Archived Ants
Friday
Feb032017

ISSUE #131: End DormANT-cy at 1A  (2/3/2017)

"Some people create their own storms, then get upset when it rains."   

-- Unknown

GORSUCH HAUS: AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

In early July last year, I wrote about Gorsuch Haus, the exciting new hotel proposal for the western base of Aspen Mountain, at the top of South Aspen Street, next to Lift 1A.  I know you read about it then, but I am updating the status here and am not going to repeat all the factual details.  And yeah, this is a deep-dive issue, so settle in.  Besides, knowledge is power - be informed!  Big decisions on the project are on the horizon, so I suggest a quick refresher (read it again HERE) for good measure.  The following is a snapshot of the very basic details:

  • 81 keys:  60 hotel rooms, seven 3-bedroom condo suites, plus 6 free market for-sale condos
  • 68,000 SF
  • Average height is 36.5 feet; 49' high at highest point
  • 61 sub-grade parking spaces
  • 6 acre parcel; project is on 1 acre
  • Replacement for Lift 1A with a high-speed quad
  • Plaza area will serve as the portal to the mountain, and will feature a public restaurant, bar and outdoor apres deck, in addition to skier services (lockers, lift tickets restrooms, ski patrol)
  • Transit from Rubey Park via year-round complimentary shuttles
  • AND, FYI, LIKE IT OR NOT, THE SHIP HAS SAILED: DEVELOPMENT IS COMING TO THE TOP OF SOUTH ASPEN STREET (Let's be smart and approve a project for that space that benefits the entire community and preserves our skiing heritage for the next century!)

There is quite a bit of complexity involved with the next steps for Gorsuch Haus.   The project will uniquely provide public space for all comers, not unlike the Hotel Jerome, Limelight and The Little Nell.  In addition to adding to the diminished hotel bed base in town, Gorsuch Haus promises to bring the community back to Aspen's historic ski neighborhood -- once the epicenter of vibrancy, skiing, lodging and apres!  And don't get drawn into the trap of just looking at Gorsuch Haus as some "new development at the top of South Aspen Street."   While Gorsuch Haus is a critical piece in the puzzle of revitalizing the west portal to Aspen Mountain, the entire area must be viewed as a matrix.  Other nearby development projects, existing entitlements, city conveyances, conservation easements and the responsibility for revitalizing Aspen's original ski portal are tightly intertwined with the lofty responsibility of honoring Aspen's skiing heritage and ensuring our legacy into the future.  Gorsuch Haus is but one cog in this complicated wheel, but it's the pivotal one whose time has come.    

TIMELINE & DETAILS

  • December 2015:  Plans for Gorsuch Haus unveiled
  • March 2016:  Land use application filed with city of Aspen
  • Summer 2016: Changes made to the plans based on initial feedback
  • September 2016:  P&Z voted 6-0 against, citing height, mass and scale, plus a desire to move the lift terminus to Dean Street (which Gorsuch Haus has no control over)
  • December 2016:  First Reading of updated plans further incorporating new feedback, City Council voted unanimously 4-0 to proceed to Second Reading despite earlier P&Z decision
  • February 13:  Second Reading before City Council with public comment (no vote).  Gorsuch Haus to request additional guidance from Council as just four votes (Mayor Steve Skadron, Adam Frisch, Bert Myrin and Ann Mullins; Art Daily has recused himself due to conflicts) will eventually determine the outcome
  • Future:  Amendments to application incorporating direction and feedback from Council; Council vote (could happen as soon as Spring 2017)

HERE are the most recent feedback-based changes to the proposal for Gorsuch Haus.  None should surprise you.  The local development team (Jeff Gorsuch, Bryan Peterson and Jim DeFrancia,) see you in town, on the mountain, at your kids' events.  They're your neighbors and they've been listening.  They are uniquely committed to this project as a legacy project for the entire community.

The following are noteworthy challenges facing the project that are currently being addressed by the developer:

  • Norway: Revisions since Summer 2016 include a west side 20-25' pullback from Norway and the exciting rumor of a potential "ski tunnel" linking the far skiers' left on Norway to the ski return.
  • Height, Mass, Scale:  The building itself if 7% smaller and the lot coverage has been reduced 8%.  See the neighborhood comps HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. (Important stuff, I swear). 
  • Lift 1A:  The new lift is positioned as far down the property as possible and the alignment provides for possible future extension downhill if neighbors provide access.  See a rendering HERE.
  • Public Access to 1A:  An expanded drop-off circle enables improved transportation, clear sight lines and pedestrian access to the lift from the drop-off on South Aspen Street, in addition to direct-to-lift access off Summit Street, which serves hundreds of condo and hotel units along Monarch, Summit, Mill and Galena.  See it HERE.
  • Trees:  Reduced retaining wall and patio massing on the east side will save 7 of 8 trees next to Caribou Condos.
  • Ski Return:  The new positioning of the hotel, combined with the alignment of the new Lift 1A, dramatically opens up the "ski return," the historic ski corridor below the ski area boundary, while honoring the historic ski return and mountain view planes.  See it HERE

These are all important concerns that the developer has been working to address -- and the conversations will continue.  But there is one hot-button issue that has become the talk of the town and an inexplicable make-it-or-break-it argument despite it being entirely dictated by complicated property ownership issues and entitlements on properties OTHER THAN the Gorsuch Haus parcel:

                                                LIFT ACCESS TO 1A FROM DEAN STREET

 HOW DID WE GET HERE?  A HISTORY OF RECKLESS DECISIONS

The area is fraught with lift access controversy.  But first a little history.  Aspen's original lift was actually a "Boat Tow."  Built in 1936, the contraption ferried skiers from a terminus near today's Lift 1A up to the top of Corkscrew at Tower Ten Road.  Then, on December 14, 1946, Lift 1, a single chair, began carrying skiers from the terminus in Willoughby Park to "midway," at the top of today's Lift 6 (FIS) chair, where it met Lift 2 and went from that spot up to the original octagonal Sundeck.  The historic lift terminus and several towers of Lift 1 remain today in the "ski return," which extends below the ski area across what's called Lift One Park and down to City-owned Willoughby Park.  These old lift structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

In the days of Lift 1, skiers skied down the "ski return" to get back to the lift.  Incidentally, this path cut across a sliver of Skier's Chalet owner (and former Sundeck manager) Howard Awrey's property.  Some skiers stopped to grab a bite at Awrey's ski-up hamburger shack, but Awrey wanted a little compensation from SkiCo for allowing skiers to cross his property.  It got hot.

In the end, when the DRC Brown-era SkiCo replaced the old lift for the 1971-72 ski season with today's Lift 1A, the fateful decision was made to move the lift uphill and onto SkiCo land.  No more dealing with Awrey.  And thus ended lift service upward from Dean Street and ushered in the city's nemesis, a familiar and repeat visitor:  the law of unintended consequences. 

 

Take a look at this map that shows the critical property parcels and ownership in the area.  Get your bearings.  Consider the space we're looking at as a layer cake.  From the top down to Dean Street, the parcels include:

  • SkiCo-owned land:  under contract to Gorsuch Haus 
  • Lift One Lodge (formerly Holland House and Skiers Chalet)
  • Dolinsek Property (future City park)
  • Willoughby Park (owned by City of Aspen)

While not literally "stacked" directly on top of one another, the lower three parcels are bisected by the historic transit corridor of the original Lift 1, indicated by the dotted-line outline designated "ski return" above.  Many ideas are being kicked around as Dean Street to Lift 1A transit solutions, and frequently mentioned in the context of, "I support Gorsuch Haus, but only as long as there is a lift down as far as Dean Street."  Well, here's the skinny.  And do keep in mind that pesky concept of property rights; in other words, the legal reasons why you can't build something on your neighbor's property just because you and your friends think it's a damn fine idea. 

One can argue that the conundrum started with SkiCo vs Awrey, however, in recent years, the City of Aspen has made numerous bad decisions, including careless approvals of development projects along South Aspen Street and easements that have dramatically and detrimentally affected the potential for future lift service from Dean Street to 1A.  None of these decisions are those of Gorsuch Haus; in fact, Gorsuch Haus has neither ownership nor control of the parcels in question below them on the hill, as these belong to other entities. 

HOLLAND HOUSE: UNABLE TO REDEVELOP, CLOSES

Established in 1949, and replaced and expanded on its original site in 1956 and again in 1963-1964 by the late Jack and Anneke DePagter, the Holland House operated as a 20-room ski lodge on the east side of South Aspen Street.  When a 1992 application for redevelopment revealed the lodge's previously unknown listing on the City's "historic inventory" despite being merely 40 years old, the owners saw ominous signs of the City's heavy hand in preventing the necessary upgrades of local small ski lodges to meet the needs of a more modern clientele.  Following a lengthy and costly appeal to Council, in 2003 the Holland House was finally "de-listed" because, while quaint, it was unanimously agreed that the building was indeed not historic.  As long-delayed plans for redevelopment began to move forward (including the addition of 8 guest rooms and private baths) the City's writing was still on the wall in the form of bureaucratic hurdles and other burdens. Faced with an uphill battle against the City for permission to make the changes necessary to run a ski lodge in the 21st century based on the priorities set forth in the 2000 Aspen Area Community Plan (and the City's Growth Management Quota System), the owners entertained several offers and eventually sold to developers in 2006. 

The City, with its draconian historic preservation restrictions and requirements, as well as bureaucratic encumbrances, effectively forced the owners to sell their family business and with it the potential for the next generation to continue the tradition of hospitality in a beloved small hotel on South Aspen Street.  And in so doing, the City succeeded in the elimination of a locally owned and operated (not to mention vibrant and popular) ski lodge.  The building was razed in 2007 and the parcel has remained empty ever since.

COWOP FAIL: 2008

Beginning in 2003, amidst the approval of a land use application for a townhome and subsidized housing project on the west side of South Aspen Street, the City hinted that a "ski lodge" is what the community really needed.  With its original approvals in hand, the developer put together a proposal that, after much back and forth, emerged as a 150,000 SF project that included said lodge.  But in 2007, City Council said no in a 3-2 vote.  Imagine encouraging the developers to incur the expense of pursuing this folly at Council's request, only to shoot it down when they delivered!?  (The anti-development Bolskeviks on City Council at the time seemed to relish hinting at approvals only to deny applications in the end.)

But the boulevard of broken ski lodge dreams did not end there.  The tragedy continued in 2007, when the City again sought to influence the development approval process in the area.  Developers of properties on both sides of South Aspen Street suspended their applications to participate in the City's COWOP (meaning "for the convenience and welfare of the public") process.  For 6 months in 2008, 28 participants met regularly for literally thousands of hours to come to a community-based consensus on a master plan for development of the neighborhood.  Representatives of the two proposed lodges, the SkiCo, the City, neighbors and citizens at large worked tirelessly to devise a plan that passed muster with the group, 19-2 (the group had shrunk to 21 members by the time of the vote).  Notably, then-mayor and our pal Mick Ireland voted as a City of Aspen representative FOR the proposal.

Once in front of Council for approval in early 2009, however, Mick's tune changed.  Despite 90% of the COWOP membership's approval, Mayor Mick launched into a typical anti-capitalist tirade and cast the deciding vote to kill the COWOP's proposal.  (Yes, he voted for it before he voted against it.) The COWOP was then scrapped, and property owners and developers proceeded on their own.  But recall, 2009 was smack dab in the middle of the economic downturn, which has kept the entire neighborhood in an undeveloped state of flux (not to mention looking much like a third world country) for the better part of the past decade.

If nothing else, the COWOP established the fervent public sentiment for lift service from Dean Street.  But did the City listen?  Or care?

CITY PURCHASE OF DOLINSEK PROPERTY

In 2014, the City of Aspen purchased the Dolinsek property for $2.5 million.  The half-acre parcel, owned by a long-time Aspen family whose members were integral to the development of Aspen's first ski runs, is located between the city-owned Willoughby and Lift One parks.  Terms of the transaction ensure that the property will forever remain open space, creating a contiguous green space from Dean Street up to Lift 1A (the "ski return").  Valued at over $5 million, the property was sold at a discount to the City for use as a park, and includes a life estate for John and Josephine Dolinsek, siblings who have lived their entire lives there and may now do so for the remainder of their days.  According to the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), "As a condition of closing, the Dolinseks requested that AVLT accept a conservation easement over the property in order to ensure that, once they are gone, it will never be used for anything but a public park and open space." 

The scoop: a conservation easement can be appealing to land owners who want to raise funds but don't want to sell out to a developer.  Instead, they can sell conservation easements at a lower price than they could sell the land.  A land trust or open space program will oversee the binding terms whereby the land owner can then continue to live on his land, but development potential is forever restricted, if not eliminated.  The landowner receives a state tax credit for accepting less than full value for the land.  These tax credits can be sold, or can be used to reduce property tax bills.  There is also a federal tax deduction.

The Dolinsek property was a monumental land acquisition opportunity for the City to be sure, and the 2014 City Council was mighty pleased with themselves for getting it done with your public dollars.  But the devil is always in the details.  And it would appear that the Dolinseks, through exemplary generosity on one hand, also got the last word when it comes to lift access down to Dean Street.  The deed of the Dolinsek deal (obtained by The Red Ant), IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS states:

"Commercial ski lifts and ski area infrastructure (including ski lifts, ski lift towers, overhead cables) are specifically prohibited on or over the property, though Grantor may provide the right to the public to ski across the property during the winter."  Knowing what this would do to the historic transit corridor and all future hopes for a lift upward from Dean Street, one can only wonder who at the City knew of this crippling restriction and did the deal with this stipulation anyway?  What was the Dolinseks' beef with lift access?  Did anyone even think to ask them? 

LIFT ONE LODGE

Formerly the site of the beloved Holland House and Skiers Chalet Lodge and Steakhouse, the Lift One Lodge property most recently changed hands in 2015 for $22 million.  Development plans for 22 fractional ownership units (84 total keys), five free market units and a 163-space underground garage were approved by Council in 2016.  (The old Skier Chalet Lodge will be relocated to Willoughby Park for use as a ski museum, and the Skiers Chalet Steakhouse will be converted to subsidized housing.)  Despite being 54' high at its highest point, P&Z unanimously approved the 77,000 SF lodge plans and Council declined to call it up for further review, approving the plans for what is rumored to become a Four Seasons Residence Club or Soho House (both are private clubs).  The Lift One Lodge approvals additionally extend the building envelope 15' westward into South Aspen Street, an exchange with the City for allowing 50 displaced parking spaces to be relocated into the project's garage.  Gilbert Street (from Monarch Street on the east) was also conveyed as a pedestrian walkway and utility easement, and the ONLY thing that can cross this easement is a Poma lift, specifically and exclusively.  As a result, whether Council was aware of this or not (and they didn't ask), the current density and footprint approvals for Lift One Lodge impede the possibility for a surface lift AND ski return through the remaining historic transit corridor. 

 

This rendering shows the currently proposed alignment of the replacement for Lift 1A, as well as the alignment for a possible future extension down to Dean Street in the "ski return."  Note the "conflict" with the current Lift One Lodge building footprint.

The City of Aspen's negligence in recent years in not requiring that the historic transit corridor be maintained for future lift service is specifically why there is no straightforward solution to the Dean Street to 1A transit issue.  The City has willingly granted conveyances and approvals to various adjacent parcels with no mindful consideration or valuation of the historic Lift 1A transit corridor, the vital role lift service plays not only in the neighborhood but for the community at large, and its own leadership role in preserving and maintaining both the heritage and future of Aspen, a ski town.

DEAN ST TO LIFT 1A:  WHAT'S POSSIBLE, WHAT'S NOT?

Years after the 2008 COWOP debacle, one issue remains:  the community's desire for lift service to 1A originating at Dean Street.

 

In the intervening years, however, this broadly supported public sentiment was all but ignored amidst land use decisions by the City of Aspen that now stand to prevent any such skier transit.  Here are several of the "what ifs" that people are talking about:

PLATTER PULL / POMA / SURFACE LIFT

Sadly, this is a non-starter.  While the thought of a skinny wire with a bunch of hooks seems low impact and relatively easy to implement, it is not to be.  While the Colorado Tramway Commission WOULD ALLOW a Poma surface lift in this space, it could only be used for hauling people up and only during winter months -- there isn't requisite space to provide both uphill transport AND to simultaneously allow folks to ski down the "ski return."  Furthermore, SkiCo would ostensibly own and operate this lift, and maintain the surface that it would operate upon, necessitating critical snow-making and grooming operations in a space deemed too narrow, constrained and, in several sections, on private land owned by other (disinterested) interests.  On a one-dimensional basis (such as a bird's eye view), it looks like this should be imminently do-able.  That is, until you check out the property lines and read the fine print of the City's deals.

FUTURE CHAIR OR "SKITTLES" GONDOLA

The Dolinsek Property restrictions (no infrastructure on or above) and the Lift One Lodge easement for a "Poma Only" effectively put the nails in the coffins of both a chair or a gondola from Dean Street.

HORIZONTAL ELEVATOR / FUNICULAR

An additional concept has been discussed, featuring a "horizontal elevator" that would move up and down along a track.  Once again, the same restrictions that prevent a chair or gondola to cross the Dolinsek parcel and through the Lift One Lodge property prevent a funicular as well. Furthermore, Lift One Lodge principals have vetoed this idea.

RUBBER TIRE SOLUTION

A free public shuttle that would run exclusively up and down South Aspen Street, with the sole purpose of ferrying people up to the ski area portal at Gorsuch Haus and to the 1A lift is nobody's first choice.  And it never should have come to this.  But given the City's past decisions that hinder if not entirely prevent lift service from Dean Street, it IS an option that can and will work.  No easements, no restrictions, no problem.  Besides, every ski portal in Aspen is serviced by some form of mass transit or skier shuttle.  Not only is this the commonly used means of accessing our lifts, it is arguably preferred.   We all manage quite well with the RFTA buses, Crosstown Shuttle, Galena Street Shuttle, Downtowner and other "rubber tire" solutions shared by pedestrians and skiers alike all over town.  It IS do-able.  And very convenient. HERE is the proposed shuttle map.

REVISED 1A ALIGNMENT AND IMPROVED SKI RETURN

SkiCo has committed to replacing Lift 1A with a high-speed detachable quad chair if Gorsuch Haus is approved.  This replacement is from the current elevation of Lift 1A upward.  Gorsuch Haus' plans and alignment for the replacement of 1A fully allow for a downhill extension of the lift in the future, should circumstances change, but do note, such circumstances and changes are on other people's and entities' properties, not the Gorsuch Haus property.   Folks, there is no good reason to encumber the Gorsuch Haus proposal with the responsibility for building something on other peoples' land!

Notably, the Gorsuch Haus proposal presents significant improvements that open up and restore the historic "ski return."  See it HERE

THE STATUS QUO: NOT AN OPTION

Like it or not, change is coming to the top of South Aspen Street.  This train has left the station.  When the 2008 COWOP failed, those against any future development of Aspen's historic ski portal got a reprieve.  But it is not to last.  It is exceedingly rare that we have another chance to properly develop this historic neighborhood.  There is only one option that ensures public access to the mountain into perpetuity, Gorsuch Haus.  This opportunity WILL NOT come around a third time.

The Red Ant has determined that there are basically three options for the property, and one WILL happen in some form or another:

  •  Gorsuch Haus (PUBLIC access/amenities/replacement for Lift 1A)
  • 4 private single-family "monster mansions" (Look at South Mill Street to get a feel for how that will look and work)
  • Another operator in some variation of the space, perhaps even Lift One Lodge, with an even larger "campus" (Consider the implications of a private membership residence club and how this will affect public access to the lift)

GORSUCH HAUS AND LIFT 1A

There is A LOT of good to this proposal, not the least of which is that it keeps the west side of Aspen Mountain publicly accessible.  It is certainly as good as anything we've seen, and I personally think it's better, given what's already in the works!  Don't believe for one minute the nay-sayers who are trying to convince you that Gorsuch Haus is "in the middle of a ski run."  You have the maps -- and the facts -- to know otherwise.  

When you see what is already approved for the east and west sides of South Aspen Street, I get it, you cringe at the density up there and question why a 68,000 SF hotel needs to go in at the top.  In short, Gorsuch Haus needs to go there so that we all can too!!  We can grab a beer, have lunch, meet friends, enjoy apres, and basically hang out.  If it's just a private residence club or single family homes, guess again.  And what happens to Lift 1A in the long run won't be pretty either.

Developer Bryan Peterson wrote in a recent letter to the editor, "If the lift had remained near Dean Street 45 years ago, no doubt there would be a fully developed in-town ski base.  Gorsuch Haus can't undo decisions of 40 years ago, but we can move forward and appropriately reactivate the only other portal to Aspen Mountain."

SkiCo president and CEO Mike Kaplan has stressed how critical the company believes Gorsuch Haus to be to the community.  "The redevelopment of the South Aspen Street neighborhood is important to the town of Aspen and the future of Aspen Mountain," he said.  "As we have long said, the revitalization of this area is a necessary step to the replacement of Lift 1A, and we look forward to a South Aspen Street neighborhood with new hotel and lodge projects, condominiums, restaurants and retail spaces such as Gorsuch Haus."

The Red Ant is 100% all-in for Gorsuch Haus.  Join me in convincing City Council that Gorsuch Haus is a winner: for our heritage, for our future, for our community, and especially for Aspen -- the ski town.

WHAT YOU CAN DO / HOW YOU CAN HELP

KNOW the facts.  Forward this email to your friends today.  There are real and distinct reasons why Gorsuch Haus cannot promise lift access from Dean Street.  Now you know why.  As much as Gorsuch Haus would LOVE lift service from Dean Street to the relocated Lift 1A, this decision is ENTIRELY incumbent upon other property owners in the neighborhood AND the City of Aspen. 

Let's get the fingers pointed in the right direction and the pressure applied accordingly.  With decisions comes accountability, and the City can and should make this right.  It makes sense that Lift One Lodge doesn't want to renegotiate now because they have their entitlements in hand.  The City CAN make a deal with them though.  Of course they can.  Incentives, baby.  Give it a try.  Offer them something that doesn't risk their existing approvals and let's see if there might be a solution!  AsThe Aspen Times' Andy Stone best put it, "And what's blocking this great leap forward for Aspen as a great ski town?  Lift One Lodge, foolishly approved (but fortunately not yet built) right smack in the way of that lift."  And if the Dolinsek parcel is a no-way, no-how proposition (Is it? Can the City and AVLT renegotiate just the "lift cable above" restriction for that tiny sliver of soon-to-be City property purchased with public funds?), then shame on council for their naive and short-sighted approval of that deal.  It won't be easy, and eating crow sure isn't pretty, but the city CAN make amends for its own myopic and damning decisions that have created this conundrum.  The outcome will be squarely on the shoulders of Councilmembers Skadron, Frisch, Mullins and Myrin.  Forever.  It's time to do the right thing.

PLEASE SUPPORT GORSUCH HAUS!!

  • Sign up as a supporter HERE (no, you do not have to be a local voter)
  • Write to City Council in support:  steve.skadron, adam.frisch, bert.myrin, ann.mullins -- all  @cityofaspen.com
  • Write to the papers in support:  letters@aspendailynews.com and mail@aspentimes.com
  • Talk the project up!  You now know the facts, and word of mouth matters!
  • Link to THIS issue of The Red Ant on your Facebook page.
  • Specifically address the "lift to Dean Street issue" now that you know what's going on!
  • COME TO THE COUNCIL MEETING ON MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13 AND VOICE YOUR SUPPORT FOR GORSUCH HAUS!!!!  Be prepared to make a VERY brief statement (less than 3 minutes) with VERY specific reasons for your support. 

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And just for fun, get in the mood by checking out Aspen Journalism's fabulous and comprehensive timeline of Aspen's skiing history, including wonderful photos from the Lift 1 days.  We must never forget our skiing heritage!!

Monday
Jan232017

ISSUE #130: How ArrogANT!  (1/19/2017)

"You're trying to regulate something you know nothing about."   

-- Charif Souki

It turns out that the recent "controversy" over the future of chain stores in Aspen isn't about chain stores at all. 

The current brou-ha-ha about chain stores, the assumed and therefore rumored unchecked growth thereof, and the potential for banning, capping, limiting, and/or restricting them came to a fore today during a 7-hour meeting in an Aspen Institute conference room.  Organized by former Aspen mayors John Bennett and Bill Stirling, along with high tech entrepreneur Jerry Murdoch, about 25 of Aspen's "thought leaders" (as they were called) gathered to discuss Murdoch's proposed city ordinance that would "restrict" chain stores in Aspen's commercial core. (I wrote about it recently HERE.)

Today's meeting was a complete fraud. It took a couple of hours of sitting there listening and trying to figure out what was really going on before it became abundantly clear.  Like I said, the ordinance and this entire charade is not about chain stores at all. Chain stores are just a red herring.  It's about development.  Specifically, ending development (new buildings and redevelopment of existing ones) in Aspen's commercial core.  Here's how I know:

We were told at the onset that there were three possible outcomes to today's discussion:

  • Accept Jerry's proposed ordinance as a group and present it to city council.
  • Don't accept it and Jerry will circulate a citizen's petition to get the issue on the ballot for a public vote, likely in May.
  • Continue the discussion.

Glaringly absent was the option for the group to shoot the proposal down.  This assumption of moving the ordinance forward regardless of information, feedback and lessons learned throughout the day was disconcerting if not foretelling.

Next, we were informed that the object of today's discussion was to address the growth of "formula retail" (the fancy name for chain stores) with Jerry's ordinance inherently being the solution.  And so it began.  It's Aspen, so of course there was A LOT of vague, flowery discussion about "community character," "balance" and "diversity" as these relate to retail offerings here, and many truly valuable discussions on the local retail environment from hand-picked yet arguably credible local retailers, landlords, bureaucrats, realtors, business people and regular local folk.  But there was one major thing missing at the professionally moderated meeting that had lofty ambitions to agree to take Murdoch's ordinance to city council in the immediate term for adoption: consensus.

Most glaring was the lack of agreement among the group on the mere fact of what Murdoch's ordinance would actually solve or even merely address.  As the day went on and the ordinance itself was clarified, the waters only became muddier.  A participant from Australia who owns and operates a successful retail district in Brisbane called James Street was invited to share his experiences.  Patrick George thoughtfully listened to other participants and pointed out to the group that chain stores pay their bills, it's very hard to find non-chains that can compete in the long term in an expensive and seasonal environment, and the (small) size of our population effectively prevents the success of what he called "everyday retail."  Not exactly music to chain store detractors' ears, but real world experience from someone who would know.  Notably and quite ironically, he asked THE question of the day: "What is the real problem?"

This was because so many disparate and unrelated problems were brought up.  In fact, it seemed as though nearly every participant (predominantly from the bureaucratic, local retailer and "local folk" side of the house) had his or her own problem that they wish city council would address, presumably with Jerry's ordinance.  Problems, ostensibly because of chain stores in Aspen, included:

  • Erosion of the Aspen brand
  • Fear of chain stores taking over 100% of the ground floor retail space in Aspen
  • We're putting all our eggs in one basket by counting on chain stores to pay the bills
  • The city's regulations / taxes / fees make starting a business here prohibitive
  • Loss of vitality / funkiness / character  -- we're getting too homogenized
  • Locals being unable to start / own businesses in Aspen
  • Locals not being able to shop in Aspen 

But when the facts on chain stores in Aspen were revealed, the tone changed.  It turns out that "the chain store problem" isn't actually much of a problem at all.  Several participants had walked the commercial core (the 18 blocks north of Durant Street, south of Bleeker, west of Spring and east of Monarch) and identified 152 ground floor retail locations.  Of these, 46 were deemed "chain stores" because they have 11+ outlets.  That is just 30%.  Prior to the meeting, the community rumor mill was stoking fears and churning out numbers more like 60%, and growing.  And there was no real data that even addressed yet alone proved that all chain stores in Aspen operate at a loss as a matter of course.  It's a clever rumor, but a rumor none-the-less until proven otherwise. And remember, the city's largest landlords were all there, and they certainly agreed: new chain stores are NOT lining up trying to open here.

So, just what is the problem that Jerry's ordinance ostensibly addresses?  The question hung heavily in the room, but not everyone saw it.  It was fascinating to see how enraptured the millennial wannabe business owners were by the mere notion that their government might just adopt a regulation that punishes landlords and chain stores, and in so doing might just give them a boost up toward the elusive golden ring.  It was equally intriguing to hear from local retailers that maybe even more restrictions on chain stores ought to be implemented, such as prohibiting them from having sales on their merchandise except at designated times of the year.

All of this made for interesting theater, but proposed ordinance is really just a solution in search of a problem.  And despite what Jerry continued to espouse, no specific information or data was presented that supports his position that a restriction on chain stores in new and redeveloped buildings in Aspen's commercial core will IN ANY WAY ensure that unique and funky stores that will save Aspen's character will open there instead.  Nor will it make it one iota easier for locals to start and own their own businesses in town.  And I am hard pressed to see how the goods for sale in these restricted spaces will somehow be more affordable for locals as a result.  It's a solution alright.  But for what problem?

A lot of information was shared at the meeting, but the facts on the ground revealed that the "chain store problem" turns out not to be a problem at all.  So what is the REAL "problem" that isn't being talked about?

It's development.

When pressed, Jerry acknowledged that his ordinance would NOT ban chain stores in Aspen.  Nor would it cap or limit them in any way.  Not in EXISTING (and approved for development) buildings.  The buildings with existing chain store tenants can keep them and can even write leases for new chain store tenants when current leases are up.  In fact, Jerry's ordinance allows ANY AND ALL existing buildings in the commercial core to rent to as many chain store tenants as they wish today, next week and into perpetuity.  No restrictions whatsoever on chain store tenants in existing (and approved) buildings in the commercial core EVER. 

THAT was the WOW moment for The Red Ant. 

If EXISTING (and approved) buildings can have chain stores as tenants into perpetuity (meaning that many, many more chain stores CAN come to Aspen, unrestricted), what is really going on here??  Clearly, the issue is not about chain stores at all.  Think about all the potential places for chain stores in existing buildings (specifically the spaces where the other 70% of our current retail stores exist) and ask yourself:  how again does this ordinance protect Aspen's character / brand / vitality / uniqueness that is so at risk because of chain stores????  It doesn't.  What it does is place potentially cumbersome restrictions on NEW and REDEVELOPED buildings in the core, restrictions that will hinder and encumber investors and developers in such a way that new buildings and the redevelopment of existing ones will become financially untenable.  No investor or developer will risk developing new retail space that cannot ever be rented to the same tenants as those in all the buildings around them.  Theoretically, it ends development in the core.

The million dollar question is why.  And the answer is not entirely clear.  But here's my guess.  Jerry Murdoch wants to "save" Aspen from future development in the core. He doesn't want to punish the current landlords.  He is not going after Mark Hunt and his portfolio of downtown properties.  (It's next generation's Mazza-Woods-Hunt-Hecht-Marcus-Garfield-Cox-Souki-caliber property owners that will suffer.  And the community, because the passage of time inherently creates the need to redevelop at some point.)  And he wants to do it his way, right now.  He's rich.  He's successful.  He's smart. On some level, it plays as altruism.  Freeze Aspen in time.** 

And he's been masterfully deceptive in ginning up support for his plan.  The Whiny Millennials (see Issue #129) are all-in with Jerry because they currently have little chance to have what they want here, and chain stores have become the perfect villain.  He has played them.  Why?  They don't know any better, and because (recall from the beginning of the meeting) if the ordinance isn't accepted and passed by city council, Jerry will petition to get the question on the ballot where it will likely pass with the voters.  (The millennials and their "bring back the Quiet Years" brethren will absolutely vote for it.)  It will also likely pass because it will be promoted on the false premises debunked today.  And what's in it for him??  "Success."  He obviously has a beef with the ongoing development and redevelopment in Aspen, and he wants it to stop.  Now.  Forever.  This, despite Aspen being a 150-year-old town with many, many very old buildings that will absolutely need redevelopment someday.  Again, this has absolutely NOTHING to do with chain stores.  If he is able to jam his ordinance through (one way or the other), it will hinder if not effectively kill development in the core.  He wins.  And despite the lengthy discussion today (some parts of it more enlightened than others), the moderator made the whole game clear when he congratulated Jerry for NOT saying "It's my idea and I'm doing it," which is precisely what he effectively said in concluding the meeting.  (Jerry emphatically stated his plans to present his ordinance to council on February 6.)  He also kindly suggested that if people had other ideas, they too should present these to council, presumably as their own ordinances.

It's the hurry-up offense, folks.  The meeting was merely Jerry's way to "check the box" so he can say that he got a read on what the community wants.  He got a read alright, but certainly no consensus.  Not even close.  But he is moving ahead anyway.

A strange day indeed.

** Mt. Vesuvius famously "froze a community in time" back in 79 AD.  How'd THAT work out for the people of Pompeii?


Wednesday
Jan182017

ISSUE #129: It's What They wANT  12/8/2016

"We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it." 

-- E.F. Hutton

MORE SOCIAL ENGINEERING IN ASPEN

A small group of vocal citizens has recently been lobbying council and city staff to expedite a change to Aspen's land use code that would limit or ban new chain stores in the downtown core.  The plan would be for potential new chain store tenants to go through a "review" process before being granted a business license.  The Chain Store Control Act (CSCA), as it is being referred to by detractors, is being pushed as a means of enabling "locally owned" or "locally serving" businesses to get into the retail game in our expensive and exclusive resort town.  The CSCA pushers specifically want lower rents for these local businesses which will occupy the same spaces that they can't currently afford in the existing market.  Never mind the spaces are private property. 

The Red Ant sees this whole CSCA charade for what it really is - social engineering, a taking, a solution in search of a problem and the city government's latest attempt to control the "use mix" of what will be allowed for sale in our commercial zones by being the one who picks winners and losers to please the loudest subset of our community.

Aspen's "millennials," who want desperately to make their mark on Aspen, are the loudest supporters of such controls.  They understandably want their own businesses here and feel that it's simply not fair that the high rents paid by national "formula retailers" are keeping them out of the game.

You see, framing this as a "millennial" issue sets up the battle lines.  Support for a limit or ban on chain stores signals your love and support for the younger set who, by benefit of birthright or mere arrival, want to stay in Aspen with the fulfilling and successful careers owed to them.  If you oppose limiting chain stores, you clearly don't love our local young folk and the children of your local friends.  Brilliant.  And frightening.

MEET THE WHINY MILLENNIALS

By demographic definition, "the millennials" are the cohort following Generation X, typically being born in the early-to-mid 1980s through the early 2000s.  In Aspen, the same definition applies, except we just so happen to have a particularly virulent strain of the whiny variety that have become politically active.  Usually, The Red Ant would say that this is an excellent thing, to have this generation's up-and-comers of our community get invested and engaged in the political processes of our community.  But our Whiny Millennials are special -- even more so than their brethren elsewhere.  Yes, it's all about them, of course, but our particularly toxic strain is not only willing but adamant about forcing the government to interfere with the local free market economy to benefit THEM!  Imagine that!?

Aspen's Whiny Millennials failed spectacularly in their recent attempt to co-opt the public process by strategically and emotionally convincing city council to grant them the city-owned Old Power House (formerly inhabited by the Aspen Art Museum) for use as a brewery and party HQ with subsidized office spaces upstairs for the creation and development of their grand plans. Tapping into council's weakness for the romantic and idealized "mind, body and culture" ethos -- and saying "no" to this group -- the Whiny Millennials' plea for beers, music, small bites and big ideas down by the river enchanted our elected reps.  In the end, however, after vociferous pushback from neighbors and concerned citizens alike, not to mention serious legal challenges, council was harshly reminded that not only was the original RFP for the space specifically for non-profit use, a commercial enterprise is most certainly not allowed there under current zoning.  In the end, with tails between their legs, council relented under the pressures of reality and rescinded from the Whiny Millennials this erroneous award.  See The Red Ant Issue #124 and #125 for a recap on the last gasps of breath of this idiotic chapter from the depths of Aspen's public policy rat hole.

But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they're back. The Whiny Millennials and their Millennial Sympathizers (*MS) are again galvanized to take what's theirs, or, better put, what's yours that they want to be theirs.  Buckle up.

*MS:  just who are the Millennial Sympathizers?  Sure, there are a couple of boldfaced names out there, a couple of former mayors, and, combined with a council that is easily and emotionally distracted by symptoms and not actual causes, this just might be 2017's perfect storm for the government again trying to manipulate and control the local economy.  (Noteworthy is the support for the ban by former mayor Bill Stirling, perhaps best known for his ridiculous attempt to ban the sale of fur in Aspen in the late 1980s.  The attempt garnered national headlines, but in the end, only served to make Aspen look foolish.  Any surprise that he likes this new idea?!)

But if this sounds a little hinky, it does to me too.  Yes, the effort is being marketed by the Whiny Millennials, but who is really behind it?  Sure, they are an aggrieved bunch, by definition, but why the heavy handed city support?  Who there in city hall is encouraging this?  The Millennials are most certainly the straw men posing as the dispossessed to bring this issue to the fore and ostensibly generate interest and sympathy, but at whose behest?  What has been offered to them in exchange for leading this charge?  And really, while it is being promoted as settled science, what proof does city hall have that brand name retailers widely accept losses in Aspen as solely a marketing ploy?  Sure, the city can contrive assumptions from sales tax results, but without access to corporate financials (which they have absolutely no right to access), this is all simply conjecture and the basis for restrictions on the use of private property?!  And how did this whole brou-haha emerge, fully developed by the esteemed community development department with no public process?  This is right up there with the very worst public policy making, even for Aspen.  It smacks to me as city hall higher ups manipulating our young and impressionable folks to do the dirty work of sticking it to Aspen's relatively small cadre of commercial real estate owners for having the unmitigated gall of being successful.  Sounds city manager-ish.  And, combined with Mayor Steve Skadron's ongoing and vapid "mountain town values" drivel, this is a shot over the bow that challenges the right of individuals to use their privately owned property as they see fit under the law.  

IF YOU CAN'T BUILD IT YOURSELF, STEAL IT

From a declared standpoint, the motivation and objective (beyond just limiting or banning chain stores) of the proposal at hand is conspicuously absent.  The intent of being so vague is to additionally tap into the "stick it to the man" mentality that pervades our local culture, especially among those who lament the end of The Quiet Years (such as the *MS former mayors) -- those who just can't accept that it's still not 1975 in Aspen and never will be again.  The hope of the CSCA pushers is that emotions will again take over and no one will think beyond that.  (Along those lines, I must admit, I too sorely miss A LOT of stuff that's no longer available here:  the #2 at La Cocina, shoe shopping at Ozzie's, the clever revue at the Crystal Palace, breakfast at Gerhard's Wienerstube "stammtisch" and just about everything on the menu at Lauretta's, but I live in reality and know that on planet earth, simply put, things change).  

Having endured the painful experience of listening to the whiners once again appeal to council for pity on their plight ("It's not fair, we can't do what people who moved here in 1980 did"), their true motivation became undeniably clear (intentional run-on sentence to illustrate the "all about me" nature of this pathetic action):  They live here and they love it and they want to stay here, but for many reasons they can't get their own "things" going in order to afford them the financial ability to have the life they see others living and want for themselves, so they'd like council to take action to intentionally collapse the commercial real estate market in the downtown core so that they might then get some sort of TBD commercial toehold and ostensibly live happily ever after in Aspen like they deserve to because they were born here or moved here and others who came before them appear to have done this and it's what they want too but the world is different and it's harder and more expensive now so clearly the government needs to help them no matter the cost or inconvenience to anyone.  It's the participation trophy, Aspen-style.

Pleas for more "entrepreneurial opportunities" and emotional lament at losing leases that were only "pop up" (discounted due to their interim nature) to begin with abounded at last week's meeting.  It was pitiful, as in full of pity -- exactly what the whiners want from council.  And the blame (there is ALWAYS blame) fell squarely on the shoulders of chain stores.  Somehow, they whined, if chain stores were outlawed, the greedy landlords of Aspen would surely HAVE TO deeply discount downtown commercial rents so that Whiny Millennial bric-a-brac shops could proliferate and they too could have their longed-for slice of the Aspen pie.  (See, it's easy, just give it to us, otherwise, we'll steal it.)

No one has yet bothered to remind this entitled crew that maybe their struggle is not unique to them, so I will, starting with:  there's probably a reason why Apple was invented in a garage.  Throughout Aspen's relatively short history, people have come here and fallen in love with the place.  Again, what's not to love?  I've written it many, many times, but the mere act of crossing the Castle Creek bridge from the West into Aspen DOES NOT guarantee you one single thing except getting to the other side.  What makes this group more special than the last?  Or the generation before that?  Or the post-War 10th Mountain Division war heroes who founded the ski area?  Or the silver miners?  Or the Ute Indians.  There were no safety nets, no trigger warnings, no safe spaces, fuzzy blankets, play-doh or guaranteed outcomes for any of our forefathers in Ute City.  It was hard work and risk, not entitlement, that built this city.  (Ok, a little rock and roll too, but I digress.)

Don't be fooled.  The Whiny Millennials say all they want is a "level playing field."  It was one of the big buzz-phrases of the evening at the council meeting.  But they don't want that at all.  The level playing field implies that all comers play by the same rules -- in other words, a market economy. The Whiny Millennials want just the opposite.  They want a slanted slope of a field that benefits one side and one side only, theirs.  They want government redistribution but not even through taxes, rather via a direct taking of private property through devaluation and assignment to someone approved by the government.  Affirmative action at altitude.

THE RETAIL DEATH PANEL

In every Aspen recipe for public policy disaster, there is the critical ingredient of subjectivity.  There simply must be exceptions to the rule!  And since rules in general don't apply to the Millennials, why should the specific rules for banning chain stores be anything but ambiguous?  Well, guess why -- the Whiny Millennials actually kinda like chain stores, but only some of them -- the ones where they like to shop.  Great distress was shared about the loss of The Gap and Banana Republic.  The desire for Anthropologie was expressed.  Surefoot and Sunglasses Hut are good, but Prada and Gucci, no way.  In short, chains that please the whiners and their friends are welcome, but "those places" that are also found on Madison and Michigan Avenues and Rodeo Drive -- be gone!!

The plan is to empanel and empower a select "commission" that will determine retail winners and losers.  A retail death panel, if you will.  Just who gets to sit on this court, prescribing judgment on which consumer durables are ok to buy and sell in Aspen (and by and from whom) is anyone's guess, but smart money is on Planning & Zoning, even though it makes no sense at all.  But it's where several of the whiners and champions of this proposal already strategically serve. Kinda convenient, dontcha think!?

It all promises to be beyond any subjectivity we've ever seen from city hall.  What exactly will constitute a "chain"?  Word on the street today is a business with 11-15 or more locations.  So 10 is ok?  Promise?  Which chain store brands would automatically trigger a review?  Are existing leases to chain stores grandfathered in?  What about renewals?  Is this just a ground floor ban?  What about multi-level buildings that don't have an obvious ground floor?  What's the timeframe for death panel decisions?  Appeals?  Will there be quotas?  Interior design mandates?  The list goes on.... 

COUNCIL INQUIRIES MET WITH PATHETIC REVELATIONS

When asked what it was they were REALLY looking for, the whiners' answers were alarmingly telling.  Rhetoric such as "locally owned" and "locally serving" was bandied about, although no one can or will (yet) define for all of us just who is a real "local."  When the issue was pressed, in the end, "locally owned" doesn't really solve it for the Whiny Millennials.  You see, if a local guy were to take over the space in the Andre's building (where Prada currently exists) and sell high-end Italian clothing, would this be ok?  Apparently not, since the Whiny Millennials "still wouldn't shop there."  They're looking for something called "locally serving."  It has more to do with WHO shops in WHICH stores than who actually owns them.  Good locals and bad locals, real locals and fake ones.  The idea is that our entitled local, young folk, (literally) given space, would be able to their sell "funky" and "homegrown" stuff not only to our tourists (who they assume are looking for whatever it is they're selling) but primarily and especially to each other.  

THE LAWS OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Aspen is ground zero for making hasty decisions and dealing with the terrible unintended consequences later.  Or not dealing with them, as the case so often is.  Here are just a few that the Whiny Millennials and their nostalgic co-conspirators have no sense of:

  • Empty storefronts in the core. THAT's not vitality.  It's blight.
  • A rotation of failed businesses over multiple years creating uncertainty in the marketplace that will drive shoppers elsewhere.
  • Immediate term rush by landlords to secure long term leases with chain stores before this nonsense goes into effect.
  • There are many, many high end retailers that are not "chains" per se that can and will step in and secure leases in the absence of competition for space.
  • Does anyone think local landlords will quickly and suddenly slash their lease rates just so some entitled schmuck can sell recycled water bottles in the downtown core?
  • ACRA neutered.  Where is the esteemed Aspen Chamber Resort Association in all of this?  Do they really represent the business community or have they become just a shill for city hall?
  • When the government effectively subsidizes some businesses and not others, does this same government provide "relief" when said subsidized businesses fail?  (The Whiny Millennials will surely be looking for someone to cry to when this happens.... "But it was my life savings...")
  • Financial impacts.  Has anyone bothered to consider the financial impact of this ridiculous folly?  Ok, right now, things are ducky, but what happens when Aspen's sales tax base slowly erodes?  What of the parks and recreation facilities that serve locals at subsidized rates?  Or housing values that generate the RETT and make the subsidized housing program possible (so that all the Whiny Millennials have an in-town place to live) decrease?  What of the subsidized daycare that Millennial families benefit from - a direct result of the sales taxes paid by those who visit and shop at our high end (chain) retailers?
  • Economic downturn.  Yes, the economy has recovered and is on the upswing now, but what happens during the next downturn when revenues that subsidize the lifestyle of our local subsidized housing residents can drop as much as 40%?
  • What do we do when Generation Z shows up, wanting that era's version of what we did for their predecessors?
  • And the age-old wisdom:  We all know what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you!

A RED ANT MESSAGE TO THE WHINY MILLENNIALS

Aspen is a top-tier, high-end, world class, international tourist destination. Ours is a service-based economy where jobs are primarily those that support local tourism and secondarily provide additional services to the community that developed as a result.  Over time, the jobs in Aspen that are NOT in the tourism service sector have indeed broadened and evolved.  Where it was once just teachers, doctors, first responders and those in the hospitality business, the growth of the community has come to include architects, builders, designers, lawyers, realtors, a ridiculously large bureaucracy of city and county employees, and just about every other profession found in every other large city.  But at the beginning and end of every day, Aspen is a tourist town.  We just get to live here because we each figured out our own way to make it work.

Sorry, Millennials, Aspen is NOT all about you.  Aspen owes you NOTHING -- certainly no more than it owes anyone else!  It's great that you want to start and own a business of your own.  It's the American Dream -- chase it!  But you might want to think about doing it somewhere where you stand the best chance of success, if indeed that is your goal.  But if your goal is not quite that ambitious and dreams of powder days and mountain bike rides are more proliferate, that's ok too, but maybe this business thing isn't for you.  But don't get me wrong, there are literally thousands of people who live in Aspen who have found out how to make their version of "it" work.  Talk to them.  Learn from them.  What do they all have in common?  They figured "it" out. They looked at the opportunities and the costs, weighed the risks, and threw their hats (and sometimes life savings) into the ring.  Some succeeded, some failed.  Some failed many times.  Others will fail again.  But doing it the hard way is the reality in a place like Aspen.  To the victors go the spoils.  Sorry, no blue ribbon just for showing up.

Aspen is the epitome of the level playing field.  We are open to all comers.  And sure, there is a price of admission.  But anyone is welcome to show up and give it a go.  You too are as welcome in this community as anyone who has come before you and anyone who comes afterward.  But you are NOT more special than the next guy.  And there are no guarantees of a successful outcome.  That's just life.  It's hard here.  And it's expensive.  And that can make it even harder.  Yeah, had you been born in another era**, things might have been different if you'd made your way here.  But you weren't and you didn't.  Neither did a lot of us.  Short of a quick trip in a time machine, get over it.  Life isn't fair.  

**In 1968, you could have moved to a town with dirt roads, no support system and little in the way of infrastructure of any kind.  And if you'd had the courage, you could have invested your own money, worked your ass off for several decades, and if you ended up being one of the few who made it, built your fortune.  There was risk then just as there is now.  Now think about it - these are the very people who you and those who represent you are imploring the government to take from in order to give to you.  Is this really who you are and what you stand for?  (Don't answer that, I think I know.)

Some say Aspen isn't the real world, but just like the laws of gravity, reality DOES exist here.  The question is can you exist (and hopefully thrive) in the reality that is Aspen??  The selfish act of trying to change Aspen at the cost of others to fit your selfish desires is not the path to Nirvana, regardless of where you practice yoga.

But most notably, look around -- not all your peers are whining.  Many are notable local attorneys and award-winning architects.  And don't forget the restaurant owners with multiple local outlets and those manufacturers/distributors of locally-produced beer and wine.  Some figured "it" out somewhere else and now do "it" in Aspen.  And others just worked hard at "it" and climbed their way up -- heads down, not hands out.  None of them demanded special favors and dispensations.  It IS possible to make "it" in Aspen, but perhaps recycled water bottles and ground floor yoga smack dab in the downtown core aren't the best fit for this tricky and expensive economy.  Again, that's just life.  Being born, raised in, or merely enamored of Aspen does not inherently assure you a ride on the glidepath to success. And really, it's nothing against you or your dreams, it's just that Aspen doesn't owe anyone anything.  Go make something of yourself.  Make E.F. Hutton proud.  Earn it.

WHAT'S AHEAD FOR THIS NONSENSE

Thankfully, at press time, it appears as though council has recently received enough pushback (and maybe a tad of common sense) and has slammed the brakes on a hasty decision on this issue.  Good thinking, seeing as how such foolishness was hastily thrown out there.  Those laws of unintended consequences loom large.  Staff will not be pushing this down council's or our throats until sometime in the new year.  Instead, everyone has been asked to wait for the building moratorium in downtown Aspen to be lifted in late February.  At that time, significant changes to the land use code are supposed to include streamlined and incentivized zoning opportunities that will enable second tier retail establishments in second tier downtown spaces (second floors and basements).  In other words, can't we just wait to see how the public process works out?!  In fact, this very issue (to meet the needs of locally owned/serving businesses) is specifically expected to be addressed!  Patience, people!  It sounds to me like lower barriers to and costs of entry are a'coming!

But no one ever said the Whiny Millennials were ill-prepared for possible council pushback and a potential delay.  A citizen's petition effort has been threatened and is widely expected whereby just a couple hundred signatures will ensure that a ballot measure determining the issue will be on the May 2017 ballot.  Public process be damned; just kick it to the voters who hopefully won't see any downside.  It's the Whiny Millennials, folks.  Why would they wait for something that staff has been working on for nearly a year?  And of course they're not interested in "second tier" anything.  They'll be out there in front of City Market asking you to sign their petition, and they just might get the requisite signatures.  If that happens, the real fun begins.  A divisive election season: emotions and entitlement vs economics.  Fun times ahead.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Weigh in.  Write to council.  Write to the local papers.  This issue, if not properly addressed by the upcoming significant changes to the land use code, can certainly be revisited in the future.  But to jump the gun and rush ahead is as ill-advised as the very issue itself.

My friend and co-conspirator Maurice Emmer wrote a great letter last week:

"Locals who lobbied city council to regulate chain stores should be applauded for upholding a rich local tradition.  This is how government should work: an interest group talks to elected officials to seek a change the group thinks will improve life for the group.

It's not clear what improvement this group seeks.  It could be lowering commercial rents so locally produced water bottles can be sold in local stores; or changing the commercial mix so Aspen isn't Rodeo Drive; or substituting the tastes of a small group for those of the market.  It doesn't really matter. What matters is that Aspen perpetuate a richly observed local tradition -- attempting to repeal the laws of economics.  

We've tried limiting development, thus limiting the supply of leasable space, then complained about escalating rents for the limited leasable space.  We've tried banning fur sales, having no effect on fur sales but driving the resulting revenues and sales tax receipts to other communities.  We've tried building an uneconomic hydro-electric plant instead of buying far less expensive renewable energy from our utility provider.  We've tried mandating that a developer install an affordable restaurant in a basement only to create a perpetually vacant basement.  We've tried offered get below-market leases in city-owned buildings on the condition of below-market pricing without any way to measure that pricing.

In the tradition of these quixotic causes i say, go ahead.  Regulate chain stores.  Persuade yourselves that you know what to do and how to do it.  And that you can predict the consequences.  But before you do, I suggest one other endeavor.  Recently there's been a trend of amending Aspen's home rule charter when deficiencies are identified.  Before taking on more pointless causes, we should amend the home rule charter to empower city council to repeal the laws of economics.  Maybe then these Rube Goldberg schemes can work."

And don't miss popular columnist Paul Menter's articulate and amusing thoughts on the subject.  Read it HERE.

Stay tuned.  And buyer beware.

Friday
Oct282016

ISSUE #128: ImportANT Election Update  10/20/2016

"Why pay money to have your family tree traced? Go into politics and your opponents will do it for you."   

-- Unknown

CHANGED MY TUNE:  NO ON 1A  

In an unprecedented move, The Red Ant has reconsidered and then changed my stance on the Open Space & Trails property tax extension.  It was not a matter of being questioned (harrassed?) by hundreds of readers, rather, it was a couple of very pragmatic synopses that weakened my admittedly shaky endorsement.

Change your vote on 1A to NO.  Here's why:  $500 million

Based on historical growth in the Pitkin County Open Space property tax, the proposed 20 year extension of the 3.75 mill levy would produce between $500 and $650 million in taxes for open space.  For the past 15 years, the open space tax has accounted for over 50% of all Pitkin County property taxes -- more than the combined county property taxes for the General Fund, Roads & Bridges, Social Services, Healthy Community,TV Translator and Bond Redemption combined. 

The current city of Aspen Parks and Open Space annual funding from sales taxes is $10 million, and the annual County Open Space mill levy taxes are $12 million.  Given past successes, do we really need to devote over $22 million per year (and growing) in local taxes to parks and open space?

The County Open Space program, in partnership with the city, Town of Snowmass Village and others, has been highly productive with over 20,000 acres being acquired and preserved.  Open space acquisitions have largely run their course as the most important lands have already been acquired, including Droste/Brush Creek, Deer Hill, Red Butte/Stein, Smuggler, North Star, Moore, Marolt, Crown, Grange, Cozy Point, among others.  While there still may be some attractive parcels yet to be acquired, the largest and most important lands that are in highly visible and accessible areas have been acquired. Therefore, fewer resources are needed for ongoing acquisitions.  In addition, highly restrictive county land use policies severely limit the development risk of significant tracts of land, and therefore largely assure that visual qualities will be preserved.

In recognition of past success, the Open Space property tax levy should be reviewed and redirected.  More resources should be devoted to managing, maintaining and improving the large inventory of existing public open space. Given the limited opportunities for acquisition of key open space parcels that remain within the county, fewer resources should be devoted to acquisitions.

While we all value and enjoy using our parks and open space, a commitment of over $500 million in property taxation over the next two decades is simply too much.  Rather than extend this tax that does not expire until 2019, VOTE NO ON 1A.  We must ask county leadership to evaluate our total county tax burden and associated expenditures.  The taxpayer portion should be adjusted accordingly for discretionary choices such as open space.

The Red Ant acknowledges the assistance of several people more knowledgeable than I for their invaluable assistance in clarifying this issue, especially Mike Maple.  I regret the inconvenience of this change.


Friday
Oct282016

ISSUE #127: 2016 EndorsemANTs  10/19/2016

"It's easy to view politicians as corrupt, and voting as essentially an act of picking the lesser of two evils.  I understand that perspective and feel it's valid." 

-- Macklemore

Yep.  Another election looms.  Here in the People's Republic of Aspen, these darned things crop up nearly as often as the seasons change.  This one promises to be a whopper -- for reasons far beyond those even contemplated in our little burg -- and I encourage you to vote.  We will be arguing about the 2016 election outcome(s) for the rest of our lives, and The Red Ant always says, if you don't vote, then you are not entitled to an opinion.  (At least I'm not interested in it.)

First, some quick housekeeping.  This will be a mail-in ballot election.  Ballots will be sent to you on October 17.  You may drop off your ballot beginning on October 17 at the Pitkin County Clerk's office (501 E. Hyman Ave., Suite 106) 8:30a - 4:30p, Town of Snowmass Village Town Hall (24 hour drop box) and Basalt Town Hall (101 Midland Ave) in a 24 hour drop box in the parking lot.  Early voting begins at the Aspen Jewish Community Center at 435 West Main Street on October 24, 8:30a - 4:30p M-F and 10a - 2p on Saturdays.  If voting via mail-in ballot makes you queasy, you may also (but not additionally) vote in person on Election Day, November 8, at the Aspen Jewish Community Center, the Town of Snowmass Village Town Hall or Grace Church in Emma.  Bring a photo ID.  On Election Day you may also drop your ballot until 7p at The Church at Redstone.  Remember, additional postage is needed if mailing in your ballot.  Ballots received after 7pm on Election Day will not be counted.  Please direct your questions to the Pitkin County Clerk's office 970-920-5180 x5.  Register or confirm your voter registration HERE

I encourage you vote your conscience for our 45th president.  But buyer beware.  Regardless of your political affiliation or your views on the inevitable election of an un-indicted criminal or a narcissistic reality tv star/businessman to the highest office in the land, there is FAR more at stake than just who gets to wake up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next four years.  Stop kvetching about who you WISH was on the ticket.  Focus on the issues!  The deficit.  National security.  The Supreme Court.  Race relations in America.  A politicized judiciary.  Our failed education system ... Among many other critical issues.  As abhorrent as each of the individual candidates is personally, their policies could not be more different.  I highly recommend ignoring the temptation to vote for (or against) one personality, but rather, vote for the candidate whose policies align most closely with your own.  The problems we face today are dramatically worse than anything we've seen certainly in my lifetime.  And if you don't think so, you are kidding yourself.  The outcome of a presidential election always has vast implications and consequences, however, this one will be particularly far-reaching.  Do the homework.  Colorado is one of several swing states that will determine the outcome of this election.  Remember the electoral college from civics class?  Let your pals in NY and CA argue til they're literally blue in the face.  Given how the electoral college works, their votes don't count.  Or, rather, they've already been counted.  Alternatively, your Colorado vote MOST DEFINITELY counts!  Exercise your right thoughtfully and responsibly.

The following are solely the opinions and endorsements of The Red Ant. This is NOT an election primer, nor am I touting it as a fair and balanced analysis of both sides of every issue.  It's not.  It's MY (well-researched and contemplated) opinion.  Period.  Every registered voter in Colorado has received a 79-page State Ballot Information Booklet.  Read it.  You can also search online for additional otherwise biased input.  And I encourage you to do so.  But because I hear from SO MANY of you each election cycle as part of your personal election research inquiring as to how I am voting, here's what I'm doing and why.  

US SENATE -- DARRYL GLENN

This political outsider (and US Air Force vet) is an African-American constitutionalist who vows to fight the Washington establishment, address our crippling debt and focus on building our national security.  Sick of the rigged system in Washington and the elite insiders of both parties whose decisions are transforming America in the image of socialist European nations, Glenn will fight for those in Colorado who are equally sick of the failed policies of Barack Obama, and yes, that includes ObamaCare.  Lots of outside money is flowing into our state to oppose Glenn because he does have a shot against the incumbent.  Now is the time to send a message to Washington that the people of Colorado expect better.

US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (DISTRICT 3) -- SCOTT TIPTON

I am voting for our incumbent representative for numerous reasons, but share two key ones here:  Truth and ObamaCare

Truth:  In this ugliest of election cycles, lies in campaign materials are rampant. Tipton's challenger, ever desperate to unseat him, is currently pushing an inane claim that Scott Tipton is trying to "sell" public lands.  Now's the time to blow the big BS whistle.  When asked to provide proof of this false claim, Tipton's opponent pointed to two bills.  Independently verified by The Durango Herald, one bill "does not issue any new land for sale," and the other "says nothing about transferring ownership."  This attempt to deceive western slope voters on Congressman Tipton's record is shameful and unethical.  Congressman Tipton has a record for sponsoring legislation that protects and promotes our public lands.  Do not be fooled by desperate attempts at deception by a desperate wanna-be politician.

ObamaCare:  As a self-insured resident of Pitkin County, I recently learned that my health insurance, for the second year in a row, would not be offered for renewal.  In fact, thus far this year no insurer in the state of Colorado is offering an individual PPO plan. I harken back to the days of "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.  If you like your plan, you can keep your plan."  What a joke.  Looking at my choices for 2017, they are abysmal.  I like my doctors, but most will not accept the insurance plans now available to me.  I have liked both of my recent insurance plans, despite the ridiculously increasing costs (over 40% in rural areas).  I'm not looking for a subsidy, I'm just looking to purchase quality insurance that meets my needs and allows me to see the doctors I choose.  That I cannot do this is absolutely unconscionable.  ObamaCare is unsustainable and simply MUST be repealed.  Even former president Bill Clinton calls it "the craziest thing on earth."  Scott Tipton in district 3 and a Republican-controlled congress is the only way to kill ObamaCare.  Otherwise we are barreling down the highway to a single payer system, and if you think your choices are bad now...  Oh, and by the way, Tipton's opponent recently said of ObamaCare, "This system, it's going to work.  It is working."  Yeah, right.

And don't take my word for it.  Tipton has been endorsed by The Denver Post as well as The Gazette.  Click to read those endorsements.

COLORADO STATE ISSUES

AMENDMENT T -- YES

This amendments strikes the words "except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" from the state constitution concerning an exception to involuntary servitude.  Colorado has no slaves so this language is purely symbolic.  Those convicted of crimes under the law do not become slaves of the state, so voting yes will not affect inmate work programs, although legal challenges are certain to arise as a result.

AMENDMENT U -- NO

This amendment proposes to exempt individuals or private businesses that use government-owned property for a private benefit worth $6000 or less from paying property taxes, beginning in 2018 and increasing with inflation annually thereafter.  Exempting these (or any individual or business) from property taxes on the government-owned property they use violates the principal of equal protection.  It inherently places a greater tax burden on others to pay for local government services.  These property taxes should continue being collected uniformly from all taxpayers.  A small tax bill does not justify exempting individuals or businesses from paying the tax.

AMENDMENT 69 -- NO

Vote NO twice if you can!!  The establishment of ColoradoCare will create a statewide single-payer healthcare system in Colorado.  This is a HUGE state income tax increase (above and beyond the state's current 4.63% income tax) with an ultimate rate of 10% on earned wages that is expected to generate $2 BILLION initially and approximately $25 BILLION per year when fully implemented, and will nearly DOUBLE state government spending.  In the initial years, taxpayers will pay $2 billion into a system without receiving any direct benefits. Many will pay more in new taxes than they currently pay for healthcare.  And taxpayers must pay these new taxes even if they do not utilize the services offered through ColoradoCare.  Under ColoradoCare, all healthcare transactions will be funneled through the state.  There are no guarantees that ColoradoCare will improve patient services, access, care, or reduce healthcare costs, and it may additionally limit consumer choice.  No implementation date has been specified.  This may be Colorado's last chance to retain taxpayer independence for healthcare decisions in our ever-developing "nanny state."  ColoradoCare is a monstrous disaster waiting to happen.

AMENDMENT 70 -- NO

This amendment seeks to increase the state minimum wage from $8.31 to $9.30 per hour, increasing $0.90 per hour beginning in 2018 until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020, and then further increasing with cost-of-living increases each year after that.  This is a classic liberal heart-string measure that is well-intended but will likely have significant negative consequences.  The entire idea behind the minimum wage was to provide subsistence level compensation while workers gain skills and education to move up the employment ladder or start their own businesses.  Increasing this wage to a level where it is perceived as a permanent living wage will likely create an even larger population of under-trained and under-educated workers who are satisfied with adding limited productivity to the workplace their entire lives.  Businesses will adapt by hiring fewer workers and finding other ways to reduce costs.  While the federal minimum wage may arguably be too low, a measure to set Colorado's annual minimum wage at $25,000 ($12 per hour x 2080 = $25,000), while still a low wage, is not the right approach.  The right approach is to provide education and training for workers to move up and out of the unskilled labor force and into the world of skilled labor where their productivity exceeds the six word phrase, "Do you want fries with that?"

AMENDMENT 71 -- YES

This amendment requires that a certain number of signatures be gathered from each state senate district (5% of the votes cast from each senate district in the most recent election for Secretary of State) to place a constitutional initiative on the ballot.  It requires that a proposed constitutional amendment demonstrate a minimum level of statewide support prior to being placed on the ballot.  (It SHOULD be difficult to change the state constitution -- requiring that signatures for constitutional initiatives be gathered from each senate district ensures that citizens from across the state have a say.)  Due to the relative ease of collecting signatures in urban areas compared to sparsely populated rural areas, rural citizens currently have a limited voice in determining which issues appear on the ballot.  Everyone should have a say in amending the state constitution and this amendment provides a path for an appropriate level of inclusiveness for all Coloradans.

AMENDMENT 72 -- NO

This amendment quadruples state cigarette taxes (from $0.84 to $2.59), a $315.7 million tax increase, with revenues required to be spent on a variety of very specific programs with no guarantee that such programs will reduce the societal costs of tobacco use.  Any future change to this measure will require another vote, and in the meantime, the tax will continue indefinitely.  (In other words, if/when tobacco use declines, this amendment will have locked in state spending on the original specific programs, even if these become unnecessary or are shown to be ineffective, and other new needs and priorities are identified.)  Besides, a "sin tax" is a regressive tax that may or may not alter behavior -- if it does, such reduction in tobacco purchases will eliminate the income it was intended to provide in the first place.

PROPOSITION 106 - YES

This amendment provides access to medical aid-in-dying medication in the case of a terminally ill patient under certain conditions, such as a six month or less to live prognosis.  The measure allows a mentally competent individual to peacefully end his or her life in the time, place and environment of his or her choosing after voluntarily requesting and self-administering the medication.  Prop 106 also provides protections from criminal penalties for physicians and family members who choose to support a terminally ill individual through the dying process.  The state of Oregon has proven that this kind of program can work successfully and give individuals the final say in how they choose to end their lives with dignity.  Prop 106 is modeled after Oregon's program.

PROPOSITION 107 -- YES

This amendment to the Colorado statutes establishes a presidential primary election in Colorado that allows participation by unaffiliated voters. All registered voters in Colorado should be allowed to participate in the selection of presidential nominees, even if they are not affiliated with a political party.  (In Colorado, unaffiliated voters make up more than one third of all registered voters.) A presidential primary system serves Colorado voters better than the (current) caucus system which is confusing and inaccessible to many voters.  A presidential primary will be conducted in the same manner as all other elections by experienced county election officials.

PROPOSITION 108 --  YES

This amendment enables unaffiliated voters to vote in a non-presidential primary election without having to affiliate with a party at any point up to and including election day (the current requirement).  Instead, with the passage of Prop 108, unaffiliated voters will receive a combined ballot that shows all candidates for elected office for each political party; unaffiliated voters may then only vote in contests for one political party.  Think of it as a streamlined version of the "day of" party registration that exists today.  The measure also allows political parties (private organizations) to opt out of holding a primary that is open to unaffiliated voters.  Instead, they may choose to nominate candidates in an assembly or convention that is limited to voters affiliated with that party.

LOCAL ISSUES

1A:  OPEN SPACE AND TRAILS REAUTHORIZATION -- YES

The OST mission is to acquire, preserve, maintain and manage open space properties for multiple purposes, including but not limited to recreational, wildlife, agricultural, scenic and access, and to acquire, preserve, develop, maintain and manage trails for similar purposes.  1A asks for reauthorization of the current 3.75 mill levy (not a tax increase) for a 20 year term beginning in 2020, as well as allowing for a greater percentage of funding for maintenance (the more space acquired, the more money needed to tend to the properties), including the protection of historic buildings on the properties as well as funding for bike lanes along roadways.  This was not an obvious "yes" for me, but the 25-year-old Open Space and Trails program HAS proven to be an incredibly valuable community asset that has enhanced our outdoor lifestyles while maintaining the county's rural character through the preservation of over 20,000 acres of land and 70 miles of trails, plus 90km of our Nordic ski trail system.   Maintaining the same 3.75 mill levy is probably appropriate because the OST fund is a healthy one, with a 2016 starting fund balance of $5 million, anticipated revenues from the mill levy of $12 million and projected expenditures of $5.5 million.  However, faced with a reputation for being the ultimate insiders club with little communication with and input from the community, the 5-member OST board would be very well served by some fresh, diverse blood (and perhaps term limits) while the organization adjusts to the growing concerns of balancing the often conflicting objectives of acquiring, conserving and maintaining land and providing access via recreational trails.  I am personally wary of the 20-year extension term (it seems excessive when previous extensions have been for 10 years, but alas that is not the question at hand), but have no good reason to think that (with proper oversight by the county commissioners) the stewards of OST will not continue their good work to the benefit of us all.  

2A: (SNOWMASS) PROPERTY TAX FOR ASPEN SCHOOL DISTRICT -- YES

It's about time.  Approximately 20% of the students in the Aspen School district reside in Snowmass Village.  This measure asks the town to FINALLY financially contribute to the school district.  It's only right.  It should not solely be Aspen's financial burden.  The Snowmass community has an obligation to cover their fair share of the costs of educating their children.  While those of us in Aspen cannot vote to levy this tax on our Snowmass neighbors, it's important to know what's going on here.  Unfortunately, this may not be an easy nor obvious "it's for the schools" victory -- Snowmass Village has three property tax measures on the ballot -- this one, one for the Wildcat Fire Protection District and one for Snowmass Water and Sanitation.  (Incidentally, this is quite a dilemma in the community where the sales tax is already at an astronomical 10.4%, which does not bode well for a future sales tax measure for the schools as a fix should 2A fail.). Without the $500K annually expected from 2A, you know all too well who will have to pick up the slack..... Yes, guilt your Snowmass friends into supporting this one.  And shame on them if they don't.

2B:  BROADBAND AUTHORITY -- YES

This one is a matter of housekeeping.  Current law prohibits local governments from providing cable tv, telecommunications, high speed internet, etc. unless an election is held granting it such permission.  At issue in Aspen is only the high speed internet aspect.  The city seeks to gain the ability to provide such service within the city limits.  This vote DOES NOT automatically "give" the city any specific authority nor a competitive place at the table vs Comcast or anyone else at this juncture, but it serves as a first step toward creating the OPTION for the city to consider upgrading city-wide high-speed internet service (a la a utility).  In other words, a yes vote removes a bureaucratic hurdle.  The inevitable how, who, when and costs cannot be even contemplated yet alone addressed by the city until this door is opened.  Simply speaking, this one is a reasonable YES vote.  It does not give our fine municipality control nor any proprietary advantage should improvements be deemed appropriate or necessary.  Rather, it simply opens the door to consideration of a variety of options (and competition -- public and private) in the future as opportunities, technology, funding, etc. for such an endeavor arise.  (I was particularly impacted by THIS brief article on the long term implications of providing high speed data to cities.)

2C:  CITY MANAGER TO APPOINT COMM DEV DIR AND POLICE CHIEF -- YES

Say what you will about the city manager and his decisions.  And I've said plenty.  But don't let this yes vote alarm you.  It is the city manager's job to hire and manage city staff.  Our friends on city council are elected by the populace to deliberate and adopt policy, not slide down the slippery slope of meddling in staffing decisions.  The only two city employees who report to city council are the city manager and the city attorney.  The community development director and police chief are critical city staffers who, by definition, oversee vital areas of responsibility.  We cannot allow these two positions in particular to be politicized by the revolving door brought on by city council elections every two years; both employees should be governed by the land use code and the law, respectively, and report to the city manager.  Now, if the city manager cannot be trusted to appoint the best candidates for these roles and effectively manage them, then we clearly need a new city manager.  But that's another matter for another day.

2D:  EXTENSION OF (0.3%) EXISTING SALES TAX FOR EDUCATION -- NO

Admittedly, I am falling on my sword here.  Sure, the schools make a compelling argument for needing the funds, there is no question.  But for several years leading up to 2E (below), I have lobbied the Aspen Education Foundation and anyone school-oriented who would listen to organize and make a compelling case to go after some of the Wheeler Opera House's portion (0.5%) of the real estate transfer tax (RETT), which amounted to $5.4 million in 2015.  I even offered to help.  (Imagine, the matter could have been on THIS ballot!)  No one was willing to step up and make the case.  I see it as laziness and entitlement.  The prevailing wisdom of those who make such decisions is "It's for the schools so who is going to vote no?"  It's my belief that this wisdom WOULD have prevailed in a "re-allocation of a portion of the Wheeler funds for education" measure.  In this (sales tax extension) case, I am going to vote NO. And I encourage you to do the same.  I pay plenty for the schools with my property taxes and so do you.  When a generational opportunity presents itself and that opportunity is ignored outright, I say "enough."   (It will probably pass, but I say send the message anyway.)

2E:  EXTENSION OF WHEELER (0.5%) REAL ESTATE TRANSFER TAX -- NO

The Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) money that goes to the Wheeler Opera House was first directed there in 1979.  In 1997, the tax was extended and is set to expire 12/31/19.  This question asks for another 20 year extension.  Originally, the RETT money was designated for "the purpose of renovation, reconstruction and maintenance" as well as "supporting the visual and performing arts."  This round, funds will be earmarked for "maintenance" of the building and "support for the visual and performing arts."  Notably, in the 40 years since deriving funds from the RETT, the Wheeler sits on a fund balance of $29.17 million.  The RETT is not the Wheeler's only source of income -- in 2016, it is projected to generate $744K from event productions, $212K in rental income, $290K in investment income and $88K in loan repayments, a total of $1.34 million in non-RETT revenue.  Such funds are used to support production, operations and art grants.  What cannot be afforded is covered by the healthy pot of gold from the RETT ($5.4 million in 2015). Incidentally, the Wheeler's reserve fund is the city's largest fund balance, and the city is known to dip its sticky fingers into this readily available cash bucket at will.

See where I'm going with this?  There is a crazy wealth of money parked at the Wheeler.  I don't see why we should, as a matter of course, automatically renew this tax and lock it in for another 20 years.  For one thing, the current RETT for the Wheeler is in place through 2019.  There is still time to regroup and properly evaluate alternatives, and return to the voters in another year or so.  Additionally, the operating subsidies and excessive fund balance tell me that, at the very least, we should give the Wheeler operations a good hard look to determine "real" needs, and at the same time, look hard at other "real" needs in the community.  With this kind of money at stake (an annual average of $4 million), how about a re-allocation of SOME portion of this "free money" to the schools?  What about mental health care -- a local hot button topic if there ever was one.  What about both of those as well as funds for the Wheeler?  No one says the 0.5% has to go to just one recipient.  There are many ways to skin this cat.  (And shame on the Aspen School District for not making the case to share in this revenue!!)

No one is saying "Leave the Wheeler out in the cold."  Not even close.  But perhaps, given the Wheeler's strong financial position, there are other worthy beneficiaries of SOME of those RETT funds.  Considering that RETT funds come directly from those buying real estate in Aspen, the burden of the tax falls mainly on wealthy property owners.  Many locals (especially those who live in subsidized housing who do not pay a RETT upon purchasing their properties) argue that the Wheeler RETT provides them with affordable tickets to Wheeler programs.  That shouldn't change if the Wheeler sticks to a realistic operating budget.  And if the Wheeler needs supplemental funding for programming or capital improvements, they can go before council and request funding, just like other city departments.  I just think the time has come to share the spoils across a broader community spectrum.

COUNTY COMMISSIONER, DISTRICT 3 -- GREG POSCHMAN

Poschman is a pragmatist.  This Aspen native approaches his decision-making in a calculated and collaborative manner.  A life-long Aspenite, Poschman appeals to me for a seat on the BOCC because of his philosophy of measured growth, public-private partnerships for subsidized housing, and most notably, his realistic views that just because someone is born and raised here, it's probable that many may not be able to live here.  The Aspen Times has also endorsed Poschman, stating, "(He) has proven throughout the campaign that he has the chops to tackle county business.  As an outspoken preservationist, Poschman would bring a smart approach to county land-use decisions.... He has the demeanor to work with diverse personalities and appears to be a good listener.  His consideration for the environment and the general direction of the county would be a welcomed addition to the board."

Poschman's opponent is someone I cross swords with time and again and could NEVER support.  This weird agent is hell-bent on the belief that Aspen should drastically expand its subsidized housing program so as to additionally subsidize "the middle class," and favors government subsidies of local businesses.  His "cradle to grave" subsidy concept for those who are from Aspen as well as those who pass through its pearly gates and set up camp here are not only impractical and ridiculous, but illustrative of exactly who we do not need anywhere near the $105 million annual county budget!!

COUNTY COMMISSIONER, DISTRICTS 4 and 5 -- LEAVE BLANK

Why are Steve Child and George Newman running unopposed?  I can't stand it when this happens!  Can't we as a community do better and at least challenge the incumbents?  As I've recommended in such cases in the past, go ahead, vote for them if you must, but you can also send a message.  If you think they are good and you want them back in office, go for it.  If you're indifferent (as I am) and only wish someone more interesting would have thrown their hat into the ring, well then, leave it blank.  Obviously these two are on the glide path to re-election, but if you're not thrilled, do your part to keep their re-election percentage low.  It may just entice someone to run in the future.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY -- CHIP MCCRORY

First and foremost, McCrory is an independent.  He is not beholden to the political insiders.  And yes, in a perfect world, the DA should be apolitical.  As a highly respected defense attorney for over 20 years, McCrory served as the chief deputy DA who ran the Aspen office in the 1980s and 90s.  In an increasingly politicized judiciary, now is the time to bring McCrory back.

JUDGES

As I have said before, DO NOT skip this important part of the ballot, even if you neither know nor care about who they are or how they dispense justice.  By not explicitly voting NO on each "shall (judge) be retained" question, you are implicitly voting YES to keep him/her on the bench.  Unless you personally know a given judge to be honest and fair (i.e. non-activist), vote NO on retention!

 

 

Saturday
Jul022016

ISSUE #126: Gorsuch Haus - I'm EnchANTed  7/1/2016

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."  

-- George Orwell

What would summer be in Aspen without a political cause celeb? The summer of 2016 has locals, second-homeowners, conservationists, skiers and our beloved political elites all fired up about Gorsuch Haus, a proposed hotel development at the top of South Aspen Street.  This is an opinion newsletter, obviously, and my opinion is that the impending decisions by Aspen's planning and zoning board and later by council regarding the approval of the Gorsuch Haus project have critical and far-reaching implications for the future of skiing in Aspen.  Yep, I think the decisions on this one are THAT big. 


I've been horrified to read in the papers so many misguided and misinformed letters to the editor in opposition to this critical project that I fired up the computer and picked up the phone during my vacation and learned the facts.  I suggest you learn them too, and then make up your own mind on whether or not you favor the project.  There's a lot of garbage out there.  These 10 "myths" are making the rounds in the lead-up to Gorsuch Haus' day before P&Z on July 5; I will debunk each one:

Myth #1:  Gorsuch Haus is so enormous and over-the-top, it is a big box that will make the 1A base area look like Vail

Gorsuch Haus is a moderate-sized hotel, proposed for the top of South Aspen Street.  The plans for a 68,000 sf structure that will feature 60 hotel rooms, 7 rental condos and 6 owned condos -- a total of 81 "keys" -- is oriented north-south, from about 100' below the current Lift 1A terminus to a point about one quarter of the way up the Norway ski run.  Unlike a "big box" such as The Residences at Little Nell, Gorsuch Haus will "stepped" into the mountainside in two-, three- and four-story levels, never higher than 49'.  Parking is underground.  At the top of the property is a public ski-in/ski-out slope side bar and restaurant. Here's what it will look like:
 



As a data point, and for comparison, Aspen's only ski-in/ski-out hotel is The Little Nell, at the north easternmost corner of Ajax at the base of Little Nell.  The 65,000 sf hotel has 92 rooms and suites.  Another size comparison - The Hotel Jerome is 85,000 sf and offers 93 rooms.

Myth #2:  Gorsuch Haus will cut off public access to the Lift 1A side of Ajax

The hotel's entrance features a public drop-off area, and the public plaza on the east side features guest services amenities (ticket offices, etc), not to mention the long-awaited replacement for Lift 1A.  (This could be a high-speed quad or gondola - that's up to SkiCo.)  The slope-side, public ski-in/ski-out bar and restaurant will offer skiers another choice for mountainside dining and entertainment, drawing people to this otherwise amenity-free side of the hill.  Here's a look at the approach:


The Red Ant says, this is GREAT.  I regularly ski 1A and what's commonly referred to as "Aspen's 5th mountain" on the west side of Ajax.  A redeveloped base area that features a bar and restaurant (not to mention all the other amenities - retail, restrooms, etc) AND the new lift, would be a fabulous and long-awaited addition to and an enormous improvement over the bleak offerings today.  I love a moderate hotel on this site - it will greatly ENHANCE the sleepy west side and make the area more compelling, relevant and accessible to locals and visitors alike than ever before.

Myth #3:  With the One Aspen townhomes and Lift One Lodge already being built on South Aspen Street, that's enough lodging and development for that side of town

One Aspen is a 77,000 sf complex of 14 privately-owned luxury townhomes and 15 subsidized housing units located on the west side of South Aspen Street, from Juan Street to just below the Shadow Mountain condos.  Lift One Lodge is a 76,000 sf (22 units, 84 keys) timeshare lodge and 5 free market units across from One Aspen on the east side of South Aspen Street.  Lift One Lodge additionally offers 50 underground public parking spaces to make up for the removal of on-street public parking in the area.

These two projects are fabulous additions to the beleaguered neighborhood, long in need of revitalization, even before the 2008 downturn that left the area in a decade-long state of neglect.  But neither has notable public amenities, save for the public parking spaces.  And that's not just my opinion.  SkiCo's decision whether to replace the ancient Lift 1A is contingent on new development in the area that provides public and skier amenities that justify such an investment.  There is zero indication that these two developments check the box for SkiCo.  Besides, Aspen's community development staff specifically stated that a base area redevelopment that at this critical portal to the ski area MUST be accessible to us - the locals, not closed off by development so as to benefit only the few who have properties there.

Myth #4:  SkiCo is holding the community hostage; they can afford to replace 1A without Gorsuch Haus

Personally, I'm sick and tired of the "SkiCo owes us" mentality. 2-3% of Aspen skiers use the current Lift 1A.  As such, SkiCo has no economic motivation to spend money on a replacement when so few skiers use it.  This is not a matter of what SkiCo and the Crown family can or will afford.  It's an investment decision.  And yes, they are exerting some leverage.  They can.  An improved and expanded base area with convenient public access and appealing amenities will enable and encourage more skier traffic and greater use of a new lift.  THAT's when an investment would make sense.

A hotel and base area redevelopment such as that proposed by Gorsuch Haus offers what SkiCo is looking for in terms of expanded skier traffic and public amenities on the west side of the mountain.  Gorsuch Haus additionally offers ME, a daily skier, amenities that I value and have been waiting years for, and that includes the new lift.

Myth #5:  Gorsuch Haus is yet another example of greedy developers looking to line their pockets at the expense of the community

The developer, Norway Island Partners, is a team of well-respected, long-term locals:

Jeff Gorsuch.  Skiing runs deep in the Gorsuch family: his father won the Roch Cup Downhill at Aspen and his mother made the podium in the 1950s.  Jeff skied on the Europa Cup circuit, and is active on numerous local boards:  AVSC, Aspen Education Foundation and the Aspen Community School.  Today, Jeff manages his family's eponymous retail operation and is raising his family in Aspen.

Early on, Bryan Peterson raced and trained in Aspen, and later returned to be the head coach of AVSC.  He currently coaches the US Adaptive Ski Team and is also raising his young family here. 

Jim DeFrancia is a 30-year resident of Aspen with ties to the community dating to 1883 when his great-grandfather arrived in town. DeFrancia is spearheading the project for Lowe Enterprises, a hotel development and management company with a 45-year history in Aspen.  The Gant was Lowe's original project; other local properties include Ute Place, W-J Ranch and 8 additional properties in Snowmass Village, not to mention numerous hotel properties throughout the country.

These are our friends, our neighbors.  They are devoted Aspen citizens whose commitments to our community run deep.  Drop the talk about them manipulating the process for their own benefit.  This is not a cut-and-run outfit.  Not by a long shot.

The Red Ant knows, trusts and respects this team.  From the get go, the entire project has been predicated on community access and inclusion.  They request no variances from their proposed zoning.  All plans are within what is permitted by code, parking is underground, and subsidized housing will be both on-site and elsewhere in Aspen.  Gorsuch Haus will not burden the community in any way.  It's exactly what we need, where we need it.  And this is the team to get it done.  It's the right project in the right place with the right team at the right time.

Myth #6:  FIS officially granted Aspen the 2017 World Cup Finals so we don't need a new base area and replacement of Lift 1A

Thankfully, FIS did indeed recently allow Aspen to remain on the schedule as host of the 2017 World Cup finals.  But it was a close call.  Since 2014 when Aspen was awarded the prestigious event, that status was tenuous.  FIS made it abundantly clear that the base area where the race course ends looked more like a 1940 sheep pasture than a world class international resort worthy of hosting the world's biggest week of ski racing.  They also demanded a replacement for Lift 1A.  While neither situation will be remedied in time for the 2017 program, FIS was apparently sufficiently impressed by Aspen's progress toward their desired upgrades for the area.  The races in 2017 stay, and Aspen narrowly dodges an internationally embarrassing rebuke. Phew!  But future consideration for World Cup events remains tied to the redevelopment of the ski area base and replacement of 1A.  Aspen is off the rotation until these occur.

Are you kidding?  We DO need a revitalized second base area here.  We always have.  This is not about ski racing per se, but never, ever forget the role of ski racing in Aspen's history.  If not a stated one, it should be, but ski racing (and Walter Paepcke) put us on the map.  It IS critical that we maintain our skiing reputation on the international stage.  

Myth #7:  Gorsuch Haus infringes on historic view planes and mars the views of Aspen Mountain

We know that the building will not exceed 49 at any point'.  As far as how high up the hill Gorsuch Haus lies, it's important to compare it to other slope-side development that currently exists at high points along the ski area boundary.  (The SkiCo trail maps are cartoon illustrations and do not accurately convey the actual "how high up" locations.)   The 700 building of the Aspen Alps and two large private residences above that on the far eastern side of Ajax along Little Nell, as well as the private residences at the top of South Mill Street properties are higher up the mountain than Gorsuch Haus, and none provide ANY public amenities, not to mention a slope-side public bar, restaurant and patio, and ensure a vital lift replacement and upgrade.  (See the city's Green Line map HERE.)

The Land Use Code (section 26.435.050) requires the protection of historic view planes of the mountain from various points in town.  The objective is to "protect mountain views from obstruction, strengthen the environment and aesthetic character of the city, maintain property values, and enhance the city's tourist industry by maintaining Aspen's heritage as a mountain community."  P&Z will surely use their compasses to determine the exact impacts here.  But, just because the project will be uphill of neighboring properties on South Aspen Street,this does not implicitly mean that it infringes on or violates protected view planes!

Myth #8:  Gorsuch Haus will be built so far up the hill that it will cut off access to 1A for skiers of Norway trail

No, it won't!  Don't let it sound complicated.  It's not.  It will be a natural transition back to 1A, not at all unlike access to the Ajax Express when skiing down Hanging Tree. 

First, let's talk about Norway.  Looking up South Aspen Street, see those boulders on the steep face to the right?  That's Norway. The wooded area between Norway trail and the bottom of 1A is called Norway Island.  Norway Island is directly above the Gorsuch Haus site.  For Norway trail skiers who don't stop for a beer on the Gorsuch Haus patio, a "skier's right" above the property brings skiers to the run-out to the 1A base.  The planned east side loading area for the 1A replacement lift will require skiers to cross beneath the lift itself, unlike the current path to 1A (which loads on the west side and is accessed in a straight line) because there is no west-side access to the lift. 


Myth #9The land proposed for the Gorsuch Haus project is "conservation land," currently designated to be vacant and protected forever

The four distinct parcels that comprise the Gorsuch Haus property are currently zoned "Conservation" (C).  The Conservation zoning has effectively served as a "placeholder" for potential future use as a ski area base, just as the Conservation zoning of parcel where The Little Nell and Gondola Plaza (including the gondola) stand served to accommodate that development until it came to fruition.  (The Little Nell et al were constructed before SKI zoning even existed, on land zoned Conservation.)  For Gorsuch Haus to move forward, the land will have to be re-zoned to SKI.  Such a change (from Conservation to SKI) is not unprecedented. 

According to Aspen's Land Use Code, the purpose of the (C) zone district is "to provide areas of low density development to enhance public recreation, conserve natural resources, encourage the production of crops and animals, and to contain urban development."  Permitted uses include residential dwellings, stables, cemetery, railroad and temporary special events.  Conditional uses include sewage disposal and ski lifts and other ski facilities. 

The land use code additionally has a zoning category called "Ski Area Base" (SKI).  This relatively new category is designed specifically for property at the base of ski areas.  The purpose of the SKI zone district is to provide areas "which allow for a mixture of uses related to ski area uses and operations," including lodge/hotel.

The land in question for Gorsuch Haus, under contract to the developer, is currently owned by SkiCo, which has long desired a second base area on this site. 

The land use code's full description of what "Conservation" zoning allows clearly illustrates that, despite the perception of endangered species, protected habitats and visions of Yellowstone National Park that the word "conservation" conjures, in no way does this zoning district require maintenance as pristine wilderness where the deer and the antelope play.  We are NOT talking National Geographic, Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy here!  More like recreational uses such as country club and golf course, dairy, guest ranches and the aforementioned sewage disposal area.

In short, Gorsuch Haus is NOT asking that protected "conservation land" be compromised to meet their purposes.  Don't fall for that!  This has nothing to do with open space and untouched wilderness.  The project is proposed for land that is currently zoned "Conservation" including the myriad approved uses above, and they are asking for a change to "SKI" zoning, the technically appropriate zoning district for a second ski area base and access portal to the mountain. 

Myth #10:  Gorsuch Haus will forever kill the possibility of lift service as far down as Dean Street

The plans for the replacement of 1A at Gorsuch Haus have the lift located in essentially the same location as it exists today.  This begs the obvious question -- Why there, and not lower on the hill near Dean Street, where Aspen's original (1947) lift was located?  (Since 1976, skiers accessing 1A from town either walk up or use on-street parking that is currently being eliminated.)  Earlier failed redevelopment efforts in the neighborhood entertained a "platter pull" surface lift concept that would have made it easy for skiers in town to quickly and easily access 1A.  However, at this juncture, there are no plans for lift service of any kind below 1A. 

The Gorsuch Haus parcel DOES NOT include land below 1A.  How that land is utilized is in the hands of Lift One Lodge.  The narrow corridor enabling skiers to ski further down the hill is likely too narrow for both a surface lift and downhill skiing.  The developers of Gorsuch Haus recently made a notable adjustment to their design that enables a future extension of 1A down the mountain should conditions change.  In the meantime, the current proposal is for a public transit loop shuttle from the hotel's turnaround to Rubey Park.

OK, SO HOW DO I REALLY FEEL?
I like this project. A lot. It's what we've needed for a long, long time.  In the wonderful days of the Holland House and Skier's Chalet, we got a taste of it.  But for years, this space has been left in limbo.  Ugly limbo.  We had a chance several years ago, but the planets were not correctly aligned and it didn't pan out.  Fingers can be pointed in many directions.  But the long and short is, something is going to happen.  The question is what.  Will it be a development that meets SkiCo's desires and warrants a Lift 1A upgrade?  Or will it be something that fits in existing zoning -- some more private residences like those at the top of Mill Street?  More residential and no public amenities all but ensure that the concept of a second public portal to the mountain is gone forever.

The west side of Aspen is where it all began with the famous "boat tow" lift in 1936.  This is the historic portal to skiing in Aspen.  Looking to the future, we have a rare second chance to get this right.  Can we really wait for a third?  And that is in no way to imply that we should approve something that isn't fantastic.  In my opinion, Gorsuch Haus IS fantastic.  I strongly believe it is a community obligation to honor our past with a vision for the future that links our ski racing history to our world class destination ski area infrastructure.

This is a critical "legacy" issue.  Once this parcel is developed (and it will be), we won't get a re-do here.  Earlier in the piece, I mentioned that the Little Nell is the only ski-in/ski-out hotel in Aspen.  Think about it.  That's crazy.  If we are going to be the best and continue to compete with the best, we must offer the best.  It will take a community-wide commitment to improve and upgrade our offerings.  Lift 1A and the west side of Ajax from Ruthie's on down has fabulous skiing that very few ever enjoy.  (Most skiers just cut across Summer Road and go back to the gondola.)  

A revitalized 1A and second portal to Aspen Mountain is exactly what we need.  The FIS scare of having the World Cup finals revoked was real.  And let us not forget our history as a ski racing mecca.  Nor our role in the story of American skiing.

It's been said of the hotel, "Gorsuch Haus is a project that connects the heart of the community with the story of the mountain."  I'm sentimental.  I like that.  And it's true.  It was mining that made this town, but skiing that sustained it.  Skiing is this community's most important societal and economic driving force, and history's most important contribution to today's Aspen.  Let's not forget what got us here.

THE PROCESS
Gorsuch Haus principals will be meeting (in public) with P&Z on July 5.  It will go something like this:  city staff presentation with Q&A / Gorsuch Haus presentation with Q&A / Public Comment / Opportunity for Gorsuch Haus to address comments / Planning & Zoning board (public) discussion / Decision.  A lot for one night, for sure.  Wise money says this will use up all the time on July 5 and continue on July 19.  From there, P&Z's decision goes to Council.

To date, Gorsuch Haus has widespread community support. They have held multiple well-attended public events and made changes to their plans according to feedback gleaned.  Recent rumblings in opposition have been just that, rumblings. 

I hope you will look seriously at the project with the facts in mind, and weigh the long term repercussions of the impending decisions facing P&Z and council related to the zoning change that will enable or prevent Gorsuch Haus from becoming a reality.  Whatever you decide, please focus on the facts.  And share them with your friends.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Be informed!!!

Visit the Gorsuch Haus website to learn more:  www.GorsuchHaus.com


Attend the P&Z meeting(s):  July 5 (and July 19)

Write to council:

 

 

Saturday
Jul022016

ISSUE #125: cANTeen Closed - No Party at the OPH  6/8/2016

Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage."  

-- H.L. Mencken

 

COUNCIL SHUTS THE APP DOWN; NO PARTY AT THE OPH


A quick update to inform you that last night, city council made the right decision.  Those words are rarely written in The Red Ant!!

 

With their 4-0 consensus decision to reject the terms of the proposed lease from the Aspen Power Plant (APP) for tenancy at the Old Power House (OPH), rational minds predominantly prevailed.

 

Mayor Steve Skadron positioned himself as the peacemaker, saying that the project had simply become "too divisive" for the town, and it was his job to end the divisiveness.  Good call, Steve! Wisely, he also included the suggestion that the OPH now be considered for temporary city office space.

 

Ann Mullins, on the other hand, blamed the APP's demise on "bitter losers" and "rules that changed through no fault of the applicant."  She reinvented history by saying that the original process had nothing to do with profit or non-profit.  The RFQ may not have specified profit motives, but NEVER in question was the underlying zoning of the OPH.  It's right there in black and white for all to see.  "I am not sure that any of the applicants would qualify under the new rules," she added.  There are no new rules, Ann.  And the existing rules are very, very clear.  In fact, EACH ANY EVERY ONE of the other applicants would qualify!  (She is up for re-election in 2017 BTW.)

 

Art Daily softened his pro-APP stance.  Recognizing the divisiveness created by council's 2015 decision and the ensuing negotiations, he relented and voted against APP.

 

Adam Frisch, never a fan of the APP at the OPH, wisely suggested a work session to explore all options for future use of the building, effectively reviving the discussion about the Galena Plaza / Taj Mahal City Hall space needs and plans. Adam, thank you for recognizing the obvious link between the two issues and thinking strategically about logical next steps!

 

The outcome is the right one.  Yet it is still amazing how emotionally intertwined council had become with this issue.  Even with their final decision, they failed to recognize the accountability issues surrounding their own process and their own failure to know and recognize the land use code.  For over a year, they were completely manipulated by the APP.  Without the neighborhood opposition that grew to include aggrieved non-profits and a diverse group of citizens who resented the special treatment granted the APP by city hall, council would likely have gone forward with their selection of the APP at the OPH, irrespective of the law.

 

This is a great example of citizen activism.  Yes, you CAN beat city hall.  It's never easy, and it can be a mind-numbingly frustrating process, but to sit by and do nothing is never the answer when the issues are this important.  Many thanks to all who took time to learn the facts, kept the debate alive, wrote to the papers and showed up at critical meetings.  You made the difference!  Your opinions DO matter and are exactly why we can celebrate this decision today.

 

HERE is the article on last night's meeting from the Aspen Times.

 

CORRECTION

 

In Issue #124, I understated two facts:

 

 - APP did not propose to pay $10/SF for the upstairs of the OPH; they wished to pay $10/YEAR 

 

 - I stated that the city would have to spend $18K/month to rent 7200 SF of comparable space to temporarily house city offices during the 5 year construction of the Taj Mahal.  Make that $18,500 a WEEK!!  That would be $4.8 million over a 5 year period!  

 

As bad as my stated figures were, the real numbers were FAR worse!

 

I regret the errors.

 

 

 

Saturday
Jul022016

ISSUE #124: DefiANT - Last Stand at the Old Power House  6/7/2016

"If you're going to make a desperate, hopeless act of defiance you should make it a good one." 

-- Ann Leckie

 

*** Apologies in advance for the technical layout of this issue.  I'm on the road and having challenges with a borrowed computer that is not cooperating!  ***

The issue of the day is whether Aspen's city council will allow a selected but non-compliant tenant to sign a lease for the city-owned Old Power House, formerly home to the Aspen Art Museum, on terms dictated by and wildly favorable to said tenant.
 


THE BRIEFEST OF HISTORIES
Formerly the city's power plant, the Old Power House (as it is known today) was long the home of the Aspen Art Museum until 2014 when the Museum moved to its new in-town digs.

In the fall of 2014, the city appointed a "citizens committee" to process and vet proposals from various local non-profits interested in leasing the 7200 sf space.  Finalists included the Aspen Science Center, the Red Brick Performing Arts Center, Grassroots TV and a John Denver museum. 

Ignoring the recommendations of the citizens committee, council booted the John Denver museum concept and added in Paul Kienast's Gathering Place and the proudly for-profit collaboration called "Aspen Power Plant" (APP), which promised to utilize the building with a brewery and biergarten, tv station, shared workspace and special event company.  In a March 2015 4-1 vote, council selected the APP for tenancy of the OPH.  HERE is the link to the APP's winning proposal.  In short, if you don't wish to read it, here are some telling tidbits:

"A full-service food and beverage operator committed to local craft and powering creative thought for workers, recreators  and revelers morning noon and night."

"A food and beverage operator with a showpiece brewing system, commercial kitchen and old world inspired biergarten"

The APP "will host countless community gatherings throughout the year" in "the atmosphere of a lively public house"

Operators will work to ensure that the "APP has a full calendar, year-round" that will be "an attraction for locals and tourists, morning noon and night."

You get the idea.  The OPH has been slated to become a party barn.

Meanwhile, the OPH was promised as temporary space to the Pitkin County Library in 2015 for use amidst its redevelopment.  The library expects to vacate this month and the OPH will soon be vacant.

Lease negotiations have been held for one year in secret between city officials and APP principals.  A draft lease was released last Friday by the city attorney and APP.  Read the preposterous document HERE.

A public work session will be held TODAY, June 7, at 6p in council chambers.  Read this issue and decide whether council ought to hear your opinion.  Believe me, they know mine!

THE LAW
I will spare you the legalese and minute detail, but in short, the Aspen land use code specifically states that the purpose of Public (PUB) zoning is "to provide for the development of governmental, quasi-governmental and non-profit facilities for cultural, educational, civic and other non-profit uses."  Aspen's land use code specifically defines a non-profit as "an entity which has received a favorable determination letter from the US Internal Revenue Service regarding their tax-exempt status."  In order to qualify as a tax exempt under 501(c)3, meaning it would pay no tax on its income, an organization must be dedicated to one or more of the following purposes: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. Yes, the OPH is zoned Public.  And no, none of those purposes involves the sale of beer.

And, according to the IRS, for an organization to be a 501(c)3, it must be "organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)3 and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual.  Organizations described in 501(c)3 are commonly referred to as charitable organizations."  APP is not a 501(c)3, nor are any of its member companies.

In the absence of a letter from the IRS confirming an entity's 501(c)3 status, council would have to pass an Ordinance for "non-conforming use" to enable a tenant such as the APP to sign a lease for the OPH.   

The Aspen City Charter enables citizens to overturn a council-approved Ordinance by way of a Referendum, which entails a petition and signature collecting (not difficult), and often results in a public vote to determine the will of the populace.  (The Hydro Plant and Base 2 Lodge were both sent to the voters via the Referendum process where both were rejected.)

THE CARDS ARE SHOWN... AND OH SO POORLY PLAYED
Finally, after resisting for an entire year, the principals of the APP actually sat down to meet with neighbors of the Old Power House in early May, despite meeting with city council and city officials numerous times in secretive executive sessions to formulate potential lease terms over the course of the past year.  Executive sessions, designed for council to meet behind closed doors to discuss legal settlements and other things like property acquisitions of a competitive nature, were questionably held by council because lease terms for a city-owned property are well outside of competitive lanes.  And what was covered in these questionable sessions was far more than simply lease negotiations, but what was actually discussed will now never see the light of day.  Among other things, it appears that city staff discussed neighborhood opposition to their plans with the APP principals, although anything specific along these lines would only have been conjecture as the neighborhood (and the public at large) knew and still knows very little about the details of the proposed operation, not to mention its sketchy and very debatable financials.  

The APP expected to hit the neighbors with a few points (that they promoted as concessions) pertaining to parking, noise and the number of large special events to be held on the site, and were flabbergasted when the neighbors wanted merely to hear the detailed specifics of what it was they wanted to do at the OPH, as a starting point.  How dare we?!  In their naive exuberance over the 2015 selection, and despite direction from the city to meet with neighbors to establish and define terms that all could accept in a lease, the APP had effectively written the neighbors off.    

Specifics at the May meeting were few and far between, although it was clear that the APP did not realize that their quickie registration (see below) as a "non-profit association" so that they could effectively skirt the zoning rules would not pass the smell test.  When they stated that they were indeed four for-profit entities and none was a 501(c)3, it became obvious that the APP technically did not qualify for the space.  And, let's face it, the likelihood of getting such status from the IRS would be a long shot on the best day.   Sources close to The Red Ant confirm that in a subsequent executive session with council on May 23, the APP was summarily informed by city officials that their non-profit hoax would not fly and they would have to apply with the city for a PD overlay (non-conforming use in the public zone) as a full for-profit enterprise.  Obtaining a PD overlay would require the same process (and have the same effect) as a full rezoning.

One interesting and telling tidbit at the neighborhood meeting (that featured a quick appearance by city attorney Jim True/False) was the city's admission that "the city is not good at enforcement" when asked who would be enforcing the terms of a lease at the OPH.  How reassuring!?!

THE OBFUSCATION
It increasingly appears that city staff has been a co-conspirator in an effort to expedite the APP's tenancy at the OPH, providing legal "work arounds" to inherent zoning challenges faced by the group.  For example, long thought to be located in a residential (R-30) zone, the OPH turns out to have been re-zoned Public in 1988.  In the process leading up to this discovery by the city earlier this year, our pal, aptly named assistant city manager Barry Crook all but promised the APP that the city would simply change the zoning to Public in order to accommodate their plans, stating that it was his belief that the property's zoning "should have been public all along."  This, with the stroke of a pen.  So much for public process.  The point later became moot, and this zoning issue (no longer residential but public) was celebrated by the APP as a hurdle overcome.  But they forgot to read the fine print of what Public zoning in the Aspen land use code requires.  When informed by the city that the occupying entity of a publicly zoned building would need to be "a non-profit," instead of doing their own due diligence and discovering exactly what this entails, the APP quickly registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as a "non-profit association," announced this to the world, and in so doing, altered their proposed business plan to be centered around a dubiously non-profit incubator/office space entity with the tv station, biergarten and event company on-site to enhance the millennial-pleasing workspace.  (My personal favorite is how the APP insists that it will be providing a "public benefit" a la a non-profit charitable organization by merely having a shared workspace component.  A benefit to their 65 friends who are given a desk in the joint, sure.  But the public?  Hardly.)

THE PR WAR
In the past month, the PR game has lit up the editorial columns and local debate.  The APP has attempted to create a "beer vs billionaires" fight scenario along the lines of David vs Goliath, stating to anyone who will listen that just a few neighbors in an arguably nice 'hood are the only ones opposed to their plans a la the rich neighbors with their pots of gold and slick legal teams who hate young people and will squash them and their entrepreneurial ideas in the name of peace and quiet.  Ha.  The problem with this ridiculousness is the mere fact that "the neighbors" are just one opposing faction of the community (see THE OPPOSITION below).  With the non-profit hoax perpetrated by the APP being widely reported and the now-publicly known need for a controversial zoning change, the "beer vs billionaires" concept has gained absolutely zero traction.  The APP, by its own doing, has made the issue into far more of a "rogues vs residents" showdown between whiny and entitled rowdies who seek and expect special favors and exceptions just because they think they deserve them, and private property owners desirous of quiet enjoyment of their homes in accordance with the law.   
The momentum has markedly shifted.  Advantage, opposition.  Local distaste for variances, zoning changes and other government-granted favors has reached levels not seen in Aspen in a generation.  Surely, the APP principals have begun to see the writing on the wall?

THE RED ANT WEIGHS IN
For one year, as the city requested that the neighbors be patient and allow "the process" to run its course, I agreed to comply, if for no other reason than to support my fellow neighbors in what we saw as a complicated and uphill political battle.  I reluctantly agreed that "feedback" from The Red Ant might be akin to throwing gasoline on the fire and would likely serve to shame and embarrass the tender souls on city council whose votes would ultimately determine the final outcome.  I was compelled, however, to fire off a quick letter that was published in the Aspen Daily News in April following APP's questionable announcement that "it won't be a beer joint, rather a collaborative workspace with a food and beverage component."  Read it HERE.  As time ticked on, and the level of millennial whining and misinformation ruled the letters to the editors and local debate, I could simply sit on my hands no longer.  Once the neighbors met with the APP and learned what we were up against, and even more telling, what they are up to, the PR war was on.  Letters to the editor on both sides of the issue were abundant.   Another letter was called for when Aspen Daily News columnist and pro-APP mouthpiece Beth Brandon weighed in with another of her insipid columns illustrating and disseminating a frightening  dearth of facts or even basic understanding of the issues surrounding the possibility of the APP at the OPH.  I submitted the following, addressed to the author, which was published in both newspapers on May 14 & 16, 2016:

"I wanted to provide you with the facts of the issues surrounding what you call 'the Incubator Power Plant' and how it came to be chosen by council for potential tenancy at the Old Power House.  You appear to be misinformed.

The Aspen Power Plant, or APP as it is known, applied through a formal RFP process in 2014.  Applications from numerous entities were received and indeed vetted, but not by council.  An appointed citizens committee evaluated the various proposals and submitted four finalists to council.  The APP was not one of those finalists.

Mayor Steve Sakdron, who, at the onset of the tenant search, stated that it would be 'inappropriate' to hand over the space to an organization 'that has the wherewithal to operate in a private space,' apparently became enamored of the annual 4th of July picnic held on the site by the Aspen Art Museum and 'inserted' the APP and its plans for riverside revelry into final consideration.  Yes, the APP had been vetted, but with said vetting, the APP didn't make the cut.  It was the mayor who put it back into consideration.

I'm sorry that your frequent owl-spotting trips to the area have not given you an appreciation for the surrounding neighborhood in this quiet little pocket of town.  You have every right not to like this neighborhood, just as you may choose not to live here.  But it is a neighborhood.  And it just so happens to be my neighborhood.  You're right, it's not a publicly subsidized neighborhood, but I found your implication that somehow that makes it less of a neighborhood patently offensive.  I, along with my neighbors, value the views of the mountain and close proximity to the core from this quiet bend in the river every day.

Whether the APP will 'ruin' the neighborhood is anyone's guess.  It is certainly not their intent.  Nor is it the focus of the neighborhood's objection at this point.  We are all just curious when the APP, admittedly and proudly comprised of four for-profit entities, will obtain their tax exempt status from the IRS.  We have been waiting for over a year.  And no, it's not that we demand it, this is a requirement of Aspen's land use code for areas zoned 'public,' such as the Old Power House.  The 501(c)3 tax exempt status is mandatory before a lease can legally be signed between the city and the APP.  Sure, the RFP process allowed for-profit entities to apply, but the land use code very clearly states the need for that very specific IRS status.  It's right there in black and white.  (Perhaps this is why no other for-profit businesses applied.)

The proposed lease that everyone keeps hearing about can be negotiated ad nauseum, but until the APP has its required status from the IRS, no lease can be signed.  If not a tax exempt orgnization, the APP's proposed and selected use for the Old Power House would be considered 'non-conforming' to the existing code.  Perhaps this is why the citizens committee weeded the APP out several years ago?  I don't know.

It will be interesting to see how council proceeds.  Do they continue to extend their wait period for the APP to obtain federal tax exempt status?  For how long?  Or do they pass an ordinance that would allow for non-conforming use of the Old Power House?  The selection of a potential tenant is just that, a selection.  Nothing is legally binding until a lease is signed.  But an ordinace is an entirely different matter, wrought with far-reaching and precedent-setting legal and political implications.

Next time, before you misrepresent a process or disparage a neighborhood, I encourage you to learn the facts."

CO-CONSPIRATORS INDEED
And just when you thought that rational minds were beginning to prevail, city staff upped its role as co-conspirator with the APP.  Shirking communication with council (but not city staff) and going directly to the press, the APP has recently (June 3 - read it HERE) announced its newfound plans to seek the elusive 501(c)3 status from the feds, but only AFTER the city issues them a lease!!  And what city official would even think to draft yet alone disseminate such a non-complying lease of public property in a blatant effort to protect a proposed tenant from the rigors of a zoning change?  None other than duplicitous city attorney Jim True/False -- the very same scoundrel who asked the neighbors to hold off on pushback and litigation while allowing the process to play out, even going so far as to promise neighbors that we'd see the proposed lease in time to react before it ever went to council.  But late Friday, True/False and the APP released the draft lease to the public. 

LOWLIGHTS OF THE DRAFT LEASE
The document is linked above, but here are just a few gems that the APP feels entitled to:
25 year lease; initial term of 10 years at $15/sf for the ground floor and $10/sf for the upstairs (for comparison, this proposed lease rate is LOWER than real non-profits pay at the Red Brick!!!)

City to pay $1.35 million for building improvements (A/C, sewer service, roof and window replacement, etc)

28 on-site special events per year ($$)

Hours of operation 7a - 10p daily; access to the shared workspace  24/7/365

A host of other favorable-to-the-tenant policies.  And don't forget the city's admission of poor enforcement....

THE OPPOSITION
The APP defines its opposition as "a dozen neighbors" in the subdivision of Oklahoma Flats, neighboring the OPH off Gibson Avenue.  How wrong they are.  As one of these neighbors, I know firsthand because I keep the list of nearly 100 families in the surrounding area who oppose the APP at the OPH.  Yes, most all of Oklahoma Flats is on that list, but also those in River Bluff Townhomes, on Miners Trail, along Gibson Avenue, in Fox Crossing, on Spruce Street and a surprising number in the Smuggler trailer park see the APP's impact on the neighborhood as something none of us want, need or ever asked for.  

Beyond just the neighbors, add in the aggrieved non-profits who prepared lengthy (and costly) proposals for the OPH in 2014.  These organizations and their supporters were aghast at the APP's come-from-behind selection in 2015 and have watched in horror as the process has been handled in secret to this point in time.  That the APP is now attempting to join the local 501(c)3 ranks is not at all welcomed by the REAL non-profits in our community.

Then consider the Science Center advocates.  This hot new non-profit (with an incredible mission and without a home has generated interest, funding and real metrics from a pop-up experiment this winter) lost out in the final round to the APP.  The Science Center has already come forth stating its continued interest in occupying the OPH, including its willingness to share the space with other conforming entities such as the Red Brick Performing Arts Center.  They've even said they'd figure out how to accommodate a shared workspace component upstairs as presented in the APP proposal if this is something the community deems necessary.  Neighborly indeed.

And, let's not forget one of my personal favorites:  the city hall watchers.  This group recognizes the ongoing and never-ending pattern of bad decisions emanating from our local government.  Starting with the stupid idea to give away 7200 sf of publicly-owned space amidst planning to build 50,000 sf of new office space because of "need," and going from there (see Issue #122), this vocal component of diverse viewpoints in our community has successfully quashed the Hydro Plant and the Base 2 Lodge in recent years.  When the city hall watchers are joined by other what I will call "informed citizens against the miscarriage of public policy," the numbers grow and grow.  I know, I hear from all of them.  

And don't for a minute forget about John Q. Public who has been watching from afar and reading bits and bobs in the local papers.  These citizens resent council's decision to house for-profit businesses in a public space.  They especially see the APP lease negotiations as the city's way of bending the rules for a pet project.  No one wants an extension of Aspen's commercial core north of the Roaring Fork River for the first time. 

The community-wide opposition to the APP in the OPH is vast.  An Ordinance-Referendum scenario would surely end up at the polls where the APP would go down in flames.  And they know it.  The IRS hoax is all they can hope for. 

COUNCIL'S CHALLENGE
The looming decision (to pass an ordinance enabling the APP or to kill the deal and move on) is a problem of council's own making.   Recall that the APP didn't even make the cut when vetted by the citizens committee.  Several on council all but admit that they were caught up in the romanticism of beers by the river, and it's abundantly clear that absolutely no one in city hall looked into the very serious zoning implications.  For regular grown-ups, today's decision is straightforward and obvious.  But we're talking about Aspen's city council here.  Word is, of the four council members who hold the cards (Bert Myrin has recused himself due to a real estate interest in the Oklahoma Flats neighborhood), none of the four have the stomach for what is shaping up to be an Ordinance that will inevitably be followed up by a Referendum to unwind it.  This is how The Red Ant best gauges the council sentiment for/against the APP in the OPH at this critical stage:

ADAM: vocally opposed (voted against APP in 2015); has always said "great idea, wrong place"
ART:  vocally supportive; said "this decision will be THIS council's legacy" upon APP's selection in 2015, and yes, Art, it will be indeed; dug in with his opinion and not entirely lucid on the community pushback and implications of the looming ordinance/referendum scenario 
BERT:  cannot vote but vocally opposed; believes the city should not be giving 7200 sf away when it will need to rent that same amount of space for the next 5 years at ~$18K/month while the Taj Mahal is being built
ANN:  publicly non-committal but rumored to have supported APP in 2015 because of the "public theater and dances" to be held there, despite these activities NOT EVER being part of the APP's written proposal nor mentioned in either of its two presentations to council; up for re-election in May 2017 
STEVE:  recall that the mayor brought the APP proposal back to life from the trash heap in 2015 but his patience is waning, especially given the shenanigans related to the group's non-profit status; known to be a "reed in the wind" when it comes to decision-making (he goes with whatever he hears last); up for re-election to a potential 3rd term in May 2017

Soooo, the question has really changed to, "What is this group's appetite for an Ordinance/Referendum if they triple down for the APP?"  The Red Ant says, none, save maybe Art.  The others are solely focused on their political capital with the millennial voting block that is represented by the APP principals.  Council is trying desperately to save face and no one wants to be the bad guy, but this jig is up and everyone knows it.  APP is equally ego-invested and won't simply walk away; they want council to send them packing. The draft lease release is surely their great Hail Mary as the clock runs out.  The fragile egos will meet in public tonight to hash through the proposed lease, assuming council won't have the cajones to simply JUST SAY NO up-front based on the abundantly clear zoning laws. This needs to be the APP's last call.  

WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Attend the meeting and speak out -- council knows how the neighbors feel, but for those others (see THE OPPOSITION above), THIS is YOUR chance to state your disapproval.

Write to council -- they do read your letters, although several do not have the manners to acknowledge it:

 


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