Gosh! What’ll we save next?
September 13, 2006
What a mess! So far we don’t seem to have saved the Isis and now, darn it, we have to start worrying – and worrying in a big hurry – about saving Explore.Interesting, I think, that it’s the “affordable arts” that need saving. If you want to drop a couple hundred thousand dollars on a nice little painting … no problem. There are plenty of art galleries ready, willing and able to help you out. But if your art budget is more in line with a movie and a bucket of popcorn at the Isis or a great book at Explore – well, you’re in trouble.We all know the problem. Aspen’s bizarre real estate prices make it difficult to keep any kind of retail business going. If you’re not selling trinkets by the bucketful, you’d better have a store full of stuff with price tags that start at $1,000 and go up and up … and up from there.It’s a very real problem and no one seems to have a clue how to solve it.Unfortunately, both the examples we have before us right now are a little tainted. The Isis, after all, is not just a movie theater, it’s a monument to overreaching ambition and greed. Had we been able to save the original Isis, that would have been a much more attractive proposition.Similarly, the effort to save Explore Booksellers suffers because the rescue operation is being run by a man who: 1. has put an artificial deadline on the deal; 2. will be buying the store from members of his own family; and, 3. owns part of the store himself (though he won’t say how much). I’m not saying he’s running a scam, not at all. It’s just that this specific deal is a little cloudy.But the issue itself is crystal clear. Aspen is losing real local businesses at the same rate, and for the same reason, that it has long been losing real local residents.I confess, I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction: Buy ’em all! The government should jump in and buy the Isis and Explore. Just as we should have bought the Motherlode. And Elli’s. And … um, let’s see … how about La Cocina. And Sardy’s Funeral Home, before it got turned into a fancy little hotel. And, heck, while we’re at it, how about the old soda fountain/lunch counter at Carl’s? Why didn’t we buy that corner of the store and keep serving those ice cream cones and grilled cheese sandwiches?Well, you can see where this is going.We can’t save what’s already long gone. And buying the Isis just might turn out to be somewhat like trying to revive Walt Disney’s frozen severed head – who knows what kind of monster you’d wind up with?And even if we give up on saving the glorious historic icons, what happens if we simply try to create some kind of affordable retail space? Suppose, as has been suggested, we create an affordable retail zone. Or perhaps a full-on program, with government subsidies, required contributions from developers and maybe even a lottery.At a guess, we’d get the same result we have with affordable housing, a system that kind of works. Some people get a good deal; some people get shut out; some people abuse the system. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s better than nothing.But personally, I hate to trust the government to solve problems when it comes to matters of commerce. Nothing personal, but I don’t see a lot of sharp business minds on our city council.At the same time, I don’t think we can trust the free market to solve this problem either. The last time we did have a sharp business mind on the city council … well, a lot of people will tell you it didn’t turn out well at all. The free market runs on greed. It’s great at making money, not at solving social problems.Drunk with success, Aspen – like any other drunk – is in danger of choking on its own indigestible excesses.We need to sober up and find a solution.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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