Marolt: Rethinking the way we preserve ‘community’

Roger Marolt
Roger This

What is Vail except a place of many tourists and few residents? It’s an interstate truck stop with a ski area. That’s a little joke of mine. The truth is Vail is like Las Vegas — streets packed with people, but nobody knows anyone except those attending the same conventions.

Of course nobody has that impression of Aspen. We are a real town, dang it! But it does make you pause when you meet a tourist on the lift and tell them you are from here and they look surprised and say something like, “Wow! I didn’t think anyone lived here.”

You can take a comment like that as a compliment — that you are one of the few remaining locals — or you can take it as a hint. If locals are as rare as we think ourselves to be, are we really much of a town? We are certain that we used to be a town.

In the olden days, locals far outnumbered tourists because there were no tourists. Now during the high seasons, there are far more tourists than locals, even though we have many more locals than in the old days, too. When you consider this, Aspen losing its “character” is actually just drowning its characters in a sea of tourists. “Character,” then, can be described as a high ratio of locals to visitors. That is what we have lost!

Everybody knows this. We don’t have enough locals anymore! What’s the answer to that? It has been to build more housing for locals so that we can increase the ratio back to where we outnumber the visitors — or so at least the proportion is greater.

Now, what would you say if I said this trick of building more affordable housing in town can’t possibly work or, worse yet, skews the desired ratio of townspeople to visitors in the wrong direction? I know what Mick thinks. He thinks I’m an idiot.

It’s straightforward math, though. It’s based on these numbers I looked up: The average percentage of gross income spent on wages and salaries in the typical service-industry business is about 17 percent. The average visitor to Aspen spends about $295 per day. The average salary in Aspen is $40,680 per year.

OK, so, we take the average amount spent per tourist per day ($295) times the percentage that will go toward somebody’s salary (20 percent), and that equals $59 per day. Now divide the average Aspen salary of $40,680 per year by this $59 per day and you get a result of 689 days. This number divided by 365 days in a year equals 1.9 full-time tourists per year.

In other words, it takes almost two tourists being here every single day of the year to provide the salary for just one Aspen worker. This means every time we bring a new worker to Aspen, we basically need to increase our population by three people, two of whom are not included in the census numbers that determine the official size of our town.

Further, since the new visitors only come about half of the year, the infrastructure to support them effectively needs to be doubled for just the high seasons. This also means that more restaurants and shops will have to close for the offseasons. It already seems that Aspen has begun to oscillate more extremely from crazily crowded to definitely dead.

Despite what Mick says, our town is growing, and it’s growing far more rapidly than the population numbers show. You see it walking through town, observing the super-sizing of commercial buildings, hotels, timeshares, traffic jams and crowds.

Some say building affordable housing takes Aspen employees off Highway 82 by allowing them to move to town. That’s a nice theory except that when they move up here, somebody else moves into their old downvalley home and needs a job, too. All we are really accomplishing is replacing old commuters on Highway 82 with new commuters.

The thing many do not want to hear is that the only way employee housing does not translate into quadrupling our effective growth rate is if we build it for people whose specialized jobs are limited in number by fiscal constraints and do not require growth of the tourist industry to sustain — think teachers, firefighters, law enforcement. I know it’s not fair, but it is economic reality.

I believe we should build affordable housing with a purpose in mind. If the numbers show that it actually leads to growth that diminishes the feeling of “community” in town instead of enhancing it, I don’t think that can be its purpose anymore. What, then, is it?

Roger Marolt thinks things have changed since 1970, when Aspen started building affordable housing to ease a local labor shortage. Email