Stone: One hell of a fight. But have we lost?

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

This week, I was actually motivated to stop and think — something I try to do as little as possible. It only interferes with the column-writing process.

If I stop and think, I can always find a reason to back down. Hey, that “bad guy” isn’t all bad. His wife and kids love him. His dog loves him. His mother loves him. He’s just trying to support his family. He was once a wide-eyed toddler gazing with amazement at this wide beautiful world. He’s just — well, you get the idea.

So most of the time, I figure I’ll stop and think when they just plain stop.

But this week, as I said, I am thinking, after reading a couple of online comments.

The first came when I wrote about “billionaires gone wild” and their impact on the town.

That comment started, “Give it up, Andy. If anyone really cared Aspen would not be what it is today.”

The second came this past week, after my column on how the city’s long-running efforts at growth control have been overwhelmed by the equally long-running development onslaught.

That comment began, “What growth control? There is very little of the 1980s Aspen I arrived to left today. There are few if any single-family homes with a swingset in the backyard in Aspen.”

True enough. But I know there are people here who do care — a majority of the town’s residents, actually (if perhaps a distinct minority of the town’s residents’ net worth). And I know there have been valiant efforts at growth control.

But still, here we undeniably are. Surrounded by billionaires. With few, if any, backyard swingsets to be found.

So has all that caring gone for naught? Has all that hard work — going back to the 1960s when Mayor Bugsy Barnard took a chainsaw to all the billboards along Highway 82 — been wasted?

Well, let’s consider Barnard and his chainsaw. That dramatic approach to growth control may have been a little rough around the edges (as befitted Aspen in those times), but it was effective.

Seen any billboards around here lately?

And that points to the toughest issue when it comes to evaluating growth control: Success can only be measured by what is not here.

We may not exactly be overjoyed with what we’ve got, and I know it’s mighty unsatisfactory when all you can say is, “Hey, things could be worse,” but things really could be worse. Much, much worse.

Yes, backyard swingsets are few and far between in Aspen. But so, for now at least, are six-story hotels.

There are no affordable free-market homes in Aspen. But there also are no neon signs or tour buses. Or strip malls lining Highway 82.

And while I abhor (if only on general principles) the Pradas and Guccis and all the rest, I will not be demanding (except for amusement’s sake) that they be replaced by a Friendly Fred’s 99-cent Used Underpants store and a Dollar General schlockarama. (Not that there’s anything wrong with schlock.)

Given the eternal rule that every silver lining has a cloud, there probably was no way that Aspen could limit growth without suffering the consequences.

You can slap a moratorium on building, but not on the law of supply and demand.

Having preserved itself as paradise — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — Aspen became a hot commodity in short supply.

We shot down the cheapest of cheap-o developers, the shoddiest of the hit-and-run fast-buck guys — and the result is this wonderfully preserved enclave, which is becoming the exclusive possession of the world’s very, very richest — and those who are even richer than that.

Is that a bad thing?

Well, obviously, yes. And, just as obviously, no. (Or, if you prefer, vice-versa.)

So — to get back to the two commenters I cited at the beginning: Yes, there are people who care. And, yes, there was growth control. (And not just by chainsaw.)

But now here we are. And all we can say is, it could have been, it would have been, so much worse.

And we need to keep fighting — shouting and screaming and sometimes even offending people. (Sorry.)

If we don’t, it inevitably will become a whole lot worse.

In fact, the City Council seems hell-bent to make sure that happens with the “lodge-incentive program.”

This week, the council heard (and apparently swallowed) supposed “statistics” showing that Aspen is “falling behind Vail” — because Vail has cheaper hotel rooms.

Vail, if I may point this out, is not Aspen. It is as much a Front Range local ski area as a true destination resort. They have huge high-rise hotels with lots of cheap rooms to satisfy those local customers (along with season ski-pass prices and endless lift lines to match).

We do not, should not and cannot compete with Vail on price.

I found a study of Aspen growth control, written for the Aspen Historical Society, that quoted Elizabeth Paepcke, speaking to the City Council in 1972, during the battle over whether Colorado should host the 1976 Winter Olympics.

Paepcke stated that her husband, Walter, the man largely credited with sparking Aspen’s modern renaissance, had “fought … tooth and claw” against a local bid for the 1954 Olympics, against people for whom “growth was something golden in their imagination.”

And after that, Paepcke said, “Pete Seibert and Morey Shepard left in rage and started Vail and that is the result. Thank goodness, they started Vail.” Amen.

Vail’s a great place with a great mountain and some great big hotels.

Aspen is — and should remain — something very different.

A while back, a wonderful friend sent me a copy of an op-ed from The Aspen Times in March 1968, ending with a quote from then-Mayor Barnard.

“We may lose to the fast buck operators all the investments and hard work the Aspen people put into this rare and unusual village,” Bugsy said, “but not without one hell of a fight.”

That fight is far from over.

It will never be over — unless those who care just surrender.

Give it up? Not yet.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is