Paul Andersen: ‘Poor Little Rich Town’ Crested Butte
The perfect candidate for a Sister City relationship with Aspen is Crested Butte. These mountain towns share close proximity in the Elk Range, and they have both seen community morph into commodity.
Some Crested Butteicians may bridle at the idea that their beloved community has become a commodity, but an ongoing series in the Crested Butte News has been painting just that picture. The reasons are complex, but it boils down to an escalating real estate market that is killing the town’s soul.
Both Aspen and Crested Butte began as mining centers. Crested Butte predates Aspen in the late 1870s when anthracite coal was mined to fuel the steel mills of Colorado Fuel & Iron in Pueblo, until cheaper energy sources ended mining there in the 1950s.
Aspen was founded primarily on silver when that metal was still monetized as currency under the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Aspen’s fortunes took an abrupt downturn in 1893, when Congress repealed the Sherman Act and adopted the gold standard.
Aspen had an early claim on tourism when Independence Pass became an attraction in the 1920s. Tourism grew when skiing began here in the 1930s. The full-on resort was born when high culture took root in 1949.
Crested Butte languished through the ’50s as a forgotten relic of the industrialized West, with some residual mining of heavy metals, until skiing began there in the ’60s. Crested Butte was then a haven for wayward hippies and dropout college students from Western State in Gunnison, which is how I came to live there in 1970.
“We will never be another Aspen!” was the mantra in Crested Butte while I was editor of the Crested Butte Chronicle, until moving over the hill to Aspen in 1984. Aspen’s glitz and glamour were easy pickin’s then as CB celebrated communal authenticity with unbridled esprit des corps.
Today, Crested Butte is going through what Aspen went through 40 years ago, and it’s painful. The allure of big money has been too tantalizing for what CB News publisher Mark Reaman refers to as the “mid-timers,” many of whom are cashing in.
The funky-down-home-potluck-dinner-costume-revelry vibe that has set the Butte apart since the first vanguard of escapees from “the real world” landed in Shangri-la in the ’60s is being co-opted.
“Crested Butte is in a vortex of upheaval and change,” reported the News in part one of a penetrating, sobering series. “Many feel it’s not the locals who are going to have a say in this town’s future and development — it’s the big money.”
A great irony in this vortex is AMAX, a once prominent mining company that fomented an environmental battle for the heart of the town when it announced in 1977 plans to mine 300 million tons of molybdenum ore from Red Lady Bowl on Mount Emmons, a bookend to the town’s western boundary.
Crested Butte fought against the dire socio-economic impacts of a 25,000-ton-per-day mine that would destroy the mystique of this cul-de-sac winter haven, this idyllic refuge from the military-industrial complex and the myopic bottom line of corporate profits.
Now real estate and the overarching tourist economy have eclipsed AMAX and its successors as the erosive agent carving away at the town’s core values with vacant second homes, short-term rentals and a price spike that has put housing well beyond the means of most resident workers.
The moneyed forces won out in a Pyrrhic victory that has left those in love with that small grid of streets in the East River Valley dismayed, disillusioned and dystopic. If those former AMAX execs could see Crested Butte now, there might be some crowing due.
Would the industrialization of Crested Butte have proved a better course? Certainly not. But the insidious nature of commoditization is proving just as pernicious
“The bait that has opened communities to exploitation and destruction has always been ready cash,” warns Wendy Berry. “The only preventive and the only remedy is for the people to choose one another, and their place, over the rewards offered them by outside investors … to understand itself as a common dependence, a common life, a common ground.”
In pained sympathy, I cry out, “RESIST”!
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.