Preserve a mix of economic cultures
Amidst the many problems confronting Aspen and Pitkin County, it’s easy to lose sight of how good life is here in the CEO sponsored socialist worker’s paradise.When we’re not skiing on world class Nordic trails, watching hockey at an NHL quality rink, attending a lecture by a renown authority in science or health or fishing the gold medal streams, we’re generally focused as a community on the bad stuff: big city traffic, loss of community and the gentrification of our retail sector that threatens to leave us a vapid, sterile imitation Rodeo Drive.It’s human nature and journalism to ask what’s wrong and take what’s right as a given. Back when I was an elected official (it seems like yesterday), it wasn’t too often that the room was filled with citizens who had taken time out to tell us what a great job we were doing.For me, the big issue is and has been not whether this place is wonderful. It is. The real issue is whether others will have the chance my generation had to get here with little, contribute something and get back a lot.That makes me a sort of social environmentalist, a people and tree hugger who wants to preserve not just the physical beauty of this place but the culture that puts quality of life ahead of accumulation of things.Once and again local writer Carolyn Sackariason wrote an excellent column recently calling on the city council to rally to save the Red Onion. Nonetheless, I don’t agree with her suggestion that exempting the Red Onion from the current city moratorium will preserve anything of consequence.The issue confronting us at the Red Onion and all over downtown is not the loss of historic interior decor. Things are being preserved, almost mummified behind security gates and velvet ropes for the entertainment of an ever more refined elite visitor and local. The Red Onion bar with $10 beers is just botox architecture: It looks good, but it’s not real.What really needs to happen, as Carolyn suggests toward the end of her column, is some thinking about what kind of economy we want to have. For better or worse, (and I think for better) this town has resisted the dictates of the market place. Thirty years ago, the market for view-blocking condo blocks similar to North of Nell and Aspen Square was “hot.” We could have infilled all of our views back then but locals had a better idea.In the 1980s and 1990s, theme park residential neighborhoods were the market solution. We resisted some of that, and I am one of many who are here today because we didn’t allow the market place and money to be the sole arbiter of who can live in Aspen.The real issue is not whether we can protect a collection of wood and glass and bar stools. The market will do that. What’s needed is a plan to preserve an economic culture that allows low end uses (and low end users) to thrive alongside Cache Cache Deux, Dancing Bear and the Five Star Hotel Jerome.It’s true that the second home economy and CEO salary explosion has benefited us in some important ways. Property taxes are absurdly low, the real estate transfer tax generates enough to pay off Burlingame every two and a half years and the sales tax makes possible the state’s second largest transit system.Nonetheless, we are out of balance. I won’t list all the local business that have disappeared – Su Lum has covered that list from Aspen State Teacher’s College to Zoe’s. We wouldn’t be the first community to be devastated and left to die by an economy focused on short term prosperity. The West is full of such places. Check out what the market for gold did for Leadville next time you drive over the pass to Denver.Left to its own devices, the market will deliver us as the ultimate Base Village, great for investment and retirement and as lively and vital as the Aspen Highlands after dark. Would any of us have moved here 10, 20 or 30 years ago if the downtown were as empty as the Highlands and as expensive as Rodeo Drive? Would any of us have stayed?The time has come for the community as a whole, not just the electeds, to start thinking about preserving a retail structure that caters to more than the top 1 percent.Mick Ireland is a resident of Aspen and a former Pitkin County commissioner.