Pitkin County commissioners are considering an application that would see the historic Smuggler Mine developed as a tourist attraction with two large homes built above and to the left of the mine.
Pitkin County commissioners are considering an application that would see the historic Smuggler Mine developed as a tourist attraction with two large homes built above and to the left of the mine. Credit: Jordan Curet / Aspen Daily News

ASPEN – The recently retired CEO of a major U.S. marketing company wants to turn the historic Smuggler Mine into a tourist attraction, but also wants Pitkin County to allow him to build large homes next to the mine.

Joe Crafton, who retired in March as CEO of Crossmark, a privately held sales and marketing company near Dallas that shelves products for big brands in big retail chains, floated his ideas for the nearly dormant mine by the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.

“I’m a retired marketing executive,” he told the board. “I’m not a real estate developer, I’m not a geologist, I’m not a miner, but I am fascinated by history. I’m a bit of history nut and I love the opportunity this presents as far as creating a really quality visitor experience. Something you would be proud of.”

Crafton would first like to see debris and old mining equipment cleared from the site, and then to add a visitors center, a parking area, a museum, a gift shop, an exhibit with a working silversmith producing keepsake silver coins, and an observation deck overlooking Aspen.

Crafton suggested shortening the mine tour, adding better lighting in the tunnels, reversing the current entrance and exit to the mine, and adding handrails, oxygen meters, safety cameras and other features to make the tour more attractive and safe for visitors.

“Things that can make it a better visitor experience all around,” Crafton said, “while making it more authentic.”

Crafton was described as a “potential purchaser” of the mine, and its mineral rights, which he said was for sale for $7.5 million. He said he would like to live in one of the homes and sell the other to help pay for the refurbishment and ongoing operation of the mine.

A section of the county’s land use code on historic preservation offers incentives for developers to protect and maintain historic assets, such as the Smuggler Mine.

That code section also allows for someone like Crafton to come in for an informal meeting with the commissioners to discuss a potential approach to preserving and developing a historic property.

The commissioners, responding to his proposal, generally said they could see the value in the mine being a viable tourist attraction, but also had concerns about two 15,000 square-foot homes in the highly visible location.

“I’d be really skeptical of a monster home,” said Commissioner Steve Child. “I’d be a lot more comfortable with more modest-size homes.”

The two proposed homes would be on a relatively flat bench next to the mine, just above the homes on Silverlode Drive. They would be lower than the new home being built at the top of Spruce Street.

A map of the proposed homes and the cleaned-up Smuggler Mine.
A map of the proposed homes and the cleaned-up Smuggler Mine. Credit: Source / Pitkin County

Benefits of upzoning?

Both Commissioners Rachel Richards and Michael Owsley said they would want to see a sustainable organization, or plan, set up to ensure the mine tour was well-maintained and open to the public for the long term, as well as place limits on what else could eventually happen in the mine.

“It needs to be extremely clear how the money from the upzoning flows to the long-term successful mine operations,” Richards said. “That would be pivotal to the public interest.”

It was also suggested that it might be a good idea to see if the Aspen Historical Society would be interested in managing the mine long term.

The Smuggler Mine was staked in 1879, grew to be one of the most productive silver mines in the world, and ended large-scale silver mining in 1918. Today, the mine is still licensed by the state as a working mine, as there is still silver in it, albeit much of it in flooded tunnels far underground.

About 1,500 people currently go through the mine on tours annually, Crafton said. Some special events have also been held at the mine the past several years, including parties tied to the Food & Wine Classic.

The mine itself, but not any of the exterior buildings, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the mid-1980s. It’s currently owned by New Smuggler Mine Corp. and valued at $1.5 million by the county assessor.

The mine sits on a 29.7-acre lot and under the current county code — without any historic preservation incentives — it could be subdivided into two lots, each with a home of up to 5,750 square feet.

Craft envisions creating three lots, one each for a new homesite, and one just for the mine site.

In exchange for cleaning up the mine, preserving its historic aspects, and opening the mine to public for tours, Crafton would ask for the right to build the two houses, each with up to 15,000 square feet, along with a new caretakers unit, or “watchman’s quarters,” at the mine entrance. The two homes would have a separate driveway off of Smuggler Mountain Road.

Under the historic incentives program, Crafton could also receive an exemption from the county’s affordable housing requirements, be granted an extended vesting period and other benefits.

A view of the Smuggler Mine from the Silver Queen Gondola.
A view of the Smuggler Mine from the Silver Queen Gondola. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

Code changes needed

There would have to several code amendments approved by the commissioners in order to make the proposal work, according to Lance Clark, the county’s assistant community development director.

In exchange, the county could secure historic public resource in the mine, which Commissioner Rob Ittner called “a jewel of amenity.”

A similar application for the mine in 2007 was withdrawn before the commissioners voted on it.

The mine site is a de-listed EPA Superfund site, and the homes are proposed for an area that now includes many other residential units that were also once part of the former EPA site.

There are no restrictions on building there from the EPA’s point of view, other than following certain standard guidelines, said Patrick Rawley, a planner with Stan Clauson Associates, Inc. in Aspen, which is helping Crafton with his plan.

It wasn’t clear what Crafton took away from the meeting with the commissioners. If he was encouraged, he can submit a formal application to the county.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News collaborate on this story, which the Daily News published on Wednesday, August 13, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...