Tony Vagneur: Crested Butte vibe cautiously optimistic
The peacefulness is the first thing one notices, the quiet and the feeling of a slower pace. The best part, perhaps, is that the tranquility is uninterrupted, all day, every day. No big jets flying over, dropping VIPs off, no commercial airlines littering the blue with contrails, and no small private planes practicing their landings or take-offs. That’s because Crested Butte does not have an airport.
Did Vail Resorts notice that before offering to buy Crested Butte Management Resorts from the Mueller family? Little things like that can make a difference to varying groups of people. Some contrarians might consider the lack of an airport a positive in a ski world being taken over by large corporations. Others might consider such a thing an impediment to the growth needed to keep a big company like Vail Resorts happy.
Big is better, maybe, unless you’re used to family-owned and don’t really care about big. We’ve talked for years about how lucky we are that the Aspen Skiing Co. is family-owned and it isn’t busing people in to make up for the distance we are from Interstate 70. But Aspen is big, anyway.
The people in Crested Butte have been saying for umpteen years and in different ways that they are not Vail. Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt said the ski area ran an ad in the early 80s saying, “Thank God we are not Aspen or Vail.” Guess what? Times change.
I’m not sure you can conflate the personality of a town with the personality or reputation of a ski area, although everyone wants to do it, and it’s been emphatically pointed out by numerous raconteurs that Vail Resorts bought only the ski area — it didn’t buy the town. Fair enough.
Crested Butte has a fierce, independent collection of locals, folks who don’t suffer fools or change artists very well, and the announcement of the pending sale was a bit of a shock, even to those who expected it to happen. As anticipated, there are those who have come out of the woodwork, making clear the only thing that would make them happy is the immediate defenestration of Vail Resorts from the local scene.
After spending the past week in Crested Butte, this writer believes there to be a general vibe that the sale will be, if not perfect, at least positive. The locals are protective of their slopes and hope that the base area and lifts will be improved.
Maybe the ski patrol will be able to open the steeps a little earlier on powder days, they wish; of course that’s something Aspen ski bums wish for every winter, as well. Vail Resorts plans to dump $37 million into Crested Butte in improvements over the next two years, which seems to encourage the local skiing entourage about positive changes. Some long-timers like an anonymous, 27-year veteran of the ski patrol, wonders if his hard-earned lifetime pass will still be valid when he chooses to claim it.
It has to be said that through the years, Crested Butte the town hasn’t sold out to big money or celebrity and, at this point, doesn’t plan to. Strict zoning regulations keep old commercial buildings on its main drag reasonably intact, and they have to meet stern regulations on what improvements are allowed. The same is true for houses in the original town of Crested Butte — they have to conform to a certain set of building standards that keeps the town looking like someone actually cares about size and presentation.
There are no McMansions as a tribute to oneself, but it is incredibly important for the town to elect representatives who are not afraid to say “no.”
Crested Butte and Aspen are very much alike in one respect — employee and affordable housing. The hope is that Vail Resorts will come up with a viable plan for relief in those areas, but as in Aspen, the available land for such projects is in short supply. There is South Crested Butte and Riverbend, which are similar to Aspen’s North Forty.
Skiing and tourism seem to be the main economic drivers of Crested Butte, but real estate is taking a strong hold as one of the most important businesses in the area. Vail Resort’s presence is predicted to cause an almost immediate 20 percent rise in real estate values, which is excellent news to those in ownership positions, but is a tragic development for those families and worker bees struggling to own a piece of the town they love.
Forty miles away, as the crow flies, Aspen is struggling with similar problems of affordable housing, too much growth too fast, insidious progression of empty; second homes; and a philosophical stand-off between those with wealth and those just trying to get by.
In Aspen or Crested Butte, it’s ski area reality at this point in time.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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