Roger Marolt: We got left eating pixie dust

Roger Marolt
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Roger Marolt

There were mountains. There was the town. Then there was a community. It was a good set up. A symbol was inevitable. It was a pair of skis and an aspen leaf. It captured the flavor. It was powerful. Then the symbol was changed. It didn’t quite convey what the town was, but hinted at what it might become. Then the symbol changed again, and again. Once it stopped representing what was and started capturing imaginations instead, it could become any shape or color and represent anything anyone desired. Eventually, the symbol became more than a symbol. It is a brand.

People who lived here once owned Aspen, maybe not all the land, but its essence was theirs. They made it home and took good care of it. Many vowed to stay until death lifted them to more majestic heights. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was for some. Citizens thrived. They were proud to stick it out year-round. Living in the mountains isn’t exactly easy when you actually do, but the good offset the bad and built character they were proud to wear.

And still there can always be something that might make things a little better. If you know human nature, you know there are deals to be made. How would you like to charge a couple extra bucks for the dinners you serve to the tourists? I got an idea to make hot items of ball caps and T-shirts with our symbol on ’em. What would it hurt if we could raise property values a little, give us a boost for retirement? This is nicknamed “progress.”

The people of Aspen created the priceless commodity of community, and the business world figured a way to hang a price tag on it. They made deals: You told us you don’t really want a fancy new hotel, but how about an exception if we give you ____. One deal didn’t make much difference, but 50 years’ worth has.

What we built and saved was spent in marketing campaigns. Aspen isn’t so much a community anymore as it is the idea of a community, one more perfect than any Aspenite has ever lived in. It is why people pay more now to be here than they did when Aspen was far better. Branding works. Aspen is like Nike, McDonald’s, or Coke — a gorge for the masses, no longer a taste for the connoisseur.

What would one be passionate about preserving of Aspen today? The community feel? Its youthful vibrancy? Messy vitality? Its collection of eclectic small businesses? The easy commute? The sense of purpose in living here? If you see these things, you are haunted by ghosts.

We devoted much toward historical preservation, locked on the physical. It was an intellectual shot fired over our heads. The re-dos with 1880 veneer in modern materials ended up structural reminders of phoniness. A few important buildings look polished-up old. It’s only skin in a game. We made it cost so much that we couldn’t believe they’d go through with it, but they did.

We have lots of things to do today, more than ever. Skiing is better. Hiking is better. There are more biking options. It draws visitors, but does it call them to stick around? What then happens to a town that is better to visit than to live in? It caters to the visitor’s cash. Imagine Aspen in 20 years having almost zero year-round residents, only second-home owners and seasonal workers.

Aspen’s symbol is mature. It’s a curvy artistic swish that alludes to ski tracks while surrealistically appealing to the old aspen leaf. It represents well the maximum value of Aspen and calls clearly all who will pay a steep price for a transient piece of it.

What really hurts those who have called this place home is not so much that outsiders have come to make big money off the product we created with our lives. Everyone who stayed has some blood money on their finger tips.

What really kills us is that those master marketers and business wizzes recognized far earlier and with much more clarity what we had here. If we had only stopped to see what they saw and guessed what they had on their minds, we never would have started making deals. It feels like guilt for being naïve or shame for perhaps being even greedier by staying than our neighbors appeared to be when they cashed out long ago. We got left in the pixie dust.

Roger Marolt looks at the mountains and can’t tell which way is up anymore.