenced him to 10 days but he got out early for good behavior – Sullivan was back on the streets again in his Kia mini van. And once again the PUC, like it had done in the past, enlisted an undercover agent to take a ride from Sullivan – and pay him a cash tip. In June, he was busted again by the PUC for taking tips under the table.Faced with even more time behind bars after the June sting, in October Sullivan finally found legal representation – New Orleans barrister Rob Couhig Jr., who took the case free of charge.Couhig is trying to alter Nichols’ order that bans him from taking tips, by asking the court to allow Sullivan to continue taking tips for rides on the understanding that he drives for charitable purposes. Nichols is expected to rule on that motion Jan. 20, the sentencing date for Sullivan’s June violation.”I still can’t get over the fact that the court says I can’t give people a free ride home,” Sullivan said. “But about the nonprofit … I will think about it.”- Rick Carroll• Base Village in Snowmass: It took a single bid of $138 million, made at a foreclosure sale Nov. 16 on the steps of the Pitkin County Courthouse, to put the future of the Base Village in Snowmass into the hands of a consortium of four European banks.The group of banks took over the ownership of the Base Village, which most recently had been owned by Base Village Owner LLC, a division of New York-based Related Co. But Related bailed on the project in 2009 after it had defaulted on a $520 loan from the very four banks that foreclosed on the project. The banks officially claimed ownership of Snowmass Base Village on Dec. 1. In the meantime, Lowe Enterprise Real Estate Services will manage the Base Village next month, when it’s expected to emerge from receivership.- Aspen Times staff• John Maloy, superintendent, Aspen School District: Education was a hot-button topic across the nation in 2011, and the Aspen School District – with Superintendent John Maloy as its leader and public face – didn’t escape the heat. Good and bad, it seems the local schools were in the news more this past year than in recent memory. A few headlines come to mind:• the months-long debate over a proposed switch to a year-round or modified school calendar;• a move to disenroll out-of-district students who falsified residency to attend the Aspen schools;• devastating budget cuts at the state level, which trickled down to less severe ones locally – for now;• the appointment of a new director for the Aspen Education Foundation, the district’s nonprofit fundraising arm that will likely play a key role as funding challenges grow;• a board of education election that saw three candidates vie for two seats, with Sheila Wills and Sandra Peirce (her husband Fred was forced to step down due to term limits) winning;• the abrupt resignation of Aspen High School Principal Art Abelmann after only 16 months on the job;• and the district being accredited “with distinction” by the Colorado Department of Education, one of only a handful of districts so-named.For these reasons, and countless others that affect the 1,700-plus Aspen schoolchildren and their families, we believe Maloy deserves an honorable mention as 2011 Newsmaker of the Year.- Jeanne McGovern• Renaissance at Willits: The resurrection of the Willits Town Center project in Basalt and the re-signing of Whole Foods Market as the anchor tenant salvaged the economic forecast in the midvalley in 2011.Willits Town Center, which has approvals for a mix of about 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space, was dead in the water starting in September 2008. Chicago-based developer Joseph Freed and Associates (JFA) ran out of financing so construction stalled after part of the foundation for the grocery store was completed. Whole Foods Market had signed a lease for a 44,000-square-foot store.JFA lost control of a major portion of the project through a foreclosure by its lender, Bank of America. The project sat untouched for about a year until a subsidiary of Mariner Wealth Advisors of Kansas City emerged in May to acquire the bulk of the property.The second big break for the project was Whole Foods Market’s willingness to stick with plans to build in the Roaring Fork Valley despite the woes of the Willits developer. Insiders credit Will Paradise, Whole Foods vice president for the Rocky Mountain Region, for sticking with the Basalt store and convincing the supermarket chain’s development committee to do the same. Whole Foods signed a new lease for a downsized store of nearly 27,000 square feet in July 2011. It’s supposed to open in July 2012.The Basalt store will be the first market Whole Foods has built in a mountain market. (It acquired a Wild Oats in Park City, Utah.) The opening of the Basalt store is being viewed as an experiment to see if mountain regions, with their smaller populations, can be successful for a boutique market.- Scott Condon
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