The Skico did well to heed local opinion on Buttermilk
For the second time in one season, the Aspen Skiing Co. this week has shown it has the capacity to listen and learn from community reactions to its policies.
At the Skico offices, this declaration undoubtedly is being received as nothing new, since the Skico sees itself as a reasonable institution that welcomes and pays attention to community sentiment.
But for the average skier/worker on the street, what happened this week was, if not startling, then at least a pleasant surprise.
On Wednesday, the Skico declared that it will drop its plan to expand the Buttermilk ski area by roughly 100 acres along its westernmost boundary, into a wooded, gently sloped area that separates the West Buttermilk runs from the cherished area known as the “Sugar Bowls.”
The Skico had been planning to install a new lift reaching high on the ridge that tops Buttermilk Mountain to serve the new terrain. The plan would have added between 20 and 50 skiable acres to the existing West Buttermilk acreage.
When the expansion was first announced there was little reaction in town, until people realized that the move might threaten the quietly beautiful area of the Sugar Bowls.
Once the realization set in, a citizens’ group formed to fight the Skico’s plans, arguing that the terrain gained would not be worth the incursion into what is now a relatively untrammeled area. The Bowls are a favorite spot for backcountry enthusiasts who need a quick fix. And besides, the new terrain would be low-intermediate skiing at best. There already is plenty of that on Buttermilk Mountain, and it is underutilized terrain as it is.
The Skico, to its credit, re-examined its priorities and decided the project wasn’t worth the fight that was bound to ensue. With little fanfare, Skico officials let it be known they were dropping the expansion plans.
This decision is not the first such reversal made by the Skico this season. Back in November, when the company opened the slopes early because of ample snowfall, a howl went up among locals when it was understood that only Premier Pass holders (or Front Range residents who bought a special lodging-lift ticket package) would be allowed on the slopes without paying a $29 early-season ticket price.
Skico CEO Pat O’Donnell, after being made aware of the depth of local unhappiness over the situation, reversed the policy and opened the slopes up to holders of any “picture pass” (one- or two-day passes included) for only $15 a ticket. It wasn’t a complete concession, to be sure, but the company at least met its local clientele halfway.
We criticize the Skico in this space on a regular basis, and we never hesitate to do so when we feel our criticism is warranted by company polices or practices that are perceived to go against the best interests of the local population.
So it is only fitting that, when the company shows it is listening to its local constituents and is willing to accommodate local preferences and desires, we should make note of that as well.
To be sure, as Skico officials admitted, there was not much at stake in the plan to expand the West Buttermilk terrain, so they weren’t giving up much when they decided to abandon their designs in the face of public opposition.
But it would have been easy – and, under past administrations, it would have been expected – for the company to dig in its heels and refuse to change plans just because there was opposition. We are fortunate that such macho posturing is no longer an automatic reflex.
There is still tension between the town and the company and, indeed, this tension is probably healthy. Aspen never will be, never should be, a “company town.” Given that tension, fighting will be inevitable – so we should certainly welcome the fact that this particular potential fight was avoided.
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