Aspen in the 2020s: Questions for the decade ahead
Ten years ago, Aspen and the rest of the U.S. were still reeling from the Great Recession. The big local questions then concerned the futures of massive stalled development projects at Willits Town Center and Snowmass Base Village, while Aspen was wondering how sustainable the tourist- and luxury real estate-driven economy could be after the crash.
What a difference a decade makes. As we enter the 2020s, we’re in the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, the local skiing and tourism industry is in expansion mode, and now Aspen is wondering how sustainable the local tourist industry can be if workers can’t afford to live anywhere near Aspen.
Looking ahead, these are some conversation-starting questions about the 2020s in Aspen, the uncertainties ahead, the choices this community will have to make and how they might shape the Roaring Fork Valley by 2029.
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HOW WILL SKIING ON ASPEN MOUNTAIN EVOLVE?
With plans for a new chairlift from Dean Street serving the Lift One side of the ski area and the possibility of a new lift and 160-plus acres of new terrain on the east side near Walsh’s in the Pandora’s expansion, the way skiers navigate Aspen Mountain is likely to evolve in the next decade. If both come online, it would offer skiers new choices in the way they access Ajax at its base and how skiers link laps on the top of the mountain. If approved, Pandora’s would be the first terrain expansion on Ajax since 1985 and if the Lift One redevelopment happens it’ll be the biggest infrastructure improvement on the mountain since the Silver Queen Gondola opened in 1986.
CAN MORE DENSE DEVELOPMENT SOLVE THE HOUSING CRISIS?
Local leaders’ longstanding ethic of protecting open space and saying “no” to dense developments could shift in the 2020s, as the valley’s housing shortage for its labor force threatens the viability of Aspen to continue operating as a world-class resort.
One solution — which has previously been a third-rail for Aspen area leaders — is building denser and bigger deed-restricted housing developments, and lots of them, in select areas to provide shelter for seasonal workers and year-round residents.
“You already hear people who are accepting of that,” Mayor Torre said. “I think there’s a way to do it appropriately. We’re not talking about four- and five-story housing units.”
Nobody has ever won a campaign around here with a “Yes in My Backyard” platform, but that may change as the voting population and business leaders of Aspen increasingly view the housing crisis as an existential threat.
“There is a corrupting and pervasive sentiment that the only way to save this community is to freeze it in time. And there is a failure to understand that if you freeze it in time, you destroy it,” said Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s senior vice president of sustainability and Basalt councilman who wrote a 2018 op-ed in Outside magazine calling for more density to save mountain town life.
Aggressive action on creating housing, combined with ongoing reform at the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, might be a sign of hope for the dire housing outlook.
“By 2029 we’ll see greater stability in our housing program and a greater sense of ease for those looking for that fundamental need of housing,” Mayor Torre said.
OR HOW ABOUT A VACANCY TAX?
Another idea making its way from the fringe to the mainstream: putting a price on the impact of vacation homes that sit empty most of the year and instituting an annual fee for leaving them unoccupied. The construction and maintenance of these unoccupied homes impacts energy consumption and emissions, traffic and labor, while the hollowing out of neighborhoods like the West End has forced full-time residents away.
Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen made a pitch for the tax in May, noting that Vancouver has a vacancy tax and concluding: “an empty-home fee could reduce demand for resource-hungry second homes, improve demand for hotels and lodges, enliven residential neighborhoods and reduce energy and resource consumption in a community that has vowed to save winters for future ski seasons and future generations.”
HOW WILL A NEW AIRPORT RESHAPE ASPEN TOURISM?
A new terminal and new runway are in the works and, though the process underway since 2012 still has a ways to go and details to finalize, the terminal will be nicer and bigger while the runway will serve larger planes like 737s. So the airport political battles of the 1990s — such as the “There is Some Shit We Won’t Eat” anti-737 campaign — may be over or may be revived in the years to come. When it’s done, it could mean a new volume of tourists on commercial airlines, new routes, and a less Texas- and California-centric domestic tourism crowd if direct flights to the East Coast come online (as well as more options for locals to fly out of town).
A higher capacity airport combined with the build-out of Snowmass Base Village, new lodges in Aspen and expanding summer attractions at Snowmass Ski Area would seem to be establish a permanently more intense volume of industrial tourism.
How will those numbers of visitors impact the quality of the Aspen and Snowmass tourist experience when the resort can’t find an adequate number of employees to provide services?
WHEN WILL THE NEXT RECESSION HIT? AND HOW RESILIENT IS ASPEN?
The U.S. is still in its longest period of economic expansion in history, but what will happen here when it ends? Optimists might argue that the local economy is more resilient than it was during the Great Recession. According to Pitkin County labor data, 1,752 jobs were lost during the recession period from late 2007 through mid-2009, but only 689 have returned. That reset, which stabilized employment back to the 2003 level of about 25,000 people working in the county, arguably means there is little fat on the bones of the local workforce to trim during another downturn.
Employment also tends to rebound within a year of a recession’s end, according to county data from downturns in the early 1990s and 2000s, underscoring the oft-repeated local wisdom that in a recession Aspen is “the last to feel it and the first to recover.”
However, employment data only offers a sliver of the big picture. Depending on the length, severity and nature of a national recession or another global economic crisis, there’s no knowing how a recession might shake the international wealth that fuels Aspen’s luxury real estate market, or funding for the massive redevelopment projects in downtown Aspen and at the base of Ajax and in the midvalley, or the broad investments of Skico ownership in the Alterra Mountain Co. throughout ski country.
JUST HOW DIFFERENT IS DOWNTOWN GOING TO BE IN 2029?
Between developer Mark Hunt’s projects and the city of Aspen’s, new buildings are coming to nearly every block of downtown Aspen and the way people navigate it may transform as a result. If Hunt’s developments come to fruition as planned, what had been the Crystal Palace will be a boutique hotel, the space adjacent to the Red Onion will be the Jazz Aspen performance and education center, there’ll be a new Restoration Hardware across from Paradise Corner and a WeWork at the old Arjuna/Aspen Daily News building, a bank at the Conoco on Main Street. Each of these will bring new buildings with new designs and new uses to downtown, while the City Hall project on what is now Galena Plaza seeks to create a new pedestrian hub and destination on what it’s calling “Aspen commons.” If all that happens by 2029, and the new planned 320,000-square-foot development gets built at Lift One, downtown is going to change in a way it hasn’t since the pedestrian mall was completed in 1976.
WHEN WILL ASPEN OPEN HASH BARS?
The Aspen City Council has started publicly discussing the possibility of licensing pot clubs in the city, though they’ve been clear they don’t want to be the first municipality to OK them. And state legislators have begun working on laws that would provide for tasting rooms at cannabis dispensaries and bars where the public could legally use marijuana. Denver already has a few tightly restricted consumption areas, and is likely to start opening hash bars before Colorado’s ski towns do.
“It could be part of this culture of food and wine,” suggested Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. “It doesn’t make sense that you can have food and wine here but you can’t have food and weed.”
WHAT WILL THE NEW ‘LOCAL’ BUSINESSES BE?
The angst around Aspen losing its local character in the 2010s largely about the shuttering of bars and restaurants downtown that had been community gathering spaces. But what if there is already a new paradigm of local-serving space emerging for the town?
It could be the new model exemplified by Here House — the recently opened social club and co-working space — and the soon-to-open Alt ski locker and shared work space. If they succeed, and more come, the hangout spots of the next decade may be something other than the Weinerstubes and Little Annie’s Eating Houses and Cooper Street Piers of Aspen past.
WILL THE WORLD CUP COME BACK?
The International Ski Federation and its World Cup races left Aspen because it demanded a new lift and other improvements on the Lift One side of Ajax, but Skico and its partners needed time to deliver. So, if the new base development does give the race course a lift, does it necessarily mean Aspen will get an annual race back on the schedule? The November women’s races in Killington have set American attendance records since moving there, far outpacing the crowds an Aspen Mountain race can ever accommodate. Is the FIS willing to give up that level of fan exposure for Aspen? And would the FIS consider bringing men’s races back in March?
ONCE WILLITS IS DONE, WHAT IS THE MIDVALLEY?
A long period of uncertainty and transformative development is coming to an end in Basalt and the midvalley. The final build-out of Willits Town Center will be finished soon, with final pieces like the Arts Campus at Willits performing arts center, a 43-unit Skico housing complex and the sports medicine Steadman Clinic. The long-gestating riverside development in downtown Basalt will be next, along with Ace Lane’s long-debated Tree Farm mixed-use development. When the dust finally settles, the transformed midvalley will have jobs, cultural assets and — more than ever — a robust identity of its own beyond being Aspen’s bedroom community. What then?
WHAT NEW CROWD-CONTROL MEASURES ARE COMING TO THE BACKCOUNTRY?
Overnight trail use on the 10 most popular trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness more than doubled between 2007 and 2015 and swelling usage across the White River National Forest has already led to limited permit systems at Hanging Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs and, soon, the Four Pass Loop. In the years ahead as the number of users grows, federal and local authorities may institute more crowd-control measures.
“This is a challenge going forward,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. “Our public lands should be accessible by the public but how do we protect them with this increasing intensity of use?”
AND WHAT WILL BURN NEXT?
Preventing wildfires from threatening life, property and infrastructure is a fight that did not end when the Lake Christine Fire was extinguished. The drought conditions that fed that historic midvalley wildfire are expected to persist in the forest in the decade to come. Along with the campfire bans, water restrictions and firework cancellations that have become commonplace in the Roaring Fork Valley, fire risk could necessitate more extreme precautions such as restrictions on access to hiking trails and fisheries seen elsewhere in the West. The valley is also likely to experience deteriorating air quality as weather patterns bring in smoke from wildfires burning elsewhere in the West.
CAN NEW PARTNERSHIPS FIND LOCAL SOLUTIONS TO REGIONAL & NATIONAL PROBLEMS?
Rising health care costs led to the Valley Health Alliance in 2012, bringing together a mix of six government, nonprofit and for-profit employers to find local solutions that the federal and state government aren’t providing. Public-private-nonprofit partnerships have since formed to build housing, treat mental health crises and address the local child care shortage. This coalition model, teaming private and government entities and philanthropists, may in the next decade be the way leaders meaningfully tackle vexing valleywide issues.
WHAT DO GEN Z LATINOS WANT THE VALLEY TO BE WHEN THEY GROW UP?
Since 2011, the majority of students in the Roaring Fork School District have been Hispanic. As these young locals in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs grow to voting age and become civic and business leaders, their bilingual voice will shape the future of the valley. It could signal a more integrated local culture and a less monochromatically white power structure for the Roaring Fork Valley.
WHO ARE ASPEN’S NEXT PUBLIC SERVANTS?
The 2020s are going to bring new blood to local leadership, following a streak of retirements from long-serving baby boomers on the city and county level and the likely retirement of Sheriff Joe DiSalvo in the decade ahead.
In the 2010s, civic involvement for Aspen’s under-40 population coalesced around support of failed development projects such as the Base2 Lodge and bringing a brewery/co-working space to the Old Power House, and through the formation of the city’s Next Gen advisory board. City Councilman Skippy Mesirow, elected in 2019, was that loosely organized contingent’s first elected leader. Who will come after him and what priorities will the next generation of Aspen leaders have?
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