Vagneur: The downvalley development dilemma |

Vagneur: The downvalley development dilemma

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

In the ’60s, a couple of our workers bought a trailer house in Basalt and made the big downvalley move. It rippled shock waves through our small, family-owned company — how could these two guys, stalwarts of the Aspen Trash Service Inc. crew, ever be relied on again to get to work on time traveling from such a far distance? I mean, we went to work at 6 a.m., an ungodly hour.

Pioneers, they were, and before long, workers of every variety were commuting not only from Basalt but from as far away as Grand Valley (now Parachute) and points in between. This exodus of workers threw up a red flag that brought Aspen and Pitkin County to the brink of studying employee housing.

Still, the provincialism of the time persisted — you were either from Aspen or Basalt or somewhere else downvalley. Aspen was sophisticated and rich — Basalt (and Carbondale, etc.) the keeper, the bedroom community of those less fortunate, those who were forced to move downvalley. Not much of this was really true, of course, unless you bought into the idea of “downvalley trash,” a reverse psychology description started and fed by those who were proud to live in the nebulous downvalley. And don’t forget the short-lived owners of The Red Onion who publicly discouraged “downvalley riff-raff.” Oops.

The concept of peaceful living in the Roaring Fork Valley without class distinction or negativism seemed to escape most of us. But the world is changing. Basalt is no longer downvalley — it’s now considered midvalley, which is to say it is now a closer part of Aspen than it used to be. Caution: The last thing Basalt wants to be is like Aspen.

We have some big-time developers in Aspen trying to bend the rules to make it easier for them to build, well, whatever it is that seems to make them the most money. They want concessions regarding employee-housing requirements, they need the city to take care of their parking obligations, need this exclusion, need that zoning variation, higher rooftops and on and on. Why? Because, unlike the smart businessmen they pretend to be, they paid too much for the property they are trying to exploit and can’t turn a developer’s decent buck unless they lean heavy on the taxpaying public to subsidize their extravagant schemes.

What does this have to do with Basalt? A few years ago, Jan Tucker and Al Storey wanted to build an excellent, but not luxury, hotel along the banks of the Roaring Fork River, just east of Basalt. They already owned a prime piece of property, were capable men and just needed the government’s blessing to get the job done. Nope, it didn’t happen.

If you can believe the hype, Whole Foods and the Willits development have sucked the life out of downtown Basalt, which is creating a crisis for many businesses. Just to make the record clear, let’s not forget that the town of Basalt, in a moment of obvious greed, approved Willits in the face of level-headed opposition from Eagle County.

And to further make the record clear, let me state, not unequivocally at all, that maybe when it comes to downtown Aspen development, we need to start thinking regionally. Instead of tearing down Aspen to make room for some new guy’s fantasy of effing up the place, maybe we should lay down the rules. If it doesn’t meet existing zoning, it won’t get built.

That would slow the spiraling and exorbitant prices our not-too-smart developers are willing to pay for Aspen real estate and send them looking for something they could afford, say in Basalt, or — God forbid — Carbondale. A good hotel or two in Willits (they’re building one there even as we speak) and one very near “old” Basalt would certainly be cause to open more restaurants, gift shops, T-shirt shops and revitalize downtown. I know, I know — if you live in Basalt or Carbondale, this is not music to your ears, but hey, the bandwagon calls.

Let’s face it: Lodging for the less-than-luxury class isn’t going to come with airline tickets, not for a family of five from Boulder or Des Moines. They’re going to drive here, and Aspen isn’t going to park their cars for them. Maybe Basalt is smart enough to build parking along with their new hotels.

Once those cars are parked, it takes about as long to ride a bus from Basalt to the Snowmass ski area as it does to ride a bus from Rubey Park to Snowmass Village. Certainly, if you’ve ever been skiing in Jackson Hole or Grand Targhee, Wyoming, you know that skiers ride buses a long way all the time just to get to the slopes. I’ve ridden with them and didn’t hear much complaining.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at