Meredith Carroll: One more Aspen idea

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

There was no joy in Mudville last month when the City Council forced out the Aspen Power Plant project at 590 N. Mill St. Well, there may have been a little bit of joy in Oklahoma Flats, where residents ostensibly toasted (but not with liquor, and not past 10 p.m., and not more than 25 times in a calendar year) the fact that their future neighbor in the old art-museum space will most assuredly be a sober 501(c)(3).

Plenty of people cheered the Power Plant plan of a shared office space, restaurant, event group and TV station — enough people, apparently, for the City Council to choose it over four other proposals. Following its selection, though, plenty of other people (present columnist included) jeered the Power Plant plan of a shared office space, restaurant and event group (the TV station escaped the wrath of critics) — enough, apparently, for the City Council to claim a political headache and procedural charley horse prevented it from moving forward.

The Power Plant idea may very well have been akin to sticking round-, square-, star- and triangular-shaped pegs in a rectangular-shaped hole (or, because it’s Aspen, an emerald-cut-diamond-shaped hole). Yet its key players, Duncan Clauss, David Cook and Spencer McKnight, are hardly at fault for concocting an unconventional scheme. The City Council, on the other hand, should be tarred and feathered for lacking the foresight and critical thinking to anticipate the inevitable hurdles and even more so for giving up on a concept they approved because the going got rough.

Had the request-for-proposals process allowed nonprofits only, none of this would have happened. Or if the city had done its zoning due diligence at the outset, it could have saved Clauss, Cook and McKnight the roughly $30,000 and over 3,000 hours they poured into the project — never mind what it cost everyone else to pay the city staff to tear out their hair over the 15-month-long red herring.

When the City Council officially pulled the plug June 6, The Aspen Times quoted Mayor Steve Skadron as saying the Power Plant had “become an exceptionally complicated and divisive issue unexpectedly,” which is only partially true. To be sure, it was complex and contentious. That it was both, though, was not even remotely surprising.

On the other hand, entirely unforeseen was how the City Council failed to know what it didn’t know prior to selecting an applicant. And utterly unconscionable was how it was unprepared and unwilling to effectively and efficiently deal with the challenges encountered along the way. If the prospect of a citizen-sparked referendum and election put their termination decision over the edge, council members might also consider letting their council seats follow suit.

While Aspen isn’t synonymous with the real world to everyone, it’s not a game to everyone, either. Real people with real stakes put real money, time and energy into a process that was officially endorsed. The way in which it became unhinged seems to be a glaring sign the current council has not only little vision but, even more troubling, poor judgment. The City Council effectively handled the Power Plant with the nimbleness of a toddler in possession of a rubber chicken — carelessly and like a joke. If there’s any upside to the debacle, it’s that in floundering so egregiously, it may have inadvertently done everyone (other than the Power Plant principals) a favor.

Once upon a time, it was younger Aspenites with more creative — and progressive — ideas who effected meaningful change. Hunter S. Thompson was 33 when he ran for sheriff on a platform of radical ideas, although stripped of their shock value, they made a shocking amount of sense. Dwight Shellman was 38 when he landed on the Board of County Commissioners, where he aided in establishing neighborhood caucuses that resulted in integrating more voices in significant local conversations. An upstart Joe Edwards in the late ’60s was a fierce open-space protector who also was instrumental in launching local public transportation. Stacy Standley was 20 when he arrived in Aspen in 1965, making friends with other fledgling transplants looking to preserve a way of life that could be equal parts felt and seen.

While the Power Plant’s leaders, who have thus far generously characterized the busted outcome as “frustrating,” may have been tagged out in this particular inning, hopefully they’ll keep in mind those who came, saw and conquered before them and consider stepping up to the plate again. However, instead of positioning themselves as hitters next time, they might consider the umpire role.

Sitting on the council side of the table instead of standing in front of it may not seem to be the sexiest position at first blush. Although after what the current City Council just demonstrated it’s capable of, the prospect of clever and resourceful people in charge, who have the capacity to innovate while simultaneously making tough but honorable calls, seems increasingly titillating.

Forbes declared boring the new sexy when describing the new model of success a few years ago. At this point, though, Aspen might even just be better off with different.

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