Andersen: Willits growth begs regional vision |

Andersen: Willits growth begs regional vision

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Mariner Real Estate is asking Basalt for public funds so that “critical mass” can be achieved at Willits. The build-it-and-they-will-come mentality hopes that if Mariner can add a few more big boxes, they will fill empty spaces and see a profit.

With the recent approval for an additional 91,000 square feet at Willits handed down by the Basalt Town Council, this funding appeal suggests that the developer’s financial success is in Basalt’s best interests and that a public-private partnership is appropriate.

It’s not, for two reasons:

A developer in the free market must take the risks of investment, not the public. Except in extreme cases of public need or benefit, public funds should not further the profit motive of a developer.

Ongoing growth at Willits has impacts for the entire valley and should be addressed through regional planning. It should not be underwritten by taxes or left for Eagle County or Basalt to decide alone.

This valley is interconnected. Follow rush-hour traffic on Highway 82 and it’s obvious that Aspen is the economic engine. Still, what happens in the midvalley impacts the whole, and Willits has become an epicenter for valleywide growth.

In a formative meeting last week at the Aspen Institute with a group of respected businessmen, Realtors, builders, developers and public-office holders, the majority agreed that a regional approach is key to solving local problems.

Traffic jams on Highway 82 and near gridlock on Aspen’s Main Street show that something is broken in paradise. For many, this valley has been a paradise of beauty, culture and recreation, but it is now at risk.

Applying public funds at Willits to further congest the valley would be a mistake. The public has nothing to gain by perpetuating the myth that this valley can grow infinitely without intensifying a growing angst over urban levels of congestion.

Willits isn’t the only place on the Monopoly board with houses and hotels. Scott Condon recently reported there are over 1,000 dwelling units in the wings valleywide. Multiply 21/2 cars per household, and traffic swells to impossible volumes.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, it is folly to surrender to the autocracy of the automobile, which dictates traffic jams, road rage and the ugly traffic scenarios seen in cities choked on vehicular prosperity. We have a good bus system that can ameliorate traffic, if only one-per-car commuters would recognize its value.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt’s recent email lamenting the approval for expansion at Willits was technically inappropriate, but it was correct in noting a lack of comprehensive oversight for potential impacts.

Our region — from Rifle to Aspen — must collaborate, not compete. This isn’t an Aspen versus Glenwood or Basalt versus Carbondale contest. All communities within our common economic sphere have a mutual interest because they conjoin on quality of life. That quality is bringing people here in droves and is forecast to grow the population of Colorado in unimaginable magnitudes by 2050.

Collaborating on a regional vision is vital not only because urban development threatens vanishing rural character and charm but because statewide water shortages will set limits on its use and allocation — and inevitably on growth.

This valley has experienced decades of incredible economic vitality, but not all ships have risen on that tide. Those who have profited by development have created impacts. They have a responsibility to give back in a way that benefits the whole while protecting their investments, not only in property values but in lifestyle and environment, two incalculable and delicate metrics on which developers have leveraged personal fortunes.

Before rampant urbanization paves over every available commercial lot and calcifies the arteries of transportation, a regional vision must elevate the conversation beyond parochial boundaries.

Growth at this critical stage without regional vision will only add stress to traffic and other strained infrastructure. Future development should answer to regional interests with an overlay of global concerns as a formula for a smart, sustainable future.

A valleywide forum, funded by development profits and run by the Aspen Institute, could broker an intelligent future, one in which all of us would like to live and prosper together.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at