Britta Gustafson: Are we looping?

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

It often seems as if we have been debating, discussing and voting on similar topics for the past four decades. You can probably run through the list by now: Base Village, employee housing, entryway and town center improvements, transportation challenges and, oh, the various perennial topics Krabloonik, JAS and rodeo, to name a few.

We have written, rewritten and revised our Vision Statement five times, concluding each effort with the same sentiments: “just enough,” “natural connection,” “rural character” — landing once again on “just big enough” at the center of decades of debates. And, we are still at odds with overdevelopment. But, through the years, there have consistently been those who stand out, acting as our watchdogs, protecting and maintaining the delicate balance between what we need and what we impulsively think we want.

Our true stories become masked, fading to fables as developers come in with a fresh coat of paint. The cyclical nature of our current state of affairs is a lesson already learned, while progress seems contingent on our ability to learn from our mistakes, stop looping the debates and listen to those who have committed themselves, without vested self-interest.

Through the years, our community sometimes fragments and, at times, seems to be at odds within itself. Each of us living with a desire to stay connected but remaining trapped in the same old and tired conversations — classic resort or retro community? If our narrative doesn’t shift soon, we may lose control, once again, of our ability to create a common future and work toward it together. And, this beautiful canvas will continue to be flooded by layers of over-saturation. Until we circle back — again.

But, we can — and should — hold on to our classic values, all the while acknowledging that we are still only really in our youthful 50s, and we have a living history, which is pretty retro at heart.

My rose-colored perspective of our local history is undoubtedly a swirl of the lovely hues of childhood-imagination mixed with an undertone of fond memories. And, over the years, I can see how that blending of youthful-bliss with a few brush strokes of nostalgia — accentuating the positive and all but eliminating the negative — allows a blurry and classically-romantic narrative to emerge.

This is a wonderful technique if you are attempting to avoid regrets and dismiss mistakes, but it is a far less useful tool for the critical analysis necessary in productive political debates.

As a passionate proponent of our town and community, it is sometimes hard for me to admit that the Snowmass canvas has become pretty messy. In fact, it’s even harder for me to admit that perhaps it has always been this way.

It seems that each new stroke of change brings with it a fresh coat, and that many of the layers have not always been applied with care. Over time, heavy application could eventually flood, and even float away, the original artistry, just as it would on any oversaturated canvas — altering the tones, tinting the values.

Community, connectivity, authenticity, character — these are some of the words at the heart of our town conversations, debates and planning platforms, and they have been the guiding connotations for many years. We sit down and toss them on the table, batting them around as though they are tangible as well as constructible. With pen in hand, we scribble our emotions on maps and draw imaginative parks and figurative bridges in an effort to connect with one another.

But, can a strategically-placed park, council-approved pathway or well-marketed slogan actually fabricate connectivity? Can you physically build or rebuild a sense of community? Can we build a physical hub of cohesion, bringing us all back together as a “Vil•lage | ‘vilij |  (noun): a self-contained district or community within a town or city, regarded as having features characteristic of village life • a small municipality with limited corporate powers”? Real thought and consideration went into developing and further maintaining the identity that is Snowmass “Village” even when we are the “Town of …”

Perhaps, with fundamental intentions, as a start, we could pause and deconstruct what “sense of community” really means. From the dawning days of our village to the future on our horizon, we have struggled to define the balance of “resort” and “community.” And, perhaps, we still do not all agree.

Perhaps the deeper questions to ponder are: What is sense of community? What creates a community? Why do humans congregate in such a unique way? The best definition I could find came from McMillan & Chavis’s Journal of Community Psychology: “Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

Their work defines communities in terms of four guiding principles: “Membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs and shared emotional connection.”

For those who view Snowmass primarily through a marketing lens, we are simply an economic asset in a defined valley and, perhaps, an overlooked extension of Aspen Skiing Co. A manufactured resort, with no membership center — no heart. Yet, I know we have a heart. This valley pulses with nodes of emotional safety and pockets of trust. We may have lost our center, but the heart is still here, pumping away.

The second principle, “influence,” is that sense of relevance, which needs to flow both ways. If you have ever attended a council meeting, you can see that our residents feel they have a voice in this community, despite the ever-changing fits and starts of the powerful developers who have come and gone over the years. Likewise, this community certainly provides its members with benefits that they wouldn’t want to lose. At the epicenter is our environmental connections to these mountains and our shared passion for them. And we work, debate and, at times, argue hard to maintain that environmental emphasis.

The third principle involves the “integration and fulfillment of needs.” Essentially, when joining a community, members eventually receive benefits and are rewarded for participation.

It is true, that despite their physical address, many residents work, recreate and socialize in Aspen, using Snowmass for sleep and storage. Some are simply waiting for that opportunity to inch one-step closer to their more coveted ZIP code. On the other side, you will find those who work, play and connect here, considering these hillsides, trails, vistas and neighborhoods their community even while residing elsewhere out of necessity.

For those of us who call this place home — and mean it — we take some degree of offense when outsiders suggest that we are only a “resort.” We live for this valley, but also for each other. We want to cultivate businesses and raise our children here. We want to come together to celebrate things like a successful season’s end and also to support each other in times of need.

Finally, according to McMillan & Chavis, every community must have “shared emotional connection,” and this is believed to be the “definitive element for a true community.” Explaining that healthy communities have a story, members feel a sense of history through shared experiences, and they believe there will be more experiences to come.

At the beginning, there was an integrated founding group, unified during the first year when immeasurable effort, compromise, genius and participation was required to create a ski resort out of a ranching valley. And, all along, this has been an open and welcoming place, with an unfortunate while necessary limited capacity. And, our sense of community has ebbed and flowed.

I believe we still want to be a community today. In fact, if we actively participate in “visioning” — responding to community surveys and remaining aware of Town Hall actions — we can block out those with only mercenary self-interests and hear the echoing pleas of many still craving a fully-developed sense of community. We seem to be torn between wanting what is best for the town’s bottom-line, and what actually supports community. We want places to convene, walkways to connect us; we continue to ask for physical features, believing that they may in some way help bridge us back together and help us stay connected through the future.

And, what I think, what I feel we are really yearning for is more of that emotional connectivity. At the end of the day, we are all within walking distance.

A “sense of community” seems to be an innate need in which to feel both rooted and forward thinking about our stake in this community and our stewardship for the future. Whether you have just arrived or have been here since inception, it’s more about intentions than longevity that makes for membership. We desire shared emotional investment and yearn to belong. And, it isn’t unique to our village, but, here we are, over 50 years in and struggling as much as ever to define what community means to us. Maybe it’s time to close the loop.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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