Roger Marolt: Vail is proof you can’t create a town by building hotels

Roger Marolt
Roger This

Vail is not as bad as it used to be. That’s comparative, not declarative. It’s not because they have seen the light. It’s because we have obscured our own. They haven’t changed much. Aspen has. They began as a resort that has become a bigger resort. We were a town that has flip-flopped into a resort. Our separate paths that began valleys apart are converging at the confluence of positive cash flow.

Not many preferred Aspen becoming a resort to remaining a town. There is a layering effect to change. I’m sure the initial residents of Aspen were open to a little change and they got it. The new residents, too, were OK with a little more growth on top of what they found here. A new baseline of acceptable size and perspective is set, reset and reset again — the unbreakable cycle. As fewer citizens remain who remember what Aspen was, the easier it is to move on to what it is destined to be.

What once seemed impossible is now imaginable — more commuters, an ever-widening highway, what once was preserved as pristine open space along the valley floor no longer looks like anything worth saving; it has become another development opportunity.

I find it remarkable today that our community is split over constructing a huge tourist accommodation center at the base of Lift 1A. Twenty years ago that idea would have never been formulated. Twenty years hence, nobody will even notice when another huge hotel is built. We live balanced on the tipping point.

You don’t preserve small towns by building big hotels instead of houses. Whomever has sold us on the idea that hotels are better for the community can no longer be trusted. That person has proved his worth to investors. Homes, even large second homes, have people living in them, even if only for part of the year. Nobody lives in hotels.

When I was a boy there was no Aspen Square, North of Nell, Hotel Jerome annex, St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, Limelight, Sky, Little Nell, or Residences of Little Nell, so don’t tell me our bed base has shrunk. This is why I have a hard time believing that the west portal of Aspen Mountain was ever really a vibrant part of town, even when the original ski lift came all the way down to Dean Street. I was too young to partake in any such mythological fun, but deduction tells me there simply weren’t enough people here to make it as vibrant as in the depiction developers are painting. Nostalgia can be a portrait of anything when not drawn from experience.

I have seen the pictures of the long lift line there, but view it in the context of a very slow, low-capacity, one-seat lift that was, for a time, the only way to get up the mountain. As far as I know, there was only one small hotel there with maybe a couple dozen rooms. It had a small restaurant and tiny bar. How could this possibly have produced the modern scale of vibrancy developers want us to believe was normal back then? The answer, of course, is that they are only renaming growth. They call it “revitalization.” As such it is not only palatable, it is inviting!

Yet, we know we have to change, right? Nobody has ever explained to me why we have to change, but they wear us down into acceptance by repeating the mantra until our minds are numbed. We become part of the cult.

Even stalwart defenders of tradition from the past are not immune to capitulation. Bill Stirling, our esteemed former mayor, who would have just as soon worn a baby seal fur coat than get behind a large-scale development project in the ’80s, now proudly sticks an “All For One” pin on his lapel. Mick Ireland, the once fearless David slinging ideals as hard as stones at every Goliath-piloted bulldozer, would have signed up for Nixon’s campaign before he got onboard with securing millions of dollars of public subsidies for a developer while forgiving them their duty to build affordable housing.

But, as they have forgiven and forgotten, so must we. We need to make a living. We all get tired. We swap the impossible for the inevitable. We lose our base of support to offers no reasonable person can refuse.

It’s not even that becoming another Vail would be a terrible thing. I don’t believe place is what makes us deeply happy, anyway. We find that anywhere there are family and friends. It’s just that what we have here now is incredibly special. It won’t last forever. If we can’t preserve our beloved town, I hope at least we can preserve this moment.

Roger Marolt wonders who told the developers how great the old Lift 1 area was. Email at