Roger Marolt: Roger This |

Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

For better (two years ago) or worse (right about now) the animal of Aspen business has morphed from a loyal hound feeding comfortably on a broadly attractive tourist-based economy to an insatiable monster that gorges on the largess of real estate investors. This happened despite our city government’s efforts to stop it. It was not, however, because it didn’t try.

Not long ago our city government enacted legislation that was intended to stop the proliferation of real estate offices that were perceived as a threat to the town’s commercial core. The idea was to prevent real estate offices from further displacing cute shops that sold stuff that regular tourists wanted (stuff that was never defined but presumed to be anything except timeshares, condos, or Red Mountain estates). The law froze the number of real estate offices that could forever after exist in the shopping district.

Yet, the ordinance proved wholly ineffective in preserving retail space for the still undefined desirable stores that City Council believed would make our town “more viable.” By limiting the number of spaces available to real estate peddlers, other stores that catered to second homeowners took over. An abundance of art galleries and home furnishing stores sprang up to sell expensive decorations for big Aspen homes. Boutiques that sell gowns and accessories for wearing to parties in trophy homes signed leases at prime locations. Banks to finance the boom took the spaces that were left.

Today we are looking at downtown commercial core vacancy rates that some believe will top 30 percent by the end of this summer. Not by any act of City Council, real estate is suddenly out of vogue. People aren’t buying or selling houses. They are not lavishly furnishing them as before. There is not much need for brokerage or ancillary real estate services.

In response, rents in Aspen’s commercial core are softening. The demand for real estate has passed, at least temporarily, and the demand for tourist accommodations and attractions seem to be on the rise. Spaces with lower rents appear to be on the way for merchants who sell things to two-week visitors who have little appetite for big margin items such as oil paintings of mountain scenery or glass-top coffee tables with three-dimensional plaster fish underneath. The town is changing. Some are happy. Some are sad. City Council is standing by like the rest of us, watching.

The big change that our government has been trying to effect for decades has occurred quickly and naturally within the past six months. So what were our officials wasting their time and our money with all these years?

One point I am trying to make is that this major change is happening more by the laws of economics than by any legislation that our elected officials have enacted, even though what they hoped for was the very same result. The other point that I am trying to make is that our city government didn’t necessarily pursue the wrong course. Rather, I am pointing out that they beat their heads against the wall in doing so, at an incredible cost to the taxpayers. As with trying to gerrymander the makeup of the commercial core, our local government spends inordinate resources trying to control many other societal circumstances that it never can. It should, therefore, stop trying.

To wit: The local benefits of employee housing have become largely anecdotal since the real shortage of employees was solved in the late 1990s with the expansion of Highway 82. Those who have lived here since then may stutter before trying to convince anyone that there has been a noticeable improvement in the quantity or quality of the ill defined commodity of “community” attributable to the affordable housing program. While there always has been and always will be demand for employee housing from the endless supply of people who want to “live the life,” there is not always a need for it. If we are, therefore, using it only as a tool to create a “desirable mix” of citizens in town, we are doomed to fail. A goal this hazy is impossible to meet, and might even be morally objectionable even if it could be.

Further, in designing a transportation system whose primary function is to promote “good” behavior and discourage “bad” before addressing the benefits of efficiency (even to our environment) or the true needs of the people using it, our leaders will forever struggle in futility seeking answers. Is the mass exodus through the West End at five o’clock or the traffic jams of toxin-spewing automobiles idling on Main Street what we hoped to accomplish? Is this the “good” behavior we desire? Is our town, or our world, better because of this? If not, why are we wasting resources to preserve it?

In taking an honest look at what our town is now, what it has been over the past decade, and even what it was a hundred years ago, we can reasonably say that no local sitting government has had a meaningful impact on how we ultimately make our livings, who ends up in our town, and how we enjoy ourselves while we are here. Miners, ranchers, CEOs, ski bums, and realtors are an eclectic mix that has created our legend. The best parts of who we are were not created by a community plan.

Whether you agree with the goals or not, from transportation design to the Canary Initiative to the employee housing program to tinkering with the town’s business mix, our government has been woefully inefficient in engineering this town to fit a dubious vision at an incredibly high cost. The current city budget amounts to expenditures that add up to approximately $20,000 per citizen annually. Ultimately, the question for a family of four living here comes down to this: Would we rather have a check for $80,000 every year or keep all of the services that the city of Aspen currently provides for us?

Of course the opportunity to answer that question is not immediately available. But, it is good for perspective’s sake. If we can look around our town and finally be convinced that our government, despite all of its good intentions, has very little effect on what we ultimately are at any given time; if we can say that because of this our government should begin concentrating on the basics of providing us with safety, quality amenities, and pleasing aesthetics without social engineering attached, then we finally agree that our government needs to go back to the work of serving us rather than trying to shape us.

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