Friday, December 19, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part IX): Aspen, Colorado

I’m spending a few days in Aspen, population 5,914. It is the county seat of Pitkin county, population 14,872, and is on Colorado’s western slope. (Photo top Pitkin County Courthouse). While it is nonmetro by OMB standards, the place strikes me as rural by that measure only. Certainly, I have seen nothing here that is culturally rural –though that doesn’t mean that remnants of the rural West aren’t present.

Aspen is, of course, a playground for the super rich. The wikipedia entry for the city boasts that the “downtown has been largely transformed into an upscale shopping district that includes high-end restaurants, salons, and boutiques. Aspen boasts a Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Tod's and recently a Burberry boutique, 3 of which are the only locations in Colorado.” Wikipedia further describes the yawning chasm between rich and not-so-rich: “The city today remains a mix of high-end luxury homes and condos intermixed with legacy residences and mobile home parks populated by an old guard of Aspen residents struggling to maintain the unique character of the city.”

High land values in Aspen also make it prohibitively expensive for many who work in Aspen to live there. Many therefore commute to bedroom communities such as Basalt, population 2,681,.and Carbondale, population 5,196. The Roaring Fork Regional Transit system of buses serves all of these communities and, indeed, reaches as far as Glenwood Springs, population 7,736, 40 miles away in Garfield County. It’s a good thing, too, because even with the frequent bus service, morning rush hour into Aspen and evening rush hour out seriously slow things down. The RFTA also provides free bus service linking Aspen to the other nearby ski areas, including Snowmass and Buttermilk. Snowmass, whose commercial district and housing options have been expanding in recent years, is the largest of the areas in acreage.

Aspen as a resort apparently dates to the late 1940s, when the Aspen Skiing Corporation was founded. Long before that, it was Ute City and came to be called Aspen only in 1880. It was founded as a silver mining community and had its peak years as such in the early 1890s. Now the economy is fueled by tourism and the second-home phenomenon.

Interestingly, Aspen has two newspapers, The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News. The first dates back to 1881, and the second bills itself as “the Roaring Fork Valley’s only independent and locally owned newspaper.” Both papers have online versions, and both are free in print – presumably supported by the pages and pages of ads they feature. There’s not a lot of national news in these papers, and what there is tends to be a bit sensational – such as an AP story about a boy named Adolph Hitler Campbell, in Easton Pennsylvania, whose parents couldn’t get a local bakery to put his entire name on his birthday cake. In fact, there’s not a great deal of news of any sort in the paper, but what news there is tends to be local, and it’s the stuff you might expect from a town this size: deaths of residents, including a former ski patrolman killed a few days ago in an avalanche while he was skiing just out of bounds; crime; and local politics.

Two stories covered by the papers in the past few days suggest the sorts of local government issues you would expect from a rural resort community like Aspen. One is about a conflict between Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen School Board over the desire of the latter to build teacher housing in an area not currently zoned for it. The school board hopes to seek only state approval, while Pitkin County believes it must be involved. There’s lots of talk in the story about Aspen’s UGB –that’s Urban Growth Boundary. What is at stake for the school board is affordable rental housing for teachers.

Another local government story is coverage of the meeting of Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday, 17 December. They voted to “require carbon monoxide detectors in all county residences . . . and voted to outlaw drinking alcohol in public—except in licensed facilities—for eight days in January during the ESPN Winter X Games.” Such actions aren’t exactly consistent with rural stereotypes of independence, small government, and lack of regulation. But, as I said earlier, Aspen isn’t very rural by cultural measures.

I overheard the innkeeper at the mid-market inn where we are staying say that bookings are down over the holiday season, compared to past years. He said they “expected Aspen to be immune from the downturn, but it’s not.” This is also echoed in a story on the front page of the Aspen Daily News yesterday. The headline is, “Dearth of jobs awaits influx of workers,” and it tells of the hundreds of seasonal workers who have

descended on Aspen, many from abroad, who are encountering record numbers of “Sorry, we are not hiring” signs. (photo right, Aspen's Workforce center).

Meanwhile, I also see coverage that the town council of Snowmass Village, population 1,822, has cut its 2009 budget by 10%, “citing the uncertain economy and weak winter bookings.” Other headlines today: “Expert: Aspen-Snowmass currently a buyer’s market” and “

Toys for Tots sends an SOS.” Clearly, if Aspen and Snowmass are hurting like this, things truly are tough all over.

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