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Tony Vagneur: Motivated to buy, but not to build

Remember those days, back when Walter Paepcke came to town? Probably not, but it can be said that his arrival was both a curse and a blessing, depending on who you talked to. Some thought he was going to ruin the town, others thought he might add some excitement to a slow-moving burg nestled quietly in the mountains. With the help of Judge William Shaw, Paepcke bought up a considerable amount of 1940s property, again to the dismay of many. (If anyone had bothered to look, Shaw might have owned more property than Paepcke, but who’s counting?) Never underestimate the venerable judge.

Head over the hills to Crested Butte, not far from Aspen as the crow flies, sitting at 8,909 feet, a small mountain town with a nearby ski area, founded in 1880 for reasons similar to the above-mentioned villages of old — mining and agriculture. Known primarily in the early days as a coal mining town, Crested Butte in more recent years has been dubbed the “The Wildflower Capital of Colorado,” according to the Colorado General Assembly and, of course, is home to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, a ski area with world-class reputation. I’ve ridden my horse over the hill a few times and spent hiking hours there with Margaret, but have yet to taste the steeps and deeps of the winter mountain.

Walden, a small Colorado town near Wyoming, was founded in 1888 at an elevation of 8,099 feet above sea level, which if you think about it, is very close to Aspen’s 7908. Like Aspen, it was founded on the need for a town near mining and agricultural interests. Just as in the Roaring Fork Valley, the Walden area was and is an excellent ranching and farming area. Unlike the small towns of Aspen and Crested Butte, Walden has no world-class alpine ski area out its front door, or close, but has some excellent backcountry ski terrain nearby. And it is known as the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.”  

Although these three towns have similar beginnings, of similar vintage but have gone different directions as the world has ground on, you are no doubt asking why in the world I would place such disparate small communities together in the same column. Crested Butte locals will certainly be chagrined to be considered to have much in common with Aspen, although I’m certain Walden is reasonably pleased to get any publicity it can — it’s a beautiful place which I wrote about a couple weeks ago.



It’s a change in the West, a hunch maybe, something not talked about much, the way the “ultra-wealthy” are buying up commercial property without any seemingly real motivation to turn it into income-producing assets. That’s not how Walter Paepcke did it — he wanted everything, every endeavor to carry its own weight, unless it was a nonprofit organization, but even at that. His Goethe Bicentennial Convocation in 1949 was so popular that, given the shortage of available beds in town, some out-of-town guests stayed in Woody Creek, one known cabin without running water or indoor plumbing. It was a long drive to town in those days.

The new trend might have started in Walden in the 1990s. A man from Tulsa, Jim Moore, who, unimpressed with Aspen and Vail, particularly the people, fell in love with Walden and the surrounding area. He bought a large ranch after one visit, and in a few short ensuing years, bought up about half of the businesses and their real estate along Main Street. It’s a long story, but those buildings are still mostly empty and shuttered. “It’s turning us into a ghost town,” on resident ruefully said recently.




Over in Crested Butte, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, Mark Walter, has bought up a handful of commercial buildings along Elk Avenue and for a large part, they are mostly closed. According to the local paper, some of the enterprises have moved on, or they have new owners who anticipate opening at a later date, such as in August or by next ski season. At this point, it’s a complex situation. The large, empty outside dining area of Brick Oven Pizza gives the impression to outsiders of decline rather than a well-established mountain town.

Fast-forward to quaint Aspen, many of its commercial properties in the hands of Mark Hunt and his unknown backers. A newcomer to town on Friday remarked that business couldn’t be that bad, could it, not with all the traffic in town. He was referring to the Crystal Palace building and the former home of Main Street Bakery. Maybe times are slower than we think in the commercial development business. 

Wading through small-town permitting processes can be time-consuming and expensive, that’s for sure, but somewhere behind the curtain a pattern seems to be developing that can’t be good for the future of the above towns. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

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