Aspen’s public relations problem

Meredith C. Carroll

You know things have gotten bad when a school known for its dedication to all things creative, progressive and offbeat wants to distance itself from the town of the same name once made famous for all the same reasons.

Last week, The Aspen Times reported that the Aspen Community School, the nonprofit K-8 charter school in Woody Creek, is mulling dropping “Aspen” from its name as it works to replace its 40-year-old log building.

“The connotation of extreme wealth” has partly resulted in a struggle to raise enough money to rebuild the campus.

“Just the association with (the Aspen) name can stop a conversation in its tracks,” Skye Skinner, executive director of Compass, which operates the school, told the Times.

In addition to ending a dialogue, evoking “Aspen” can also cause a discussion to abruptly change course. Controversy erupted over the arrest of a local teen earlier this month, with a public debate ensuing partly about kids and marijuana. However, the scrutiny largely centered around the boy’s perceived lack of respect for elders, which some suggested is an attitude typical of Aspen youth. Critics of the student pointed to a video of the arrest where he could be heard saying things to the police officer such as, “Sir, I have not done anything illegal!” “Sir, what are you doing?” and “Sir, I’m just trying to go home!” while trying to squirm away from being handcuffed.

“The sense of entitlement teenagers have, especially in Aspen, is out of control,” one Roaring Fork Valley resident said. “Even in Aspen, there has to be some sense of the real world, right?”

“Is anyone surprised that the privileged brats in this video are from Aspen?” a YouTube user remarked.

“Aspen kids are those brats that think they can get away with anything because Mom and Dad have money,” another replied.

If the teen in the video acted as if he thought he could buy his way out of the predicament, however, it’s unclear exactly who he surmised would pay his way. As was written in the Times’ article about his first court appearance, “the teen lives with his mother, who could not attend because she was working.”

There’s little question that Aspen, once synonymous with the weird and wild, is now infamous for the opulent and overbearing — regardless of whether the more recent characterization is based in truth or fiction.

Would Michelle Obama have come under (as much) criticism when her motorcade sneaked through a closed Owl Creek Road on Presidents Day weekend had Owl Creek Road been located in, say, Stowe, Vermont, instead of Snowmass?

It doesn’t help, either, that one of Aspen’s (dis)own, Lance Armstrong, added yet another line to his contemptible resume while in town over Christmas. When leaving the Aspen Art Museum Winter Gala at the St. Regis in December, he smashed into two parked cars in the West End and then left the scene of the accident. Armstrong initially let his girlfriend take the blame for the hit-and-run, only admitting guilt by mailing in a check after the proof against him seemed irrefutable and the bad press insurmountable.

“Armstrong defies our notions of the tragic because he denies the significance of his flaws, so there is never any catharsis, only frustration,” Doni M. Wilson wrote in the Houston Chronicle. “We cannot control what we want him to be, and it is depressing, because deep down, we want him to succeed, turn it up, turn it around, be the comeback kid.”

Once a universal symbol of strength and courage, Armstrong is now the rubber chicken of the sports world. If there’s a flip side to his arrogance — and any hope of salvaging his reputation — it remains to be seen as he keeps tripping over the kind of entitlement usually projected onto Aspen teens.

Unlike Armstrong, there is a whole other side to Aspen and its Red Mountain billionaires, that which is “associated with rugged individualism, big thinking and the beauty of our natural surroundings,” Skinner said. Of course, that part of Aspen is not as sexy to its detractors — at least not those on the other side of the roundabout.

Still, it’s entirely possible that Aspen and Armstrong have more in common than not these days. Those who were integral in crafting an earlier version of Aspen’s story reminisce wistfully about the funkier, more unconventional days while chiming in with the chorus of lamenters about today’s taller buildings, fancier restaurants, pricier homes and even less diversity.

Yet while they can’t put the brakes on change entirely, loyal and seasoned Aspenites who have opted against moving, renaming or otherwise disassociating themselves with the community they choose not to live outside of could be more productive in reviving some of the Aspen they once adored by helping rehabilitate what its name now implies. Injecting the spirit of the old into the new in a healthier and more positive way just might render silent those who delight in deriding Aspen just because it’s Aspen.

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