Their Generation: McBride’s influence felt in Aspen and Snowmass

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
After playing a part in the creation of Snowmass in the 1960s, John McBride developed the Aspen Business Center and later North Forty.
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times |

Editor’s note: “Their Generation,” an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.

Snowmass’ commercial core in 1966 was an open meadow in the middle of nowhere. There were no chairlifts or base village, and the future of the resort lay in the hands of a group of 20-somethings.

They had been hired by developer Bill Janss, who saw their value as skiers and young professionals. One of the jobs, which was filled by 27-year-old Vail ski instructor John McBride, involved lining up 30 tenants for Snowmass’ commercial square. Riding on the reputation of architect Fritz Benedict, McBride was able to lure respected retailers like Stein Eriksen and Aspen Sports as well as a handful of restaurants and a nightclub.

By opening day in December 1967 — after Janss and Aspen Skiing Co. had poured $10 million into development — Snowmass had five chairlifts, a handful of lodges and 120 condominiums. That season, the mountain saw more than 100,000 skier visits, which was a record for a ski resort in its first season.

“It was an exciting time. I was on the ground floor of Vail, and that led to being on the ground floor of Snowmass,” the 75-year-old McBride recalled Wednesday. “It was a lucky thing: One leads to another.”

McBride, who grew up in the Chicago area, had his first skiing experience in Austria in the early 1960s. He was playing hockey for the U.S. national team in Europe, and he received a military draft notice in the mail. With three weeks to spare before military training, he signed up for the top class of skier instructions.

“I thought, since I played a lot of hockey, ‘The skiing — there’s nothing to it,’” McBride said. “I went hiking miles up with these guys, and they all took off through 3 feet of powder, and I did about four somersaults. I finally put myself back together again, and they were all gone.”

Following his time in Europe, McBride spent six months in the Air National Guard. The Princeton graduate then found a job with the Owens Corning Corp., where he worked for two years selling fiberglass. Turned off by corporate culture, he left that job and moved to Vail, where he taught skiing and worked for a film company. When Janss offered him a job in 1966, McBride and his wife, Laurie, moved to Aspen with their two children. They rented a five-bedroom house for $200 a month.

McBride’s work in Snowmass would lead to his next project, the Aspen Business Center, where he still manages property today. In 1970, it consisted of a lumberyard, a telephone company, a gas company, a veterinarian and a dog kennel. Just like today, many businesses moved to the business center for more affordable spaces.

“Even back then Aspen was starting to get expensive,” McBride said.

The business center now houses more than 180 businesses and 150 residences, including a grocery store and other retailers geared toward locals. McBride said it’s surprising how it’s evolved into such a self-sufficient community.

“I thought it was going to be more just a service-industrial park,” he said. “It’s become its own small community. In the early days, we would always bicycle (from the ABC) to town for lunch. Nobody does that anymore. They stay there. People work and live there.”

After the business center built out, McBride turned his attention to North Forty, an adjacent residential development occupied by local middle- and upper-middle-class workers. Only three-year valley residents can build on the lots, and houses are limited to 2,200 square feet, creating an affordable product where second-home owners aren’t allowed. Like the business center, McBride said North Forty is a lively community with the same spirit that Aspen had in the 1960s and 1970s.

“To me personally, to put all the worker people out behind a hill at Burlingame and expanding that outside of town is wrong,” he said. “To me, the absentee owners should live outside on the periphery and let the town belong to the people that live here, to keep that spirit going.”

McBride described Aspen in the 1960s and 1970s as a “college campus,” full of young people who all knew one another. He said it didn’t matter whether you had $5,000 or $500 — if you loved the mountains and you had a sense of humor, you were part of the scene.

“There was no class distinction at all — for anything,” he said. “It was the best place I think I’ve ever lived.”

Benedict once told McBride that the biggest mistake Aspen made was failing to define residential in the 1966 master plan. Because of that, 65 percent of Aspen real estate has been bought up by second-home owners, and the spirit has been dampened.

In addition to his role at the business center and North Forty, McBride founded Aspen’s junior hockey program, which supports 350 children, 120 of which are girls. All three of McBride’s children, who are now 49, 47 and 43, grew up playing the sport. He said that the Aspen his five grandchildren live in is not necessarily better or worse than the Aspen he discovered in the 1960s.

“You’re here on the ground floor of a different time,” he said. “I will say that there are a lot of people in their 20s who want to work here and live here.”