Roger Marolt: Roger This
October 2, 2009
Business is complicated.
Unlike in the olden days, it is more than building a better mouse trap or figuring out how much a widget is worth. It seems that the simple strategy of buying low and selling high has morphed into a game of hot potato: financial derivatives substituted for the dirty, warty vegetables baked so thoroughly that players risk holding them just long enough to stay in the game.
I am sorry to say that dear Aspen, a place where pressed slacks and buttoned-down collars have always been as common as men’s fur coats but only recently as popular, is not immune to the new trend of business as unusual.
It is no wonder, then, that when you sit down with the paper in a truly quiet place around town, say Highlands Village or Obermeyer Place, engineered nooks so devoid of life that there is not even a tree branch for the wind to rustle or for a warbling wren to land on, it is not surprising to find how easy, yet fruitless, it is to concentrate on a front-page story about local business that blows your mind more completely than a steakhouse blows its offseason revenue projections, belatedly realizing that the offseasons are longer than the ones that are on for only the last week of December, two weeks in March, and (mercifully) all of July.
The paper doesn’t lie anymore than developers do, and one said and the other reported last week that The Company (a.k.a. Aspen Land Fund II controlled by Centurion Partners) believes that bankruptcy is the best business strategy to use for holding onto land at the base of the ski mountain that it hopes to develop into a gargantuan hotel, even though most people in town think it is a half-baked, potato-skin of an idea (at best) because it is humongous compared to what would be reasonable, and because in order to make room for it the ski lift will have to be moved uphill which, to be polite, is a stupid idea in a ski town.
The crazy thing is that I can’t disagree with the conclusion. Mulling it over on a park bench in the middle of cookie-cut solitude, no vitality within eye or earshot to disturb me, bankruptcy does appear to be the easiest strategy to employ in holding onto land that doesn’t really belong to you in any practical sense. The most difficult course of action, of course, is paying the bank (who actually does own the land) what you promised them in the first place. You see how complicated business can be? What’s wrong is right, and what’s right is for the suckers.
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The paper called the foreclosure actions of the un-named lender a “hostile takeover.” As such, it was easy to imagine an unscrupulous land baron taking advantage of loopholes, watching the clock in the courthouse tick down to the moment when he could legally, albeit unethically, snatch The Company’s deed from the treasurer’s hand and immediately convey it to an equally shady operator who is set to commence construction of the 14 town-homes and 17 affordable housing units approved for the property, just to spite the local citizenry.
Then, this week we learn that the devious lender is actually Alpine Bank, owned and operated by our neighbors, which supports Ducky Derby and steadfastly guards many little old ladies’ savings accounts. Suddenly it’s clear that all they wanted was to be paid back the $22 million dollars they loaned The Company. And since this didn’t fit with The Company’s best business strategy, the only way to accomplish that was for the bank to sell the property to a smart developer who wants to build what is already approved and quit wasting our time with convoluted plans for a 100,000-square-foot hotel and promises of dubious community benefits to go with it, including re-configuring the aforementioned ski lift by moving its base 250 feet up the mountain, away from town and history.
It leaves an interesting situation to play out in our City Council Chambers. Picture it: A bankrupt company asking for approval to build an insanely expensive hotel larger than it should be while making a ski lift shorter than it is, and in exchange promising the world to the citizens of Aspen who already own a slice of heaven, after apparently breaking its promise to repay the bank the cash it lent it to get this whole mess started.
Yes, to be sure, as was pointed out in the paper, the developer has loads of financing lined up to fulfill its promises for the project after it is approved, which goes a very short distance in explaining how The Company went bankrupt in the first place. But, as you can see, this is indeed very complicated and you would be wise to give up trying to understand and just move on to the comics section now.
It does no good to look back at the plans and architectural models for recent projects of similar size and promise to gain clarity. The drawings for Highlands Village depicted parking lots full of shiny cars and red brick plazas filled with families milling about carelessly with half the children tethering colorful balloons and the other half dabbing at fresh cotton candy. The model for Obermeyer Place made one imagine the county fair on a warm summer day: Nothing but crowds of known and friendly faces, working impossibly to fit all the magnificent attractions into a single day, looking forward to the soonest possible time when they can come back.
These projects promised to bring vitality to our town where we needed it most – in the quiet parts, ostensibly for our survival. Both sprouted in the loamy fertility of unprecedented prosperity, yet neither bore fruit, leaving much to be desired in the way of economic prosperity for all and odd jobs for those in the crowd-control business. Why one might think the sprawling hotel projects at Lift 1A will work now in these hard-pan days remains the biggest mystery of all.
So I’ve made my daily writing-dime again, enjoying the quiet courtyard of one of these late great projects that Aspen couldn’t live without, but has somehow forged ahead in spite of. I’m thankful for the windbreak disguised as a valley of buildings and, as the developers implied, I have nearly forgotten what was here before. Nonetheless, I can’t make out the business plan, faded before my eyes, that was surely at one time laid out before City Council in great, unambiguous, promising detail. Apparently, whoever said business was easy had a good bankruptcy attorney on retainer.
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