Guest commentary: A waste of money | AspenTimes.com

Guest commentary: A waste of money

Bruce Etkin
Guest Commentary

How much city money can be wasted proving we really like small government — $10 million, $20 million?

That’s the essential question facing the city when it decides whether the present Armory/City Hall building should be repurposed at no public cost for community uses per last fall’s election or remodeled as part of a multi-building plan to scatter city offices on multiple sites.

Last fall, the voters endorsed the concept of using the Armory — as it had been used for more than 50 years — as a shared community space open to groups small and large for meetings, dances, lectures, science shows and celebrations. I pledged the voters $100,000 to explore this concept with the many local groups that perform, entertain and enlighten us on a small scale, too small to warrant such venues as the Wheeler Opera House but important enough to bring diversity and vitality to a downtown that already has too many exclusive or closed-up spaces after 5 p.m.

No one contests that the city needs to replace space currently being leased in basements and off alleys by city departments. Some of that space is going away; other leases are not being renewed. The question is whether the Armory should be remodeled at public expense as part of that project, with the rest of the offices housed in another building or buildings, or whether the city should at least explore a privately funded remodel of the building for community purposes.

Make no doubt, retaining the Armory as City Hall would be more expensive in both the near term and the long term than consolidating city offices on a single site. Not even the critics of our proposal can support playing musical buildings over the next decade by remodeling the Old Power House for office space, shifting the city offices to that space while a new building is built for some of them, remodeling the Armory for city space and then moving back.

All of that shuffling would not avert the need for a new building, but it would just make it a bit smaller. The estimated additional cost of playing musical buildings and embarking on two remodels is about $10 million more than just building one larger building. Spreading the offices among multiple buildings also creates another $10 million in inefficiencies over the life of the building by requiring staff and the public to move back and forth for meetings.

Our alternative proposal commits to raising money for the Armory remodel from individuals and groups, sparing the public the expense of a needed remodel.

Best of all, a remodeled Armory would bring vitality to downtown by serving small citizen groups that are just getting started and can’t compete with world-class acts for space at the larger venues. Imagine a local performer bringing live music, an art show comparable to the beloved Roaring Fork Open of years past, an adaption of Shakespeare, a youth sports-team banquet, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a Girl Scout meeting, a new author’s reading or a science weekend with demonstrations and workshops.

We estimate there are about 50 or more local groups that could share the space and keep the lights on at night in the offseason.

We hope the City Council will honor the voters’ desire at least to explore having a vital community space that actually serves small-town character rather than throw away millions on a misconceived symbol of “small” government.

Bruce Etkin lives in Aspen.


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