Tony Vagneur: Aspen only has itself to blame for amusement-park atmosphere |

Tony Vagneur: Aspen only has itself to blame for amusement-park atmosphere

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

As the wheels turn, we’re moving into the Christmas rush with our hands upon the throttle and, we hope, the train of attendant events headed in the right direction.

The Pandora expansion became official, thanks in large part to the efforts of my friend, Bruce Etkin, who knows how to spearhead a project or two. And while we were celebrating that step into the future on the world’s best ski mountain, we were worrying if it would ever snow. Skico President Mike Kaplan apparently found the phone number for Mother Nature, taped to the underside of a desk drawer by past president DRC Brown, and we got heaps of wet, season-lasting winter snow just in time for the opening of Buttermilk and Highlands. Talk about seamless successes to a breath-holding crowd, on both accounts.

With those issues tucked away, the appearance of the acronym STR (short-term rentals) has hit the front pages, along with the word “mitigation,” bringing us to the tip of several icebergs floating in the midst of Aspen and Pitkin County. Businesses are in dire need of employees, and there are workers who’d love to work, almost anywhere in the area, but can’t find a place to live closer than hours away in New Castle, Silt, Rifle or even as far as Grand Junction.

Years ago, a Fortune 500 company I worked for had a multimillion-dollar contract with Saudi Arabia to operate its solid waste systems. We took many of our own managers there to fulfill the contract, but most workers, indeed for the whole of Saudi, were imported from Sri Lanka. At the time I found that quite interesting, unusual and somehow wildly elitist, not looking down the road 40 years to 2021 Aspen.

It was about 1968 when two employees of my family’s solid waste business in Aspen bought a trailer house in a Basalt. Apparently ahead of their time, it was a shrewd move on their part; the price was right, it was new, but there was great consternation within company management about how those two guys, both valued and longtime employees, were ever going to make it to work every day, let alone on time. The rest of the 10-man crew lived in Aspen or very close by.

In the day, there were rentals all over town, and the change of seasons brought the predictable housing shuffle every spring and fall. Much like happens in a college town (wait, doesn’t Aspen State Teacher’s College fit in here somewhere?), the word would be out in the bars and restaurants, so-and-so is looking for a roommate, those guys on Durant are moving out this spring. The chatter traveled fast and in the end, it usually worked out for the better.

The second floor of the Aspen Block building had rooms and suites for rent, where high school friends and, later, work associates lived. A couple of our teachers lived in the Bowman Building. There were rooms available above the Paragon, above Sardy’s hardware store, the second floor of the Wheeler Opera House, not to mention the many houses that would rent a single room or those who would lease the whole house to a group of young locals.

The Aspen workers were a reasonably tight clique; most everyone knew everyone else, knew where so-and-so partied or hung out, and if you needed to find someone, you might start the march around the town watering holes. Check the Pub, must be at the Onion, no wait, across the street at Guido’s. No, he’s at home, OK, we’ll find him. Or her.

It was a sort of radar, particularly on Friday nights, as to where you wanted to hang out. Looking for a specific woman, you probably knew where to find her. Need someone to fill in for you on the job, you’d know where to find the likely suspects.

It’s changed. Go to Two Rivers in Basalt for breakfast or lunch and see more Aspen locals in an hour than you might see on the streets of Aspen all day.

Aspen can’t survive without a local workforce who lives here. People who don’t ski can’t sell ski equipment, same for road or mountain bikes, or ski patrol the mountains. Someone calls in sick, you can’t wait for a replacement to drive up from Glenwood or Rifle. The hospital used to call me at night for emergency blood — I’d be there in 10-15 minutes.

And you can’t ask some guy walking down the street in a costume out of Zegna or Prada if he has some jumper cables or can give you a push. Town just ain’t the same.

City or county, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. We made it too easy to develop and gave the impression that to live here was to have a ticket to an amusement park. Time to buckle up.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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