Up at dawn and back after dark " again | AspenTimes.com

Up at dawn and back after dark " again

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Idling engines die, parking lights flicker off, and the definitive slam of car doors signal the start of another workday in the pre-dawn darkness of a bus stop in Rifle. Bundled figures cluster under a streetlight at roadside, and there are muffled greetings and foot stomping to stave off the early morning chill.

Irma Garcia steps into the light.

Born in Mexico City, Garcia, 18, commutes with her mother seven days per week, six to seven hours round trip, from Rifle to Snowmass Village to work a cleaning job.

“We leave at dawn and get back at dusk,” Garcia said. “It’s hard work,” she said, between the commute and the hours working, but the pay is worth it.

The Garcia women and their commuting habits are just one example of the societal ripple effect from Aspen’s otherworldly real estate prices. As costs continue to climb, people are moving farther and farther downvalley ” or even into adjacent valleys ” where they can afford a home of their own. People used to complain about commuting to Aspen from Basalt and Carbondale; today the concentric circles stretch as far as western Garfield County, or over McClure Pass to Paonia and Hotchkiss.

Perhaps the most obvious human cost of the upper valley’s stratospheric real estate market is the ever-longer commutes from affordable homes to higher-paying jobs in or near Aspen. Long commutes cost time and money; they pollute the environment and erode people’s sense of community. Most of the those who spend hours of each working day on Highway 82 have accepted the commute as a necessary trade-off, but it’s getting harder for upper valley employers to find the help they need.

Garcia says she doesn’t mind her long commute to Snowmass Village each day. The family’s recent move from Carbondale to Rifle means a “quiet life” and a home of their own.

And Garcia has dreams. A recent high school graduate, she hopes to study automotive engineering and one day design cars, and those dreams might take her farther than her exhausting daily commute.

Bonnie Waechtler, a mother of two who has lived in Glenwood for 25 years, has accepted her commute as part of an overall desirable lifestyle.

Waechtler works for the planning and zoning department in Pitkin County. But instead of moving closer to Aspen, Waechtler found a new home in New Castle, more than 50 miles from her job.

“I spend four hours a day traveling. Sometimes I say, ‘What am I doing?'” she said. “I’m not there when they leave for school and I’m not there when they come home.”

But she’s happy about her new situation, she said. Riding the express bus from Aspen to Glenwood is a chance to decompress and read a book, and her three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home with a two-car garage beats living in a cramped employee unit in Aspen, she said.

“If I could choose to live in Aspen, I would,” she said. But the real estate prices are too high and the county pays the $130 for a bus pass each month. Wages downvalley don’t cut it, plus she loves her job, she said.

More and more Aspen workers are commuting over the Grand Hogback, an area named for a ridge along Interstate 70 west of Glenwood Springs, to towns like New Castle, Silt and Rifle.

“Ridership is going through the roof,” said Dave Iverson, operations manager with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Statistics for city transport in Aspen and Glenwood have increased sharply, and the number of riders traveling the length of the valley and along the Hogback are rising steadily. In December 2006, nearly 23,000 riders made the round trip to Carbondale, and nearly 6,000 made the trip through the Hogback area, he said, a rise of 13 percent since 2005.

“Aspen’s starting to outprice itself,” said Maria Sorensen, who has commuted to Aspen from Silt for the last 10 years. “I think they’re losing something … Aspen has always been a place that welcomes everybody, and now it’s getting to be for the ultra-rich.

“I have a good salary and good benefits,” Sorensen said of her job as head of housekeeping at the North of Nell condominiums. She’s had job offers downvalley, but nothing could lure her away from her seniority and good benefits in Aspen.

“I think the bus system is fantastic,” Sorensen said, but she hopes for more options and more frequent buses as well as an answer to the city of Aspen’s morning and evening traffic jams.

“Some days it takes 15 minutes to get across [Aspen]… They talk a lot up there but it takes forever to get anything done,” she said.

Because of her commute, Sorensen said, she feels no real sense of community in either Aspen or Silt.

“I go home, eat dinner and go to bed,” she said. Aspen is where she works, and Silt feels like a bedroom community.

“I have some friends just from the bus,” she said, and there is a sense of community there, she added. One group even has a little party every Friday evening complete with wine and cheese.

“Most of our crew lives in Carbondale,” Sorensen said of her nearly 20-member staff. Her employer pays for a bus pass as far as Glenwood, but new employees and part-time workers don’t get those same good benefits ” health, etc. ” that Sorensen said keep her commuting. And it is getting harder and harder to fill her staff, especially during high season.

Many Aspen employers say it is increasingly difficult to lure employees from farther and farther downvalley. Companies that once thrived on an annual influx of seasonal workers are running short on staff each year.

“Housing is the toughest issue,” said Rebecca Doane, human resources director with the city of Aspen. Doane and city administrators are working on a long-range housing plan, she said, but added, “The next five years are looking very, very dismal.”

Aspen faces a shrinking labor market, and even Aspen’s affordable housing program, which provides the option of lower-cost home ownership in Aspen, is not enough to entice many to the area, Doane said. Many home-buyers choose the free market, even if it means moving to western Garfield County, over the 3 percent appreciation caps on employee-housing units in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

“It’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to give up the opportunity to make $30,000 by flipping a house in a year,'” Doane said.

Higher salaries are the first lure, Doane said, but city staff members are brainstorming other strategies to keep employees in Aspen. Anything, Doane said, that will make people ask the question: “Is it worth it for me to drive back and forth from New Castle?”

“It isn’t in our interest to have an employee come to work who’s been on the road for an hour and a half,” Doane said. “It’s the most undesirable thing an employer can visualize to have people add three hours to their workday.”

With the pull of increasing pay downvalley, Doane offers some city employees the option of working from home when possible, and others work four 10-hour days each week to avoid one day of commuting.

Brian Pettet, public works director for Pitkin County, faces similar challenges.

“The lack of affordable housing prompts people to live farther and farther downvalley,” Pettet said. And as the economy shifts, and there are more jobs available in the oil and gas industry in Garfield County, people are making different choices.

Just as many are exchanging midvalley townhomes or condominiums for single-family residences in Silt or Rifle, many find work there and save themselves the commuting headache. Pettet has a hard time keeping his staff positions filled.

The county once stipulated that emergency workers, like snowplow drivers, could not live farther from Aspen than the town of Carbondale. “But there was no way we could keep the organization running with that kind of restriction,” Pettet said, and the restriction was lifted.

The county received a state grant to start a shuttle program for county employees between Aspen and Glenwood, Pettet said. For less than $200,000 a year, the county shuttles up to 14 employees in a natural-gas-powered vehicle, and county officials plan to order three more shuttles in the coming year.

Bill Ziegler takes advantage of the service. Originally from Aspen, Ziegler left the military in 1982 and started working for the county as a heavy-equipment operator. Married with kids, he watched real estate prices soar and settled for a condominium in Carbondale.

“But we really wanted a home,” he said. So when he found a place in New Castle, he jumped.

Ziegler wakes up each day at 3:05 a.m. to meet the van in West Glenwood and the group of mostly road and bridge employees is on the highway by 4:10 a.m. It takes just 40 minutes to get to Aspen and 45 minutes home each evening.

“I’ve had other job offers,” Ziegler said, “but I’m secure where I’m at and the county is good to me.

“It got so hard for the workingman to own his own property up here,” Ziegler said of Aspen. He’s watched a generation of ranchers and locals leave the town, and misses living on a ranch near town as he did when growing up. But the longtime Aspenite wouldn’t even consider a spot in employee housing.

“You can reach out your bedroom window and touch your neighbor,” he said.

Jose Rubio became famous for his commute. The 28-year-old Mexico native was recently featured in “Mountain Town,” a film about the Aspen lifestyle, and the filmmakers focused on Rubio’s commute from Rifle to Aspen each day to work at Johnny McGuire’s sandwich shop.

“I leave Rifle at 6 a.m. and I get here by 8 a.m.,” Rubio said, and he doesn’t get home until 11 p.m. most nights.

The commute is frustrating, especially on snowy days, Rubio said. During one storm he left his house at 6 a.m. and didn’t get to work until 11 a.m. But for the same price as renting an apartment in Carbondale, he can own his own mobile home in Rifle.

“I’ve got my own space … I’ve got my own things in my house,” he smiled.

“Aspen is really expensive, but that’s life,” Rubio said. He likes learning English and getting to know locals at work, and said he couldn’t make nearly as much money in a job downvalley.

Chad Carlos recently returned to the area after living in New Orleans. A house framer, and an expectant father, Carlos says his regular commute from a rental unit in Glenwood to Aspen isn’t a problem.

“It’s where I make my money. You gotta’ deal with something,” he said.

He drives his truck every day, and getting to Aspen without hassles is all about timing, he said. “If you get there before regular time ” about ten to 7 ” you can pretty much sail right through. From 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., it’s rancid.”

Overall, he makes more money and provides a better life for his family than he did in Louisiana.

“It’s a better quality of living up here, but I can’t get a house,” he said. “I can build all these nice houses, and I can’t own my own.”

Carlos looked at homes in New Castle, which is as far downvalley as he wants to go, and what he found was “a sad investment” ” old homes in bad shape fetching high prices.

“I’ll just save as much as I can in this area and maybe move on,” Carlos said.

Amy Chabin called her move downvalley “a progression.” A sales representative at The Aspen Times, Chabin and her husband started in an Aspen rental in 1994 before moving to Snowmass Village. The couple entered but never won in the city’s affordable housing lottery.

Instead they bought a condo in Basalt, but they outgrew it with the birth of two sons and moved to a more spacious home in New Castle.

“In a heartbeat,” Chabin said about moving back to Aspen if she could. But the prices are ridiculous, she said. They’re even on the rise in New Castle, she noted.

Chabin is not alone. Many of her friends from Aspen now live farther downvalley. Some work from home, others commute part time, she said. And while downvalley areas like Carbondale and Glenwood Springs have the shopping, Chabin said, she still makes the one- or two-hour upvalley commute two days a week for her part-time job at the paper.

“I think it’s a shame,” she said. “Aspen has lost its mom-and-pop stores … Now it’s like a little Rodeo Drive or Beverly Hills.”

The disparity between the haves and have-nots is greater in Aspen, so Chabin is happy that her two boys, ages 2 and 4, won’t experience that social divide.

“The good thing about living in New Castle is that we’re all in the same boat,” she said.

Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com

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