Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I hope that future owners of employee housing to be constructed someday on the lumberyard site are not great students of local history.
Sure, they’ll be excited when they move into their new homes, conveniently situated next to the highway, the end of the airport runway, the sewage treatment facility, and the city’s electrical transfer station, not to mention the two u-store-it facilities on the other side of the fence and the equipment rental shop that’s pretty handy, too. But, once the dust settles behind the fridge and spots in the carpet can no longer be vacuumed out, the excitement will wane and life will get back to normal.
When the first big snow of that first winter in the new digs falls and a resident happens to have the day off, he will want to hit the slopes. It is then that familiarity with Aspen history will become the hard-pack beneath the freshies.
As a practiced snow-sport enthusiast, he’ll be dressed and have the gear on his rack in two minutes, then he’ll wait at the intersection for 10 minutes before he forces his way onto Highway 82 into traffic that is held up by a snow-removal tractor crossing the Castle Creek Bridge three miles ahead. Ice will build up on the wipers as he crawls into town, but 20 minutes later he’ll peer through the film of grime on his windshield and see that the lifts are already running. He’ll quickly calculate that all of the powder on The Ridge of Bell will be churned to chowder before he’ll get a parking spot.
At this precise moment he’ll remember that back in 2007 the city bought the land where his apartment is situated for $18.25 million, and that less than three years later a prime piece of property at the base of Lift 1A was sold out of foreclosure for a measly 15. He’ll think, “If only the city had shown a little restraint instead of peeing their pants at the height of the most ridiculous real estate boom this world has ever seen, I would own deed-restricted property slopeside on the greatest ski mountain in the world instead … And, I’d be within walking distance of the bars!”
He’d be right, too. If you chart two lines over time, the first one tracking Aspen real estate prices and the second tracing the city of Aspen’s spending on real estate, you will find that during late 2007 the city went on a real estate spending spree that coincides exactly with the peak of the real estate market. At the height of the frenzy we spent more than $30 million for property that might fetch $10 million today … if Pat Smith moved back to town.
It has long been known that the city is a lousy developer. (It is rumored that the Centennial Homeowners’ Association recently ratified this as a motion to amend their permanent records.) But, unbelievably, they are an even worse speculator! How can the government of a town that has figured out a way to turn rock-strewn mine tailings into gold be so clueless about the process of doing so? For Pete’s sake, the city was bamboozled in a real estate deal by out-of-towners who sell 2x4s, 80 lb. bags of Sakrete and sheets of a/c plywood for a living.
Can you imagine what the executives at BMC West headquarters thought when the written offer came in from Aspen? No, you can’t. If you could, you would be retired right now and perusing something more high-brow than this, on the same beach as the BMC West executives and their families. All we know for certain is that signing off on such a one-sided deal had to feel like committing fraud and the people in the boardroom that day felt guilty and shameful, even dirty. As for us, the meek, we have inherited a severely overpriced piece of the earth.
Representatives of the sellers, between sniggers and through bleeding holes in their lips, reported that the company had another offer on the table at the time. If that’s true, then we in Aspen can be proud that we at least saved that sucker from massive embarrassment and financial ruin. We can rest assured, also, that a copy of such written offer will never surface.
If we had instead saved all that poorly invested money, we could now have bought the Lift 1A parcel and had change left over to put down on the Stage Three, The Boomerang and Dancing Bear properties too. How many employee housing units could we then have right in town? 200? 300? 700? We’ll never know. In addition to the actual millions of dollars evaporated in the ill-advised ’07 spending spree, the opportunity cost of being able to house hundreds and hundreds of local working people and their families in the heart of our town is nearly incalculable. How can you put a price tag on a once-in-a-lifetime chance missed? Yes, it is spilt milk, but a lot like a Wisconsin tanker train derailing in a full-speed crash into the homogenizing plant.
We weren’t even smart enough to finance the purchase. We paid cash, and now there’s no one else to leave holding the bag. It is a sad tale, indeed, when the only bright spot is that the city has no money left to develop the property, but thank goodness we don’t anyway.
There are people at City Hall yet who are determined to disprove that haste makes waste. They still justify the purchase by claiming that the lumber yard was worth more to us than anyone else in the world. While that may be true, it means only that we had to pay a little more than the next guy in line, not mortgage the future for it. Besides, no matter what they say, that land is not worth anything close to what we really gave up.
In the end it came down to patience. We didn’t have any. It also proves that we aren’t as smart as we thought we were. Fortunately, this is only a temporary state. When things turn around and the coffers fill once again, I am sure we’ll be at least as smart as we were back in ’07.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.