You pay to play in Aspen
September 21, 2007
A $45 oil change? An hour of baby-sitting for $26? How about forking over an extra handful of quarters to wash your clothes?Young people and full-time Aspenites trying to make a go of it in this upmarket mountain town have grown accustomed to the high rents (or the often-cramped quarters of affordable housing). And most accept that, with the exception of a few islands of affordability, Aspen’s downtown core is chock-full of purse museums, jewelry stores and pricey fine dining.It’s something the Wall Street Journal highlighted in a recent article about how Aspen city officials suffer the “high-end” problem of becoming “too swanky.”But even everyday goods in Aspen are being pushed out of the average Joe and Jane’s grasp.Whether it’s 50 cents extra on a gallon of gas or an additional $1.25 to wash a load of laundry (see chart), some Aspenites are feeling nickeled-and-dimed out of town.”It’s absurd,” said Bob “Piercy” Pierce. The longtime local said he loves the mountains, but couldn’t afford to live in Aspen if he hadn’t bought his own condo years ago. And Pierce buys just perishable goods like eggs and milk at the Aspen City Market, he said.”The rest of it I get downvalley,” Pierce said. “Everything up here is more expensive.””I don’t buy anything in town,” said Franko Peters, who grew up in Aspen but said he couldn’t afford to stay if he didn’t have family in town.
Peters spends his money on the “occasional beer” or clothes from the Thrift Shop and nothing more, he said.”What really bothers me is at coffee shops,” Peters said. “It’s just absurd.”Even Aspen’s mayor feels the pinch.”I’m getting to the point I have to change my oil again,” joked Mayor Mick Ireland, who said locals are not being nickeled-and-dimed but “100-dollared and 200-dollared.””There are enough people with massive affluence who can outbid ordinary people for services,” Ireland said, adding that baby-sitting can run from $25 to $30 per hour, and essential services like plumbing repair are out of reach of the average ski bum or working family.While Ireland called price increases a “widespread problem,” he stressed it’s “just the way the market works” that service providers will charge what the market will bear. And the same economic rules that govern Aspen’s out-of-sight real estate market also apply to a simple haircut or a caulking gun.Possible fixes such as government subsidies and controls to combat the problem are far too complicated, Ireland said.City officials are trying to expand the amount of land zoned for fix-it shops, rental shops and service outlets that cater to locals, Ireland said, and an important front in that battle is protecting the existing “service-commercial-industrial” zones from being converted to residential or high-end retail.Some business owners who own their land can afford to voluntarily hold down prices, Ireland said, citing Carl’s Pharmacy, City Market and Belly Up for local-friendly pricing.And the reason for a $3.75 load of laundry? A sign at the shop explains that the rent was recently increased.”All this is stuff is disappearing, but it’s not new and not limited to Aspen,” Ireland said, citing other resort towns such as McCall, Idaho, where city officials also struggle to protect locally-serving businesses.
While mechanics in auto service shops and oil-change operations in Glenwood Springs quoted prices as low as $29.95, a basic oil change costs $45.95 at Texaco Xpress Lube in El Jebel.”Most of it is due to labor costs,” said shop manager Wayne Ethridge, a former Pitkin County commissioner.”Good people are hard to find,” Ethridge said, and without paying high wages he can’t keep staff, who are increasingly lured away by high-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry downvalley.So Ethridge pays higher salaries and charges more for service.”It’s definitely more acute farther upvalley, but it’s a chronic problem valleywide when you’re looking for qualified workers,” Ethridge said. “The farther upvalley you go, the harder it is to run a conventional business.”And even when he can pay enough to attract qualified workers, skyrocketing housing prices often drive them to more affordable towns, Ethridge said, adding, “Hourly wages have been going up, but the cost of housing is far outstripping people’s ability to hold their own.”Ethridge, a resident of Aspen Village, said he buys things like groceries locally, but shops for clothes downvalley like so many Aspenites do.”A lot of my friends say that bartering is becoming increasingly important to them – and trading services is an increasingly important way to keep costs down,” Ethridge said.David Foster owns Basalt Quick Lube in El Jebel, and cited similar reasons for the $46.71 oil change and fluid top-up at his shop.”The starting labor rate up here versus Denver is about double,” Foster said. The same is true with rent, and the situation farther upvalley in Aspen is even worse, he added.
“Everyone up there, no matter what business they’re in, they’re paying a ton of rent. You’re working for the landlord,” Foster said. “That’s why everything costs so much and why locally owned businesses are going out.”The 35-year valley resident said he runs into more and more people downvalley who he thought had moved away from Aspen. Instead, they had just been priced downvalley.”Aspen isn’t a town of locals, it’s a town of glitz,” Foster said.You gotta’ pay to playSome Aspenites say they expect to pay a little more for life in the world-famous mountain Mecca.”If you want to live in a resort town, you pay more,” said Kym Ryan, who has been in Aspen since 1989. And of higher-priced local goods in Aspen she said, “It’s worth it.””I wish it was less,” said Leslie Bixel, a local nanny. “But I enjoy my life here so I’m willing to pay it.”Anne and Christian Rutschmann of Zurich, Switzerland, a city with one of the highest costs of living in the world, said there was no “sticker shock” at local restaurants and shops on their recent tour of town.”If you compare it to other places, the prices aren’t so high,” Mr. Rutschmann said.But the couple were surprised at the $87 cost of a lift ticket.”I’m more than horrified,” Mrs. Rutschmann said, adding that a day of skiing at even the finest resorts in Europe is never more than $60.
Many Aspen retailers make a special effort to keep their prices down, and the prices for some Aspen services, such as grocery shopping at City Market or DVD rental at about $5, are comparable to stores downvalley.Ace Hardware has been peddling everything from hats to hammers in its Aspen location since 1974, and owners have always struggled to keep up with rising costs, according to Tony Wells, an Ace Hardware partner.”We charge the prices we charge to provide the services we provide,” Well said, which means covering the high cost of rent and salaries and making “a reasonable profit.””If we don’t make a profit, we leave,” Wells said, adding that his shop caters mostly to local do-it-yourselfers and contractors. His staff is often busiest during offseason.”We try to keep prices in the store in Carbondale and Aspen the same,” Wells said.But Ace can’t out-price big-box stores like Lowe’s Home Improvement in Glenwood Springs.A 12-gallon Shop-Vac is $109 in Aspen, while a comparable 14-gallon model is just $79.94 at Lowe’s.The high cost of a happy babyJenn Currie, owner of Aspen Babysitting Co., charges $26 for one hour of baby-sitting, and it’s the high cost of living and the need to pay high salaries that drive her prices, she said.”For three months out of the year I don’t make a dime, so I kind of have to make up for the fact that I don’t have any business in the offseason,” Currie said.Currie reports her income, unlike many nannies who fly under the radar, and said insurance and paying certified staff keeps her costs high.But Currie is sensitive to locals, she said, and gives Pitkin County residents a discount (a price cut that comes out of her referral fee) and said many locals recruit friends or younger baby sitters who aren’t as qualified as her typical nanny.”It’s pretty expensive to live here,” Currie said, and her 30 baby sitters work seasonally, while juggling other jobs. Many of her sitters commute, she said, because “they can’t find a place to live.”
Aspenites are clever about stretching a buck, and can find affordable fine dining on bar menus at area restaurants or earn tickets to high-dollar events like the Food & Wine Classic or Jazz Aspen by volunteering their time.But what if you need your pipes fixed, your house painted or some baby-sitting and you can’t pay inflated local rates?Many offer services in exchange, an underground bartering system common in the construction trades and among a hush-hush few in Aspen.Marci Benton has lived in Aspen since 1969, and Benton’s late husband, Tom Benton, was an iconic Aspenite whose political posters are in high demand.”Tom bartered a lot,” Benton said, trading his artwork for discounts on just about anything.”I’ve traded out haircuts for art,” Benton said, and regularly exchanges posters for framing in Aspen. Benton even traded art on a hospital bill, and remembers once offering a motorcycle in lieu of payment.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.