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Tuesday
Aug032010

ISSUE # 46 .... The nANTucket Effect

 
 

BUT FIRST -- TWO IMPORTANT ASPEN REMINDERS!  

1)      Vote in the August 10 primary!  In addition to state and national races, Pitkin County has at-large races for county commissioner and sheriff on the ballot.  All registered voters in the county no matter where you live and regardless of party affiliation can vote in these races.  Now is the time for The Red Ant readers in the county -- Mountain Valley, Meadowood, Snowmass, the North 40 and on Red Mountain -- to take an active role and contribute to making a difference in our local elections!  Early voting is in the county clerk's office, Monday - Friday, August 2 - 6, 8:30 am - 4:30 pm.  For more info, go to www.PitkinVotes.org. Please make this important stop a priority! 

(And yes, as recently reported by the Aspen Daily News, The Red Ant backs restaurateur Rob Ittner for county commissioner.  Click here to learn more, volunteer and DONATE!  Plus, if you're at all curious how I feel about former city councilman Jack Johnson's candidacy, please click here to read the letter I sent to the Aspen Daily News in February.)

2)    Learn about the Aspen Art Museum's proposed new building on the Wienerstube property (633 S. Spring Street) by clicking here or by visiting the museum at its current location to view the model and renderings. The official public hearing on the proposal is scheduled before city council on Monday, August 2.  Please show up and voice your support!  The Red Ant thinks this will be a fabulous and exciting addition to downtown Aspen!  And -- something new and different -- 100% of the funding for this spectacular facility will be borne by the AAM itself.  It will be a tremendous gift to our community. 

THE RED ANT "ON ISLAND"

Even The Red Ant needs a vacation! And where better than the fabulous island community of Nantucket, just 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.  It sure didn't take long to notice the obvious similarities between Aspen and Nantucket: isolated vacation destinations where weather regularly impacts arrivals and departures, seasonal service-based tourism economies with workforce needs that wax and wane accordingly, full-time residents who tough it out in the off-seasons and take great pride in maintaining what makes the communities great, historic districts with unique architecture and strict preservation rules, real estate at the top end of the spectrum (that has not been immune to the recent economic downturn),  robust arts and cultural programs.  You get the picture.

And just as obvious are the familiar challenges: traffic, parking, housing, high costs of living.  Ever-conducting unscientific surveys (I can't help myself), The Red Ant has seen many different approaches to familiar problems.  In fact, in several cases, they do it far better "on island," and we could learn a thing or two!

KINDRED SPIRITS

Where Aspen has its unofficial "ZG" nickname, derived from early Pitkin County license plates, Nantucket has "ACK," its airport code. When you're in the know, these monikers speak for themselves. Where Aspen has its 925 and 920 local phone number prefixes that enable us to write  0-4600 (for The Little Nell, for example), Nantucket has its 228.  (As such, they just write the four following digits.)  We both have uniquely notable histories.  Nantucket's started a lot earlier -- the island was settled in the mid-1600s and was the center of the world's whaling industry for over 150 years.  About the time that The Grey Lady's "quiet years" began, The Silver Queen was striking it rich and leading the  world in silver mining.  Both communities' 20th century resurgences breathed new life into relative ghost towns, and came as a result of tourism and real estate development.  Aspen is fortunate to have robust winter and summer tourism seasons.  In Nantucket, it's all made or lost in 12 weeks each summer. 

THE REAL ESTATE TRANSFER TAX (RETT)

In Aspen, real estate buyers pay a 1.5% RETT, with funds going to maintain the city-owned Wheeler Opera House and to build subsidized employee housing projects.  On Nantucket, housing is seen as a community responsibility, not one for which real estate buyers alone should bear the financial burden.  Instead, Nantucket's 2% RETT generates revenue specifically earmarked for open space purchases.  In other words, they use growth to save land. 

As a result of this effort and others like it, of the island's 50 square miles, 60% is publicly-owned open space, conservation land or wetlands.  And of the remaining 40%, 32% has already been developed, effectively leaving just 8% for future development OR conservation.  Remember, it's an island.  No annexing property to make a bigger pie for subsidized housing!!

THE SEASONAL WORKFORCE

As with any service-based economy, it takes a workforce to keep the boat afloat.  And Nantucket has long attracted cheerful, hard-working young people to work in the shops, bus the tables, serve the drinks and plant the flowers. College students from the eastern seaboard have been coming here in droves for generations, while burgeoning capitalists from Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and other emerging democracies primarily in Eastern Europe have joined them and cannot be missed. 

Eastern Europe, you surely ask?  The Red Ant did too, until I learned that there is a well-established program called Work & Travel USA, run by the US State Department, that matches US employers in need of short-term seasonal staff with skilled, English-speaking international students (from over 65 countries!) who want to live, work and travel in the US.  It is all run through a non-profit sponsoring organization (www.interexchange.org) that handles the screening, interviewing, travel arrangements, work visas, US tax paperwork, emergency services, etc.  The students work for a maximum of 4 months and then travel for up to one month before returning to school. 

Nantucket has established itself as a popular summer destination within the program.  The kids' work ethic is incredible; they are cheerful and, most notably, thrilled at the experience of meeting Americans and making some cash.  In conversations I've had with aspiring bankers, journalists and social workers, many want to visit New York, Washington DC and ... Niagara Falls before heading home.  (Somehow a program like this just kinda makes sense.  Wouldn't it be nice to have young people come to Aspen for the season again??)

AFFORDABLE HOUSING:  A PRIORITY WITHOUT THE CHAOS

There is indeed a need for low and moderate income housing on Nantucket.  This is currently being addressed through various entities that are funded through grants for property rehabilitation and purchases, Habitat for Humanity, and a newly established Affordable Housing Trust Fund.  Collectively, their goal is to build 20 housing units per year on city-owned parcels.  Recalling that Nantucket's RETT goes to the purchase of open space, the trust fund receives its funding through Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a federally-funded competitive grant program.  Furthermore, Nantucket voters recently voted not to approve an increase in the RETT to fund affordable housing.

The summer season is the only notable "crunch time" for housing.  There are 2,000 dwellings occupied by year-round residents (less than 20% of the total), so after the summer swell (the population grows to over 50,000 people), affordable rental options are everywhere for those who wish to stick around.  Especially in town, Nantucket is comprised of high-density historic home sites, most with cottages and carriage houses that are rented out in high season.  There's also the "Nantucket Shuffle" -- where homeowners move into their own cottages and rent out their main house to make some serious cash. 

But unlike in Aspen, there are no programs or people on Nantucket trying to sell bus boys and cocktail waitresses taxpayer-subsidized, deed-restricted pieces of the dream.  Paying rent is absolutely normal.  And as a result, summer-to-summer, it's a revolving door of hard-working, happy folks who come to the island for the season to work and have a great time.   Like it used to be in Aspen.

Even the Work and Travel USA kids find their own housing.  It takes a little work, but they aren't afraid of that!

HISTORIC PRESERVATION: CONSISTENCY!

The entire island of Nantucket was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.  It has the highest concentration of pre-Civil War structures in the US.  There exists an incredibly strict set of building regulations that -- while cumbersome and bureaucratic -- actually mean something.  These are accepted, abided by, respected and effective, primarily because they are consistently applied and equally enforced.  There's no subjectivity, no mitigation.  For example, there is a set of 11 "approvable colors," ranging from Main Street Yellow to Essex Green, Quaker Grey to Cobblestone, and, of course, Nantucket Red. 

And when someone wants to tear down an old structure on their property, it's often offered to the first taker -- for free -- as long as they can move it off the site.  This is how many properties have come to have multiple historic "out buildings" on their lots.  This practice is encouraged and embraced.  (And it serves to contribute to the housing market by creating rental inventory during the summer season.)

Then there's the Nantucket Historical Association.  This local non-profit raises money throughout the year to preserve and interpret the history of the island.  Since its founding in 1894, the NHA has been purchasing buildings with historic significance.  Today it boasts 22 historical building and sites.  (Somehow, the ridiculous idea that Aspen should float a bond to buy The Given Institute in order to prevent it from being torn down comes to mind....)

TRANSPORTATION

Cars were not allowed on Nantucket until 1918.  They're still discouraged.  Even so, parking in town is tricky.  But instead of taking measures to accept and address the traffic and parking issues, the local government embraces an intentional avoidance of traditional means of mitigation:  no road widening, no added lands, no traffic lights.  If it's inconvenient and pricey, fewer people will do it.  As further deterrents, it costs $430 round-trip to ferry a car to and from the island, and daily car rentals on the island start at $200 a day.

The Nantucket Regional Transportation Authority (NRTA) is a popular, convenient and accepted means of transportation throughout the island.  Fares are $1 or $2 each way, depending on the route.  Nobody -- tourists, residents and workers alike -- complains about paying for a comfortable shuttle ride into town, to the airport or to the most popular beaches.  I've yet to hear anyone express that "this place" owes them a free ride. 

As one might imagine, business at the bike rental shops is booming.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT:  NO CONCENTRATION OF POWER

Nantucket is the only location in North America that has the same name for the island, the town and the county.  Yep, the town and county are coterminous, consolidated, combined.  One and the same.  The 5 elected board of selectmen (BOS) are the 5 county commissioners.  They're also the board of health, regional transportation authority, fire and police commissioners, board of public works and sewer commissioners.  They have very defined and vast responsibilities, and as such, cannot and do not micro-manage the minute details and responsibilities of every other board and commission.

Most key commissions are filled by elected members.  These include: harbor and shellfish advisory board, historic district commission, housing authority, land bank commission, moderator, planning board, school committee, town clerk and water commission.  These commissions have real power and their decisions cannot be wantonly disregarded by the BOS.  Appointed officials are seated with a BOS-recommended mix of skills and diversity, and chosen for their cooperative spirit.  (Those too set in their ways are not to be appointed as they are less likely to compromise.)

Incidentally, Nantucket's 2010 budget is $73.5 million.  (The City of Aspen alone has $91 million budgeted for 2010 -- and that doesn't include a nickel for the county!!  Makes you think about redundancy just a little, huh?) 

ANNUAL TOWN MEETING

Major governmental business decisions for Nantucket are made at the annual Town Meeting, held every spring after the town elections.  Many issues are determined by voice vote, while others take a written ballot.  This gives the entire electorate the annual opportunity to participate in the democratic process -- ranging from the approval of the annual budget to considerations of all new business.  In other words, the BOS do not unilaterally hold all the power, all the time.  In fact, the town meeting itself is conducted by an elected moderator, and the town's governance adheres strictly to Robert's Rules of Order, the recognized guide to running meetings effectively and fairly.

ADVISORY COMMITTEE FOR NON-VOTING TAXPAYERS

This Nantucket commission was created to make recommendations to the BOS on issues of concern to non-resident taxpayers who pay approximately 70% of the residential real estate taxes collected.  Comprised of 15 appointed members who serve 3-year staggered terms, the ACNVT meets with the BOS and finance director to discuss issues facing the town.  Additionally, the ACNVT addresses problems related to code enforcement, the extension of sewer districts, restructuring town departments, providing amendments to the zoning code and addressing the issues surrounding the taxation of summer rentals.

Can you just imagine Mayor Mick and our guys enacting policies created by the villainous second-homeowners!?!  Heck, The Red Ant would love to see such a group get merely an audience with our esteemed leadership!

LATE-BREAKING NEWS:  A step toward the end of "taxation without representation" in Colorado? There is a measure on the November ballot (Amendment 60) that will allow property owners who do not live here to vote on local tax issues!  The Red Ant kids you not!  Never mind that the county commissioners warn that future tax votes could be put in the hands of people who own vacations homes versus the locals.  "You would see a situation where people who do not live in the community would be the majority," stated Rachel Richards of the BOCC.  But I digress...

Perhaps an Aspen version of the ACNVT is an idea whose time is arriving soon!

COUNCIL ON AGING

Since 1974, Nantucket has appointed this council of 9 board members to act on behalf of its elderly residents.  Acknowledging the increasing number of aging baby-boomers, the COA exists to study, address and continue to plan for the needs of this growing segment of the population.  Currently, seniors can tap into the COA for programs on nutrition, education and recreation, as well as for information and lectures on health care, legal services, technology, banking and money management, social services and housing.  The COA presents a robust collection of programs that served 1300 individuals in 2009, with an average of 100 people visiting the senior center each day.  It's popular, it's successful and it's growing.

What is Aspen doing?  Planning to float a bond in addition to the hospital expansion bond to fund the construction of a retirement center, likely on the Moore property. 

AND A GREAT IRONY.....

A destination resort like Aspen, Nantucket also has to manage its "party town" reputation.  But local tolerance for illegal drugs on Nantucket is ZERO, and island law enforcement actively pursues and prosecutes "possession with intent to distribute" and other drug-related cases.

Here's where it gets weird.  The Red Ant was recently shown a "campaign gizmo" from a recent Nantucket Sheriff's election. Yep, a weekly "pill dispenser" promoting the eventual winning candidate.  Given the major differences in drug policy and law enforcement between Nantucket and Aspen, this little gem seems to be far better suited for the sheriff's race at home!  Again, even The Red Ant can't make this up!

THE RED ANT SAYS:

While Aspen's local government is loathe to contemplate -- yet alone embrace -- any idea that is not home-spun, The Red Ant thinks that it's always constructive to see what the other guys are doing.  Especially when it works.  

But it's the attitude of the community at large on Nantucket that's the most notable difference.  Tourism is embraced.  Visitors are wanted, welcome, and warmly embraced.  And second-homeowners?  Cherished.  For some reason, on this little off-shore sliver of Massachusetts, the folks on Nantucket have realized that "trickle-down economics" is good for everyone.  As a result, the anger and class warfare so prevalent in Aspen is non-existent.  There's a real "we're in this together" attitude.  And the fierce independence of the (10,500) year-round residents is a source of local pride.  As such, entitlements for some at the expense of others are culturally repugnant.  With the downturn of the economy in recent years, all on the island have felt the pain and recognize that improved tourism numbers and construction jobs are the keys to local economic recovery.

So much for a couple of hours at the coffee shop on a drizzly and foggy day.... Just thought I'd check in from the island and remind you that The Red Ant is always on the case!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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