Seeking the right answer for Aspen |

Seeking the right answer for Aspen

A few years ago, when I was still editor of The Aspen Times, I found myself being interviewed for a journalism fellowship.I was grilled for an hour by a panel who asked why I wanted the fellowship and why I deserved it. Then, near the end, I was asked, “Andy, how would you like to be remembered? What would you like your reputation to be?” It was one of those “psychologically probing” questions. I would have preferred “If you were a tree …”I finally said I thought I’d like to be remembered as a good editor of a great small-town newspaper in an important small town.One member of the panel raised an eyebrow and asked, “Why do you say Aspen’s ‘important’?”I was flabbergasted. This man, allegedly a journalist of sufficient standing to be on the panel of judges for a major fellowship, didn’t know what made Aspen important?My astonishment at his ignorance left me almost incoherent. I’m afraid I stumbled badly as I blathered on about the Aspen Institute, the music festival, Paepcke’s “Aspen Idea,” the kind of people who visit here and live here.My answer was laced through with my astonishment at his ignorance. I didn’t get the fellowship.But it was clear that this (allegedly) intelligent, informed man considered Aspen to be nothing more than a resort-town playground for the rich and shallow. (You know, like Vail.)So now I find myself wondering, as we wrestle with Aspen’s significant problems, how do we think of Aspen?Some of us think of Aspen primarily as “home” – or, better yet, “hometown.”What does that mean? It means we consider Aspen first and foremost as a community, an actual town. Aspen is the place where we live and we want to preserve it as a livable place. That viewpoint leads us to certain kinds of decisions and desires as we try to find the best path into the future.Others think of Aspen primarily as a “product.” That product is “Aspen, the resort,” and we market it to visitors to generate income and ensure our prosperity. That viewpoint can lead us to some very different decisions for Aspen’s future.In fact, for many, Aspen is a blend of both of these. We want to preserve our town, but we realize that we also need to ensure its prosperity. It can’t be a real hometown if it’s preserved under glass like a museum exhibit – but it also can’t be a real hometown if everything is ruthlessly focused on the “product.”Too much “product” gives you Disneyland. Too much “preservation” gives you cobwebs. The debate between those two sides is valid and valuable.Then there’s a third view of Aspen. That’s Aspen as “commodity” – something to exploit, something to buy and sell. The difference between “product” and “commodity” is the difference between “prosperity” and “greed.” It’s the difference between “use” and “abuse.” True prosperity benefits us all. Greed benefits only the greedy.Sometimes the difference is obvious. I’m going to refrain from pointing fingers, but I’m sure we can all think of projects that did actual harm to Aspen both as hometown and as resort – but which were calculated to bring great wealth to the developers. (And it’s interesting how often those projects fail to produce the expected profits – though regardless of profit or failure, the damage to the town lives on.)Sometimes the difference is a surprisingly thin line. And that is the slender tightrope we need to walk. We balance town against product, resort against environment, prosperity against greed. We balance the rights of the community against the rights of the individual, the rights of self-preservation against the rights of exploitation.Is Aspen a natural wonder or a natural resource?Or, as that clown on the fellowship panel obviously thought, is it just a resort-town playground for the rich and shallow?I didn’t find the right answer for him, but we all need to find the right answer for Aspen.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is

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