Friday, January 19, 2007

Income Integration in Aspen Colorado

The New York Times takes the topic of income inequality very seriously. Perhaps, the middle class are more loyal readers of the Times than the rich because the former have a lower value of time? This travel article about Aspen provides an interesting case study of how the rich and not so rich coexist and trade with each other in a high amenity ski setting.

Clearly, Aspen Colorado offers wonderful consumer and recreational amenities. Midway through the article, the author gets upset that many people who work in Aspen cannot afford to buy homes there and must commute far from where they can afford to live to get to Aspen. The article provides some details about how private developers have had to provide some "set asides" promising to sell some new housing units to "middle class" people.

January 19, 2007
Ski Report
Beneath the Glitz, a Middle-Class Aspen

WHEN Don Bird is on vacation or traveling away from his Aspen home, if someone asks him where he lives, he will answer, “Colorado.” If pressed to be more specific, he might admit that he lives in the mountains, but he will do anything to keep from confessing that he lives in Aspen.

“Because then I have to justify it, explaining that I don’t have a limo or a $10 million chalet,” said Mr. Bird, a 36-year Aspen resident who is the town’s jail administrator and a part-time ski instructor. “I have to explain that there’s an Aspen reality and an Aspen myth. Aspen has a volunteer fire department, churches, an Elks Club and a lot of other things real towns have. But the celebrity mythmaking can be too strong to fight.

“So I say Colorado and hope they leave it at that. They may never know the truth about my town.”

It is a great oddity of every recent winter that one of the magnificent ski resorts in the world is subtly overlooked because it is too famous.

Aspen is far from ignored, of course, since its four distinct peaks (Aspen, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk) drew nearly 1.5 million skiers and riders last season. But in snow-sports circles, and among those who vote in industry magazine rankings, there is a tendency to treat the Aspen celebrity sideshow as more pertinent to the place than all its authentic parts.

Aspen is often regarded as someplace not for the masses. Its annual skier visits have dropped since the late 1980s. Last winter, roughly a million more skiers visited Vail Valley.

Depending on your perspective, this is either a bad or a good thing. It’s a shame that so many people are missing a diverse, spectacular mountain experience. On the other hand, about three weeks ago, on Dec. 27, in the middle of what was the busiest week of the season, there was never a wait longer than a minute to board any upper-mountain lift on Aspen Mountain or on the adjacent Aspen Highlands.

Nor were there any lines longer than a minute two days earlier, Christmas Day, at Buttermilk, home to hundreds of acres of beginner terrain. And there were no lines at that mountain’s stunt-tastic superpipe, part of the annual Winter X Games. In the Buttermilk lodge, there wasn’t even a line to sit next to Christie Brinkley as she sipped her hot chocolate. (O.K., so anyone can succumb to stargazing once in a while.)

“People bring up Aspen/Snowmass and immediately start talking about the ritzy, glitzy, ditzy stuff, and it drives me crazy,” said Chris Davenport, a two-time world extreme skiing champion and a 14-year resident of the area. “It’s about the skiing, about the mountains, about a town that’s been there since the 1800s. It is the other stuff that is inconsequential.”

Now for a little perspective. Aspen’s glam and privileged reputation is not unearned. During Christmas week on the Aspen village streets, you can start to feel out of place if you’re not wearing a full-length fur and carrying a small dog. Some houses were renting for $245,000 for the week. The paparazzi got into a tussle, with one arrested on a charge of pulling a knife, as they grappled for the perfect snapshot of Seal snowboarding. A very small order of French fries at the tavern opposite the Aspen base gondola was $13.

“For three weeks, things are a little crazy,” said Mike Kaplan, the Aspen Skiing Company’s new chief executive. “The people-watching on the streets at this time of year can be fun, not unlike being on a Hollywood set. There are really three Aspens. The real town, the ski town and those three holiday weeks of celebrity town.”

If you want to come to Aspen during holiday weeks and stay at its finest hotels, you will pay for it. An online attempt to reserve a room at the slopeside Hyatt Grand Aspen for the week after Christmas 2007 revealed a studio available for $1,200 a night and a three-bedroom condo for a nightly rate of $4,000. Inexpensive flights in and out of Aspen at that time of year can be hard to come by, too. But the drive from Denver is a manageable four hours, or less, and there are van services that will do the driving for you.

But at other times in the winter, reasonably affordable, unpretentious lodging is offered for as low as $100 a night. There is no need for a car during your stay. There are plenty of restaurants for every budget.

“Every year I run into people who are amazed that they can come here and enjoy themselves on and off the mountain and not sacrifice a kid’s college education savings,” Mr. Bird said.

Even during Christmas week last month, a comfortable if unglamorous one-bedroom condo with a living room, kitchenette and loft with beds was $331 a night at the Shadow Mountain Lodge, a short walk from Aspen village. You can easily spend that much next weekend at a ski resort condominium in northern New England. Over at the Tyrolean Lodge on Main Street, rooms during Christmas week were going for $165 to $190 plus $15 for each room occupant exceeding two guests. This week, the basic room rate dropped to between $100 and $125 a night. There is no pool or hot tub at the Tyrolean, but it’s cozy and a local secret.

There are other tips from locals on how to experience Aspen on the budget of someone who goes to the movies instead of someone who stars in them. For example, many of the better restaurants in town, like Jimmy’s, offer bar menus with delightful food prepared from the same great kitchen and same chefs that prepare the food for the dining room. The difference can be a delicious dinner at $18 a person as opposed to one that is $60 a person.

YOU also don’t have to make your apr├Ęs-ski stop at the pricey hotels nearest the mountain. Take a two-block walk — some used to ski it — to the historic Red Onion bar, and your beer, wine or margarita won’t cost any more at this century-old spot than it would back home. A block away, there is a ski stand out front and a local crowd inside at the Cooper Street Bar and Restaurant, with an old-time shuffleboard game paralleling the crowded bar. As it says behind the Cooper Street bar, the atmosphere is about cheap beer and bad service, but only the former is true.

Another way to enjoy the authentic side of Aspen is to take advantage of its lengthy history. A mining town since the 19th century, Aspen has had plenty of time to pull together a startling variety of off-mountain activities — from the policy conferences and programs of the Aspen Institute to annual festivals dedicated to food, wine, various music genres, writing, comedy and physics. There are outdoor concerts (even in the winter), fabulous cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails and, in the summer, biking, hiking and fly fishing.

“I think we’re busier in the summer than the winter,” said Richard Goldstein, a private investor who became a year-round Aspen resident after moving from Denver. “You don’t have to be a skier to appreciate Aspen.”

Carol Perry of the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., was riding the Ajax Express lift last month talking about how she has been coming to Aspen since 1960, “when the lift tickets were $6.” They are now about $80.

“I come for the full vacation experience,” Ms. Perry said. “Because I love the restaurants, because I know I won’t be in a cultural backwater, because the terrain will stretch my skiing abilities and because the cars will stop for you when you cross the street. They don’t do that in Chicago.”

Everything is far from ideal in Aspen, even for the proud Aspenites. Since real estate values have exploded, housing for middle-class workers in this town of about 6,000 has become more and more scarce. Hundreds of Aspen seasonal workers are forced to live an hour away by bus, and they might have been farther away had the Aspen Skiing Company not bought some local motels and converted them to employee lodging.

A local study estimated that the workforce living in Pitkin County, where Aspen is, had dropped to 44 percent of the total year-round population in 2004, a decline of nearly 30 percent from the mid-1980s. Civic leaders have responded by requiring developers of new multimillion-dollar homes in the area to also build less-expensive housing units that are strictly regulated by price and by how much they can accrue in value to keep them accessible to middle-class workers.

“You can call that artificially creating a middle class, but it’s significant that the town chose to do that,” said Molly Ireland, who is married to Don Bird, works at the Aspen library and lives with him and their two children in one of the homes set aside for local year-round residents.

“We were defining what we wanted the fabric of the town to be,” she said. “I think that has extended to the mountain leadership. They don’t want this to be a place visited by just the stereotypical Aspen visitor. They want a greater variety of people. I want people to come back here too. It’s too great a place to pass up.”

There are a few key developments that might shake Aspen into a new era of, or kind of, prosperity. One is the effect of the ESPN-sponsored Winter X Games, which will continue to be held in Aspen through 2010. Thousands of riders, free skiers, snowmobilers and all manner of alternative sport devotees now look to Aspen as the place to test themselves where the best also test themselves. That’s the young audience Aspen needs. It’s hard to believe that before 2001, snowboarding was banned on Aspen Mountain.

Meanwhile, over at Snowmass, there is also a massive base village development going in to match the massive, family-friendly terrain.

There is only one thing that Aspen cannot do to help itself. It cannot move 40 miles north to Colorado’s main ski corridor, I-70, nor can Aspen move another 40 miles closer to Denver in the vicinity of some of its chief competitors. Plain and simple, Aspen is farther away.

“Yeah, you have to want to get here,” Don Bird said. “It’s a little longer trip. Maybe that’s the way it should be. The people that come here know why they’re here. And a lot of the people who never come here don’t know what they’ve missed.”