Local leaders talk trends with county officials

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Skiing, climate change and water are on the minds of local community leaders this winter. And indeed, the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin on Feb. 20, 2013, - the day after the leaders met with county officials - was at 64 percent of average and 89 percent of 2012, which was a drought year. Yet some trails on Aspen Mountain, above, still sparkled on a cold day in early February.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Skiing, climate change and water are on the minds of local community leaders this winter. And indeed, the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin on Feb. 20, 2013, - the day after the leaders met with county officials - was at 64 percent of average and 89 percent of 2012, which was a drought year. Yet some trails on Aspen Mountain, above, still sparkled on a cold day in early February.

An aging population. Less water due to climate change and Front Range demands. An increasing reliance on international visitors and air travel. And an increasingly gentrified midvalley.

These are some of the trends that Pitkin County commissioners and department heads heard about on Tuesday at a retreat at the Limelight hotel in Aspen.

County Manager Jon Peacock invited several community leaders to come tell county officials about the key short- and long-term trends they are seeing and to raise issues relevant to the county.

Mike Kaplan, the CEO of Aspen Skiing Co., told the group that climate change was “the obvious” trend and that water issues “should be on everybody’s screen.”

He noted the aging demographic of both the SkiCo’s customers and its work force, and said there was still “intense competition” for resort customers.

International visitors, especially from Australia and Brazil, are increasingly important to SkiCo, Kaplan said, and the county’s airport is “critical to our collective success.”

Kaplan said, however, that airline capacity into Aspen is down 20 percent this year and there is no competition out of Denver for United.

“So you’ve got, basically, higher prices and fewer seats,” Kaplan said, suggesting that it was time for the community to get more aggressive about attracting new service to Aspen.

Along with air access, Kaplan said the resort needed more “high-occupancy turnover,” or “hot beds.”

He pointed out that SkiCo wants to build hot beds at the base of Buttermilk, but it doesn’t make economic sense to do so.

“We looked at it,” Kaplan said. “But just the way the zoning and the process is structured, it doesn’t make sense for us to build hot beds there. We should be thinking about that and talking about that.”

Bill Kane, the former town manager of Basalt, a planner with Design Workshop and the current vice chairman of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, seconded Kaplan’s observation about an aging population.

“The graying is happening,” Kane said, pointing out that the 65-plus demographic may account for close to 15 percent of the upper valley’s population by 2015.

And he observed that throughout much of Aspen’s ski-resort history, when local workers got older, they tended to migrate to a beach somewhere.

But now they are staying put, and especially doing so in the midvalley, with its lower elevation, warmer off-seasons, and increasing array of services and culture.

“People are very, very reluctant to leave the valley,” said Kane.

Kane said Whole Foods is drawing people to the midvalley, the Rocky Mountain Institute is planning to move 50 good jobs to Basalt, and a continuous-care retirement center is under review by the town of Basalt.

“The midvalley feels like it is really poised for development and settlement pressure,” Kane said.

Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler agreed with the aging trend in the valley.

“We’re aging,” he said. “We’re not seeing the infill of the younger population.”

Another trend is that the hospital is now doing almost as much business in the summer as the winter, which requires an adjustment.

And he said the hospital plans to be less “hospital-centric” and take a broader leadership role in encouraging the local population to stay healthy as a way to help manage health-care costs.

Ruthie Brown, a member of the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, urged commissioners to work to protect the land, water and air in the county.

She warned that oil and gas interests on the Western Slope are putting pressure on the county’s land and that a growing Eastern Slope wants more water.

“It’s a land grab, it’s a water grab, it’s an our-most-valuable-resources grab,” Brown said.

She also suggested that the county look at the impacts of climate change as the basis for its considerations.

Kane added to Brown’s comments by saying that in his role with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, he has gotten a new sense of the growing desire for Western Slope water.

“Water buffaloes, particularly in the southern delivery system, are studying every drop of water in the Fryingpan drainage,” he said. “There are plenty of plans out there to divert more water to the East Slope.”

Editor’s note: This story was published in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.

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