A new solution for dwindling local businesses
(Editor’s note: This Soapbox was originally a letter addressed to the Aspen City Council members.)My name is Robert Morris, and I have lived in Aspen for 32 years. The purpose of my letter is to describe what I perceive as a problem and to suggest a possible solution.The problem is one that all of us have noticed. Many businesses and services are disappearing from our community. Aspen is going through a unique transition. Extreme inflation in property values is occurring. The demographics of our population show a growing pool of wealthy, aging citizens. This situation is evidenced by a relatively large number of people purchasing first and second homes in the Aspen area with the result that property values are skyrocketing with no sign of letup.A similar pattern has evolved in our commercial base. Many buildings are being purchased and redeveloped into mixed-use properties. This makes sense since the top floor of many of these developments ends up as a very expensive, luxury penthouse in the core of the city resulting in a large profit for the developer.The problem is simple. Aspen is losing businesses which are crucial to the vitality of our city. The shoe repair shop is gone. Several drug stores are gone. Gas stations have turned into retail space. A movie theater has closed on Main Street. Explore Books and our only vegetarian restaurant are about to be lost. The list is long and about to get longer.You, our elected representatives, are in a powerful position to counter this trend. First, we must acknowledge that certain businesses and services are necessary for the vitality and needs of Aspen. Second, you must take action based on this conclusion.Long ago, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County acknowledged that a single demographic of only wealthy residents and second homeowners was not good for the town. Workers from many professions and businesses were encouraged to live in Aspen and not commute from outlying towns. Aspen created a unique employee housing program with a more diverse population. Young and old, rich and not-rich families were encouraged to live here.A precedent has already been set, and that precedent should also apply to our commercial sector. Diversity is healthy. One retail demographic does not work! High rents and high real estate values create high-end stores selling jewelry, fur, art, time-shares, etc. Less expensive restaurants, DVD rentals, bakeries, shoe stores, health food stores, laundries, etc. will all disappear unless council takes action.I would suggest that a new zoning overlay be created. For convenience, label it “Community Commercial,” and it will cover the entire commercial core of Aspen. Part of any new development in the commercial core will have to have a set percentage of the net rentable or saleable space (say 20 percent of the total, for example) allocated to Community Commercial businesses.Council, with the input of staff and the citizens, can determine the appropriate types of businesses to fall within this zone. These commercial rents or sale prices will be lower as with our employee housing. I would suggest the following types of businesses be included within this Community Commercial zone: Nonprofit offices Movie theaters Restaurants that are in the lower 20 percent price range of our restaurants Drug stores DVD rentals Laundries/dry cleaners Health foods sales Bicycle stores Dog groomers Barbershops Auto mechanicsReal estate sales and development is a huge business in our community. The individuals and companies in this business are doing what we all do – pursuing their own self-interests. These people operate within our zoning codes and laws. I am merely proposing that our laws and codes need to be changed to accommodate the overriding needs and concerns of the community. This process needs to be fair and balanced, and must take into account all viewpoints.Thank you for your consideration of this important matterRobert Morris is an Aspen resident. Soapbox runs weekly on the Sunday opinion page. This spot is a forum for valley residents to comment on local topics. If you’d like to contribute, contact Naomi Havlen at The Aspen Times at 925-3414, extension 17624 or email email@example.com.
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For those of you who follow my monthly missives, and occasionally read between the lines, you may have noticed a trend toward a bit of cognitive dissonance and some internal conflict on my part.