Andy Stone: We’re doomed! Send in the fools |

Andy Stone: We’re doomed! Send in the fools

We’re doomed! At least, I think we are. Actually, I don’t think we’re doomed, but everybody else does.They’re all shouting about it. Nobody comes here any more! Stores are closing! We’ve lost it!If they’re shouting so loudly, they must be right, I guess.But, you know, I still find it hard to believe. I spent most of last weekend at Food & Wine. It was jammed full of people who were having the time of their lives. No one told me it was too expensive. No one said they were getting ripped off. No one said Aspen sucks.Was it good for business? It must have been. Even for restaurants, despite all the free food that was getting handed out.I stopped in McDonald’s, right next to the main Food & Wine encampment on Friday afternoon and asked how they were doing.”We’re having a great day!” said the guy behind the counter. He said they were serving more than a hundred people an hour – and a lot of them were wearing Food & Wine passes around their necks.But that’s just one weekend out of the whole year, say the doomsayers. The ski season sucked, they say. Everyone else did better than we did. And look at all the empty stores! The rents are killing us.They do have a point. Sort of.The ski season could have been better. But the national economy’s been in a pretty steep slide for a couple of years now, so I think we’re doing well just to be doing as well as we are.And “everyone else” didn’t really do better. Vail had a great year for skier visits, but way too many of them were day skiers – and day skiers don’t spend enough money.Vail’s skier visits were up, but sales tax collections were down, which means business was down. And Vail Associates itself – that corporate paragon of “rake in the big bucks” – is in a bit of financial trouble. All those flashy real estate investments seem to be turning a little sour.The point is, we’re not doing that badly. Life’s tough right now.But how about those empty stores? How about those obscene rents?There’s certainly some truth there.Those downtown rents really do seem to be strangling a lot of businesses. When the city surveyed local merchants recently and asked what could be done to help, one answer was “Hang the landlords!”I can imagine that would be popular. Maybe a public hanging of one greedy landlord at 5 o’clock every Friday afternoon – suddenly the term “Happy Hour” would make sense again and I’d bet that eventually the rents would start to come down.It does sound like fun. But you do know – don’t you? – that people have been making that same complaint for years. For decades, actually. The problem, of course, is that darned free market. Landlords can demand whatever they want – and as long as there’s someone willing to pay that rent, they’re not demanding too much.Some people think of it as the “bigger fool” system. It doesn’t matter what you charge, as long as someone’s a big enough fool to pay it.The idea is that the system is self-correcting. Sooner or later, you run out of fools. Then the bloodletting begins.When the fool supply runs out, stores close and they stay closed. And not just a few stores. Lots of stores. And when enough stores are closed, there’s a snowball effect – things get worse in a hurry.The problem is, that’s not as much fun as public hangings. Worse, it’s not as efficient either.With public hangings, you run through two or three of the greediest landlords and – shazam! – the others all catch on. If we rely on the normal self-correction of the free market, the process is slow. A lot more people get hurt along the way and the town itself well might suffer some permanent damage.So now the city government is getting ready to step in and help solve the problem.Oh my gosh!We really are doomed.[Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is]

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