Stone: If Aspen’s the question, ‘Bigger’ is not the answer
Two weeks ago, I took a few heartfelt cheap shots at the Aspen Economic Sustainability report.
That stirred up some lively response from those who felt victimized by those cheap-o slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Find us in the Yellow Pages — Yellow Journalism Pages, that is — under “Outrageous fortune, cheap-o slings and arrows of.” Our motto: We might be underhanded, but we will not be undersold.)
Those responses included what I can only characterize as unfortunate personal attacks. One online commenter referred to me as a “barnacled old Aspenite” — which was just cruel. I try to have my keel scraped regularly, but a barnacle infestation is not something to be casually mocked.
I may have to file a complaint under the Americans with Maritime Disabilities Act.
On a more serious note, I may have let my gleeful cheap shots interfere with more serious points. (Imagine that!)
So let’s dig into the dark heart of the matter: the report’s demand that we get rid of some of the city’s pesky regulations.
In one three-page stretch, the report refers to a “tangle of city regulations,” “heavy handed regulation,” “entangled regulation” and “a daunting entanglement of regulations.”
Question: Does Aspen have a lot of really annoying regulations (entangled or otherwise)?
Answer: Hell, yes!
Now, a harder one: Is that heavy load of regulation too much?
Well, one way of getting at an answer is to look at what we’ve got as a result of those regulations.
Aspen is neater, cleaner and a whole lot wealthier than it was 20 years ago. It also is not much larger.
Main Street retains its charm. Struggle through the S-curves (a topic for another day) and from the top of Main, looking all the way down past the Jerome and on to Smuggler Mountain … wow! Gorgeous.
In the heart of downtown, although there are a few eyesores (with more bursting forth), the scale and sense of history remain. And, despite the damnable flirtation with “in fill,” the mountain remains visible from most of the core. (Let’s keep it that way.)
All in all, the very definition of “sustainability.”
The sustainability report disagrees. It argues that Aspen desperately needs to grow: more jobs for more people.
Why? (Warning! Cheap shot ahead!) To quote the late Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancel cell.”
The Sustainability Report declares that local wages and employment haven’t grown since 2002.
There are numbers in the report that do show from 2002 to 2013 there was virtually no growth. Numbers don’t lie, but numbers can be cherry-picked. Or, in this case, sour-cherry-picked.
In fact — according to a chart in the report itself — from 2002 to 2008, our economy actually was growing. First quarter 2002 (Q1, as we business types call it) to Q1 2008, overall employment was up about 12 percent. Wages were up more than 30 percent!
From 2002 to 2008, Aspen was on a roll!
Then, in Q4 2008, the national economy crashed and took Aspen along for the ride. We skidded clear back to 2002 levels, as the sour-cherry pickers have noted.
Aspen, sad to say, is at the mercy of the national (and international) economy. But tossing out the regulations that preserved this town will have zero effect on the national economy.
Sure, we all want a thriving local economy, filled with vibrant small businesses, the kind of unique establishments that bring joy to the heart and visitors to the town.
But those businesses have been disappearing here for decades — and it’s not excessive local regulations that are driving them away.
Anyone who says that’s the real problem is either ignorant (willfully or otherwise) or dishonest.
Sorry to be harsh, but I have owned and run businesses in this town, and the real problem for small businesses in Aspen is very clear: the high cost of real estate, which has resulted in sky-high rents that crush the soul — and the balance sheet — of any small business.
Yes, you could argue that those high prices are the result of the underlying growth restrictions that have kept Aspen a beautiful place. High quality, high demand, limited supply … bam! High prices.
If we tossed out all controls and opened the floodgates, we might — repeat: might — bring down prices.
Not to be less than neighborly, but I think that’s sort of what they’ve experimented with over in Vail.
We might consider Aspen and Vail to be a laboratory experiment in what you get when you run a ski town with or without vast quantities of really annoying regulations.
Some people prefer the Aspen result. Some prefer Vail.
I say, fine. Take your pick. Vail is a brilliantly successful ski resort. A lot of people love it. If you’re one of them, that’s cool. Now, please, go live there.
The bottom line: All those burdensome regulations kept Aspen small and very solid. And when we took a hit, we weathered it pretty well.
You could say those regulations saved Aspen. To coin a phrase, they saved the town’s mind, body and spirit. And they saved the economy, too.
The fight to save Aspen was bitter and long — and it’s not over yet.
Which brings us to the minor item of next week’s city elections.
As always, there are good choices, not-so-good choices and godawful choices. And remember: The godawful forces are organized and relentless, and they won’t waste their votes.
Rather than offer my own endorsements, I’m just going to repeat the endorsements of Su Lum, who’s braver, tougher, smarter, cares more and has been around here longer than any of us: Steve Skadron, Ann Mullins, Art Daily.
One personal note: I don’t really know much about Daily’s politics, but he is one of the most solid, decent people we have had running for local office in a long time, and it would be a true shame if he were not elected.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get my keel scraped. The barnacles are beginning to itch.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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