Andersen: ‘Our Town’ Basalt skipped over again

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Willits developer Michael Lipkin calls it “our Brooklyn moment,” a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to convert Willits into “what the Paepckes gave us with the Aspen Institute.”

That’s a tall order for a proposed $8 million arts center at Willits labeled as a “cultural hub” aiming to fill the “void of nightlife and entertainment” in the midvalley. The proposed Arts Campus calls for a 350-seat performance venue, a smaller lecture and movie hall, an industrial kitchen and an outdoor grass lawn and covered courtyard promenade.

It’s a terrific idea that would have been perfect for Old Town Basalt. No deal! “Our Town” is skipped over, left fruitlessly searching for an identity, languishing in eternal debate and division.

Face it: Willits is the driving force and defining character of Basalt in the midvalley. Willits is where the action is, destined for commercial success from Lipkin’s monolithic vision to transplant an urbane vibe into a former cow pasture in a Brooklyn minute.

Willits is the currency of the midvalley economy. It boasts the most successful retail, the most visible location and the most insatiable drive for development. Many Willits customers don’t even know where Old Town Basalt is! Or care.

Maybe this is the good news, as Old Town Basalt is spared the tramping of the multitudes. It will remain a backwater where spring floods can wash over the “Our Town” park and nobody’s feet will get wet and muddy. That’s because nobody is there. Everybody is catching the Brooklyn buzz at Willits.

That is as it should be. The Arts Campus board has momentum, expertise and support from artists and developers. It has a vision, whereas Old Town Basalt is mired down with inertia and a stultifying lack of consensus.

Ironically, the Arts Campus concept was mirrored in dozens of residents’ input during the recent “Our Town” community process. An art center could have infused Old Town with vitality, making it inviting, interesting, distinctive, artistic, creative, innovative and inspiring.

Instead, it goes to Willits with a “build it and they will come” mantra artfully promoted by Lipkin. If this sounds like Willits is competing with Old Town, that’s because it is and always has been. And the Basalt town government has helped make that possible.

Willits was going to be developed, whether with Basalt’s oversight and tax benefits or under the jurisdiction of unincorporated Eagle County. With generous development approvals, Basalt gutted its own downtown core.

Willits lured in Whole Foods and then sucked in Old Town’s retail vitality like a giant Hoover vacuum. Now Willits is poised to siphon off cultural energies and complete the transplant of every essential feature Basalt has to offer — except for small-town charm, which Willits will never attain given urban predilections.

“If we build it, people will come because the need is so palpable,” Lipkin is quoted as saying. Willits will become a “new town,” a place with commercial viability and cultural excitement. A place he created!

Lipkin is the Howard Roark of the Roaring Fork, a scion of free enterprise, commanding vision and relentless urbanization. Lipkin has forever changed the midvalley, and he couldn’t be more pleased.

Old Town was ignored by Lipkin because it already existed and it favored growth limits. His paean to progress required cheap land on which to conjure a hip, new version of Brooklyn in the mountains, with glass and steel erections.

Old Town Basalt cannot compete with the hubris of the ambitious city builder because Old Town is slow to move and hesitant to commit. It is ruefully symbolic that nobody seemed to care that the town’s clock tower was off by an hour — for over a year! Time is of little concern when you’re going nowhere.

Change is slowly happening in Old Town with the Rocky Mountain Institute, Aspen Skiing Co. offices, the ReStore, a few renovations and eventual park beautification. The Monopoly board has players hopping about on valued properties. But the infusion of vitality through an art center seems like a lost dream.

Perhaps something can still be salvaged. Perhaps Basalt can build a Brooklyn Bridge, stretching from Willits to Midland Avenue.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not stuck in a Brooklyn traffic jam. He may be reached at