Gustafson: Who are we Snowmass? |

Gustafson: Who are we Snowmass?

If we can’t make up our own minds about our identity, someone else may just write up a catchy slogan or tagline and hand us our “brand.”

With the town’s efforts to rewrite the Comprehensive Plan underway and Snowmass’ 50th anniversary cropping up, it seems like the right time for a little self-reflection. Perhaps we can still recapture our identity by once again exploring who we have become and who we would like to be.

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

Can a strategically placed park, council approved pathway or well-marketed slogan actually fabricate the illusion of connectivity? Can you physically build or rebuild a sense of community? Will Base Village be the 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 maintaining the identity that is Snowmass “Village” even when we are the “Town of …”

As a start, could we pause and deconstruct what a “sense of community” really means? From the dawning days of our village to the 50th celebration on our horizon, we have struggled to define whether we are a resort or a community. And unfortunately we still do not all agree.

I began by asking myself, what is a 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.

Membership, or a feeling of belonging and sharing a sense of personal relatedness, requires boundaries — usually physical — along with emotional safety and trust.

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. But 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 Town Council meeting, you can see that our residents feel they have influence over the community, despite the ever-changing and powerful impact from the many 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, our environmental connections to these mountains and our shared passion for them. And we work, debate and argue hard to maintain what we have here.

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 residents’ physical addresses, many work, recreate and socialize in Aspen, using Snowmass for sleep and storage. Some are simply squatting in subsidized housing until something opens up out at North 40 and they can slowly inch one-step closer to their more coveted zip code. On the other side, you will find those who work and play here, considering these slopes and neighborhoods their community even while residing elsewhere out of necessity.

However, for the majority 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 these slopes and trails, 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.” 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. But our sense of community has ebbed and flowed.

I think we still want to be a community today. In fact, if we actually listen during the “Visioning” sessions and Town Hall meetings and block out those with mercenary self-interests, we might hear the echoing pleas of many still craving a return to community. We seem to be torn between wanting what is best for the town’s bottom line and what actually forms a sense of community. We want places to convene, walkways to connect us, and 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. After all, it really isn’t too far to walk between the Mall and Base Village, or for that matter from Base Village to the Center.

A sense of community seems to be an innate need in which to feel both rooted and forward thinking about our stake in our community. 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 50 years in and struggling more then ever to define what community means to us.

Many reminisce about the sense of community that once thrived here and the shared bond that was forged while building this village, which simultaneously became a resort and a community exactly 50 years ago.

Next week, I’d like to retrospect on our heritage, beginning during the collective Herculean effort to develop a full-scale resort between two snow fall seasons from April through December of 1967, and the close-knit connections that emerged as a result; and how we can celebrate our past as we try to redevelop our future sense of community.

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


See more

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.