Milias: Punishing tourists won’t save Aspen |

Milias: Punishing tourists won’t save Aspen

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

My former colleague Roger Marolt recently penned an op-ed in support of ballot measure 2A, “the STR tax.” He is surely feeling his oats today because the Aspen electorate overwhelmingly approved the measure. In his eyes, this special excise tax on renters of private residential property is what is needed to save our town.

According to Marolt, this 5%-10% addition to Aspen’s 11.3% nightly sales tax rate will not only bolster our subsidized housing coffers, it will send a message to our visitors “that they create immediate negative impacts on our town while they are here that need to be mitigated.” It’s not visitors who stay in hotels who do this — just the ones who stay in condominiums, apparently, including those that were built and have functioned as traditional tourist accommodations for the past 50 years.

He posits that “visitors to Aspen could have the most positive impact by not vacationing here at all.”

Now, remember: Marolt is from Aspen. He has never lived anywhere else. Therefore, his limited worldview and frame of reference are exceedingly narrow. He is obsessed with nostalgia and wants nothing more than for Aspen to return to what it was half a century ago. Lamenting that Aspen has become a resort and is no longer what he considers “a town,” he believes that, to make Aspen a “real town” again, we need to get rid of second-home owners.

He also believes “a real town has more than half its residential units occupied by people who work in town.” But, he neglects to identify just what kind of “work” qualifies. I assume he means people who live in subsidized housing. He probably thinks all those folks actually “work in town.” (They don’t.)

Marolt is clearly confused. He has wrongly placed blame for the negative impacts of recent growth squarely on our visitors. I get it; he doesn’t like that our roads are clogged with workers who drive in every day and is frustrated by what he hears about businesses desperate for employees.

But, he wrongly assumes the Highway 82 road warriors are coming solely to service tourists and second-home owners. He ignores the fact that the more full-time residents we subsidize, the more nurses and doctors and teachers and police and waiters and bartenders we need on a 24/7/365 basis.

The system is stressed. I can’t argue there. But, we also can’t ignore the dramatic impacts of massive growth of our full-time population, including in the subsidized-housing ranks, which are far greater than seasonal tourism. In short, the problem is us.

2A passed. But, despite its projected revenue stream, we have zero plans to house actual workers. Instead, we’re building subsidized two- and three-bedroom units to be filled with full-time families who will place even more demand for services on the community and resort workforce without participating in either. As everyone knows, once in the APCHA system, it’s time to “work remote” for a better paycheck and the purchasing power for that second home in Moab or Palm Springs or France to rent out as an income-producing STR. (How ironic.)

So, as we lambaste and heavily tax a critical segment of our tourism economy ostensibly to return Aspen to the locals, will this actually save us? Hardly. We have become so distracted by our labor shortage that we’ve justified a punitive money grab to build more housing for the wrong people. And, somehow, we try to convince ourselves that this growth isn’t growth at all. Only visitors and tourists cause that.

Whether we are a town or a resort is not what we should be focused on. (Can’t we be both?) Nor should we be intentionally crippling our economic engine.

The fact is that demand for subsidized housing in Aspen is essentially unlimited, as is demand for any valuable good provided at a price far lower than its free-market equivalent. We should acknowledge that our economy relies on tourism and embrace it. Then, focus on what that economy needs — workers — not what the end users of subsidized housing want.

In a free-market system, we are programmed to prioritize demand from the consumer perspective. But, our housing program is not the free market, so the consumer-demand approach is all wrong. We have been focused entirely on households desiring subsidized housing, not services requiring workers. This is precisely why we are not housing enough of them.

We have a labor shortage, not a housing one. Instead of trying to house the workers we actually need, we are housing people who simply want to live in Aspen affordably. They are not the same. And, all growth is growth, the impacts of which are bad for everyone. Acknowledging this is what will really save our town.

Then we can focus on our actual customers: The visitors who make it all possible.

Marolt is clearly angry and frustrated, but his ire is misdirected. It’s time to get our priorities straight. The last time Aspen was only a town and not a resort, it was the 1930s, and it was a ghost town. Careful what you wish for.

Someone please tell Roger and the other anti-tourist malcontents to check their privilege and change their attitudes. Contact