Stone: Who says numbers don’t lie? Liars with numbers
Numbers don’t lie, right?
Don’t be ridiculous. Of course numbers lie. That’s the dangerous thing about numbers: They lie, and they lie so convincingly.
We want to believe the numbers. They seem so clear. It’s reassuring.
Look! There are the numbers. Right there in black and white. Can’t argue with the numbers.
But most of us barely can add and subtract — maybe a little long division, but that’s about it.
A simple bit of evidence: Have you noticed how restaurant checks have started offering math hints on tipping? They list how much 10 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent of the bill is. For those who can’t calculate 10 percent of $37.63 on their own.
And our desperate desire to believe in numbers gets us in trouble when developers — arguing for ever-larger projects with ever-fewer regulations — declare they “can’t make the numbers work” if they don’t build bigger, higher, denser, more!
We just saw that happen in the Hotel Aspen redevelopment battle — our squabble du jour.
(“Please, sir,” says the smooth waiter with the phony French accent, “you must try today’s specialite. The Roast Squabble, in a sauce of Planner’s Gall and Baby’s Tears.”)
Whenever the city would suggest that the developers really needed to make the project smaller, and, you know, play by the rules, the developers and their planners would mutter darkly, “Nope. Can’t make the numbers work.”
Even after they got their City Council vote of approval on Monday — less than they wanted, more than they should have gotten — the best they could say was, “We’re not certain it’s going to work financially, but we will try to make it work.”
They’re “not certain,” but they will “try.”
They’ll try. Just for our sake.
How sweet of them.
Why does that bother me?
Well, first off all, there is never any certainty that anything is “going to work financially.”
Development involves risk. Those are the rules of the game. People who demand risk-free, high-return investments are greedy or stupid or (most often) cheating.
These people were fighting over, in the end, a few hundred square feet of floor space on three free-market West End condominiums that are part of a hotel renovation.
They’re grumbling about whether “the numbers work” — but the ultimate success or failure of that project will depend on the price of real estate in Aspen and the overall success of the town as a tourist destination.
If Aspen takes a dive, so will this project. If Aspen thrives, the developers will thrive, too. And the question of some 400 square feet of floor space in a West End condominium will be a pretty minor item.
But the developers’ muttering about their numbers also is annoying, because while they expect us to care about their numbers, they certainly never share those numbers with us.
The numbers don’t work. Take our word for it. Give us more.
Let’s be clear: I don’t expect them to share those numbers. Their profit is none of our business.
But by the same token, their worries about making those profits are not our concern.
It is not Aspen’s responsibility to make sure that developers succeed.
Their profits are (rightly) private — but they want the public to take on the risk by sacrificing the good of the town.
We saw another example of that last week, at the Willits project (in the heart of the greater El Jebel metropolitan area).
The developer — Mariner Real Estate Management, part of Mariner Holdings, which bills itself as a “global financial services firm” — wants to get to work on its next big project, a hotel.
Fair enough. The only snag is that its development approvals require it to build some employee housing first and it wants to leap-frog over that requirement, building the hotel first and the housing after that.
In exchange for allowing that priority switch, the town asked the developer to post a substantial financial guarantee that the housing will be built as soon as the hotel is finished.
And the developer — a “global” big shot — said, flat-out, “No.”
“It will stop the project,” its local representative said. “It’s impossible from Mariner’s perspective.”
Why is it “impossible” for Mariner to post a $2.3 million guarantee that it will keep its word?
“We can’t put our investors at risk,” a company official said.
Damn it, investors are supposed to be “at risk.”
They take the risk, they make the profits.
I, for example, have not invested in Mariner Holdings. I, for that same example, will not share in any profits it makes.
But Mariner wants me to take on some of the risk — the risk that, having not posted the guarantee, it will squirm out of building the housing. And, even down here in the midvalley, affordable housing is important.
The new rule seems to be that it keeps the profits; we all get stuck with the risk. Shorter version: capitalism for profits, Socialism for risk.
Hey, look, I’m as greedy as the next guy — well, OK, not if the next guy is — no, never mind. I’m not going to name any names of the ridiculously greedy. Besides, you know who I mean. Yeah, that’s right. Him.
Anyway, as I was saying, I’m greedy — but in cases like this, I’m greedy for Aspen, for the community, for the whole damn valley.
I want the community to win and win big. And, like all greedy people, if my side wins big, then I don’t care if the other guys get hurt. I don’t care if a developer or two (or 10) go broke along the way.
We’ve seen enough developers come and go — some succeed, some fail.
But remember: Even the ones who went bust started with numbers that worked.
And keep your eye out for the next big lying number: four. (As in “We need four stories on this hotel — or our numbers won’t work.”)
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is andy@aspen times.com.
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