Aspen Times editorial: Lessons learned from the Gorsuch flip

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to remove/amend statements that do not meet The Aspen Times’ standards for accuracy, fairness and objectivity in its news reporting. The Aspen Times regrets such mistakes and works to correct them promptly.

There’s a reason residents are suspicious of developers who shamelessly gush about how their latest endeavor will lift Aspen to new heights. Just look at the recent $76.25 million flip of the nearly 1 acre of Aspen Mountain land previously slated for the future Gorsuch Haus.

In a deal most of us didn’t see coming — at least regarding the price tag — Norway Island LLC, which bought the same property in July 2021 for $10 million from Aspen Skiing Co., walked away with a handsome profit when it sold the parcel to a limited liability company controlled by Miami-based OKO Group, which is run by billionaire Vladislav Doronin.

The deal made the Norway Island team look like business-savvy geniuses in some regards. For even in Aspen’s real estate market, this was a head-spinning transaction where the seller flipped the property for more than seven times what it paid for it just seven-and-a-half months earlier.

Give them credit for striking such a lucrative deal. And that’s where the credit begins and ends.

The Norway Island team of Jim DeFrancia, Jeff Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson campaigned in the March 2019 election with such zeal and conviction that the community would be proud of their hotel project because this wasn’t some know-it-all outside developer coming in to conquer Aspen. The community would be proud because this trio had strong Aspen ties and understood the town’s affinity for skiing and its desire to reinvigorate the western portal of Aspen Mountain. Bearing the surname that belongs to a family with a rich Colorado history in ski racing and ski apparel, the Gorsuch Haus had a nice ring to it.

Let’s also remember that enough Aspen voters were won over by those campaign promises in a contest decided by just 26 votes regarding the Lift One Corridor improvement proposal. The election was tight, but there is no question the Aspen voters who favored the project believed it would be built by people who respect and understand Aspen’s fascinating history because they have lived and skied here themselves.

The victors were elated. The Lift One Corridor proposal and win at the polls came after more than a decade in the making, and it was the result of negotiations among the Gorsuch Haus team, the Lift One Lodge team, Aspen Skiing Co. and city representatives.

One of the proposal’s strong selling points was the replacement for the aging Lift 1A down the mountain another 500 feet from its current lower terminal to Dean Street. All told, the development would include about 320,000 square feet of lodge and commercial space and a ski museum the Aspen Historical Society would operate. The 64,000-square-foot Gorsuch Haus would have 81 rooms, the 107,000-square foot Lift One Lodge would include hotel rooms, fractional units and whole-ownership residences.

Yet the Lift One and Gorsuch groups didn’t always see eye to eye. That became evident in July 2019 when the Lift One group said it planned to withdraw its commitment due to concerns that the Gorsuch Haus developers weren’t in it for the long haul.

Fronted by Jason Grosfeld of Los Angeles and hoteliers Aaron and Michael Brown, the Lift One team said because the Gorsuch Haus project “is being marketed for sale, we have no way of knowing who the buyer will be, when or whether a sale will close, or whether the new owner will share Lift One Lodge’s level of commitment to the project,” according to a letter from Lift One’s attorney to city officials at the time. Instead, using previous entitlements they would build their own hotel, separate from the Lift One Corridor project.

The Gorsuch team met the announcement with dismay and in a prepared statement said, “Aspen’s voters approved a great plan with so many community benefits — a Ski History Museum, a great park, a new lift in town, and dining and lodging where it belongs. We urge the Browns to recommit to this fantastic vision for the community’s future.”

Jeff Gorsuch also expressed his displeasure with the decision: “I think it’s a shame for the voters, and it’s a shame for the community.”

By the end of the year, both sides had patched things up and the Lift One group decided to stay on board with the partnership.

Now it turns out the Lift One team was right all along. Only they know what they are doing next with the Lift One Corridor improvement project, and they also own a piece of Aspen Mountain property that has likely escalated in value since January. The Gorsuch team will tell you they saw the project through with all of their gritty land-use work and campaigning and public outreach, and the public will appreciate the outcome under the new ownership.

But that’s only half of the truth, and unfortunately Aspen voters had to learn the hard way. By selling their community-approved project to the highest bidder with no ties to Aspen, the Gorsuch team’s actions demonstrated why the public can be wary of developers and skeptical of their promises. But there’s a teachable moment from all of this for the Aspen electorate: The next time a proposal of this magnitude goes to the ballot box, don’t forget the Gorsuch team’s vanishing act, and let it inform your vote.