Resort economy undergoes changes

ASPEN – Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland warns against expecting a return of the brawling real-estate economy. That era, just like the silver mining boom in which the town was founded in 1880, has passed, he says.

That silver boom yielded most of the town’s Victorian mansions and its most significant public buildings. Then, in 1893, the federal government ended its subsidy, much to the chagrin of miners from Silverton to Ketchum, Idaho. While populist politicians of the era, among them perennial Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, called for the return of the silver standard, it never happened. Aspen’s boom had ceased, and the town withered to a place of only 700 residents.

“We can’t react to the changes in the economy like the silver miners did and think that silver is going to come back,” Ireland said at a recent session covered by theAspen Daily News.

“It didn’t. And we’re not going back to the days when people bought things over the phone, sight unseen. It is not that we won’t be strong. People will still be interested at looking at property and will spend real money on it. But it is not going to be quite as reckless.”

The median price of property under contract today in Aspen is 18 percent less than last year at this time, reported real estate broker Carol Hood.

Will tourism plug this gap? Not in the very short term. Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency, reported sparse advance bookings. Indeed, the Aspen Skiing Co. is worried enough about Christmas that it has announced discounted prices in advance, only the second time it has done so.

“In the past, the resort was filled out over the holiday,” said Jeff Hanle, the company’s public relations director. “There was no reason to incentivize people because the resort was maxed out. But now there is.”

David Perry, the senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co., predicts improvement in 2010. “The second half (of ski season) is going to loosen up and things will start happening,” he said.

Further north, real estate sales in Teton County, where Jackson is located, are off by half in terms of both volume and value, reports theJackson Hole News&Guide. Auctioneer William Burke, of Progressive Auction Exchange, claims that an auction he supervised showed that property values in the county are down 30 to 50 percent. Real-estate agent Tim Mayo told the newspaper that prospective buyers lack confidence in both the national and world economy.

Still, Mayo’s hopeful that springtime will restore that confidence, as has been detected in other parts of the country. “We run a year behind the rest of the nation,” he said. “Hopefully, next spring we’ll start seeing those signs of recovery in our market as well.”


Legendary climber passes away

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Dr. Charles Houston, described by one climbing journal as a “luminary of 20th century alpinism,” has died at the age of 96. He was also known as a leading researcher in the human physiology of high altitude.

Houston was also remembered for his time in Aspen during the 1950s, when he practiced medicine and, in his spare time, built an experimental artificial heart, which he implanted in a dog.

The son of a mountaineering lawyer, Houston began climbing mountains in the Alps when he was 12. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1934, he was part of the first group to climb Mount Foraker in Alaska. In 1936, he organized an expedition that put two men atop 25,645-foot Nanda Devi, a Himalayan peak that, until 1950, remained the highest peak ever climbed. He also climbed near the summit of Everest several years before Sir Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzig Norgay’s first ascent in 1950.

K2 was his greatest challenge – and nearly his death. Second only to Everest in height, it is by all accounts a far more dangerous mountain. In 1938, he was a member of the first American expedition on K-2. He returned again in 1953 and had led a team of eight climbers to within 3,000 feet of the summit when a severe summer storm forced them to stay put for two weeks.

After his climbing career ended, Houston devoted himself to human physiology at high elevations. During World War II, he had argued that pilots would benefit from acclimatization, giving fighter and bomber squadrons a tactical advantage when flying missions above 15,000 feet, higher than the German and Japanese pilots. In its obituary,The Washington Post credits Houston with helping tens of thousands of American pilots.


Vail Resorts draws luminaries

DENVER – You’ve got to hand it to Vail Resorts. The company’s chief executive, Rob Katz, sure knows how to line up the politicians.

Three years ago, when announcing its purchase of renewable energy credits sufficient to power all of its five ski areas, the company held a press conference and managed to get two of Colorado’s most prominent politicians – a Democrat and a Republican – together. The story and photos ended up on the front page of what were then Denver’s two daily newspapers.The New York Times also gave the story prominent play.

The cost of that commitment for 152,000 megawatts, the second largest corporate purchase in the country at that time, was never revealed. But a conservative estimate of the value of publicity was $800,000.

For this announcement, Katz had the Denver mayor, the Colorado governor, a Congresswoman, a U.S. senator, and one member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet on hand to lend a few comments, mostly laudatory to Vail.

The company has not renewed its purchase of renewable energy credits, but this time will donate 1,500  hours of company labor coupled with a $750,000 donation to the U.S. Forest Service to help restore portions of the 2002 Hayman Fire, which burned across 138,000 acres southwest of Denver.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall used the occasion to make a plug for the Good Samaritan law, a bill he has pushed that would allow private-sector parties to help clean up mines in the Rocky Mountains that continue to produced polluted water.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was nothing if not magnanimous. “I like to think this is a big idea,” he said of the private-public partnership.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agencies include the Forest Service, drew attention to the “connection between forests and water quality.” That was music to the ears of Rick Cables, the regional forester. For several years, Cables has been lobbying Washington for more money to remove dead trees in Colorado forests ravaged by bark beetles to reduce potential for large-scale fire in areas that serve as municipal watersheds. In Colorado, that’s much of the forest.

In reviewing what needs to be done, the environmental community and the U.S. Forest Service have been generally in accord. Environmentalists support forest thinning near homes, although they are wary of logging deep within forest interiors, miles from dwellings. Udall’s staff recently announced a new strategy to secure congressional funding for tree removal. Several times before, staffers admit freely, they have failed.

TheSummit Daily News, polling residents of Breckenridge, reported some head-scratching. Dave Rossi, a town councilman, suggested that Vail should have spent the money working on watersheds there, not on the Eastern Slope.

But Ryan Bidwell, director of Durango-based Colorado Wild, a group that does the Ski Area Report Card, said he believes in the value of on-the-ground projects. The effectiveness of the work can be measured, he said, while the effectiveness of renewable energy credits is more difficult to verify.


Chicago’s loss may be Colorado’s gain

DENVER – Chicago’s loss in attempting to secure the 2016 Summer Olympic Games may be Denver’s gain if it decides to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The earliest opening for Denver is 2022, because the U.S. Olympic Committee has already ruled out a bid for the 2018 games. The common assumption was that if Chicago succeeded, any other U.S. location would be out of contention for a number of years.

Denver already landed the Olympics once before – for 1976. But in what remains a unique case in Olympic history, Colorado voters in 1972 denied further state funding. Denver organizers had planned poorly, indulged in luxuries, and failed to counter the perception that the Olympics would overwhelm a state that was already staggering from rapid population growth. Without state subsidies, the Denver Olympic organizers had to withdraw.

Mindful of that history, an editorial inThe Denver Post urged Olympic hopefuls to avoid any surprises and to clearly define any local and state financial contributions – and ensure they’re acceptable to voters.

“A Colorado Olympic Games would be a wonderful event for this sports-crazy state,” concluded the paper. “But such an endeavor would have to be approached with clear-eyed realism rooted in the state’s complicated history with the Olympics.”


Mountain lion stares down cyclist

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – TheSteamboat Pilot & Today reports that a local mountain biker had a stare-down with a mountain lion.

“It was one of the neatest encounters of my life,” said Dave Dietrich. “It was also one of the most interesting and the most frightening,

Dietrich, who works in a bike shop and has a degree in wildlife management, told the newspaper that he saw the adult lion walking across the trail. They were about 50 yards apart. He picked up his bike and held it over his head in an effort to look bigger, and started yelling and slamming his bike down, in hopes the cat would run away.

“It was unfazed,” he said.

The two continued to examine each other for two or three minutes until Dietrich started backing down the trail until he could no longer see the lion, then hopped on the bike and vamoosed.

A local wildlife biologist credited Dietrich with doing “just about everything right.”


Snowline likely to rise in coming years

PARK CITY, Utah – A group called Save Our Snow continues to press the case in Park City for reform necessary to curb the human role in climate change.

ThePark Record reports that group recently sponsored a presentation by Colorado-based scientist Brian Lazar, who warned of Sierra cement-type of snow replacing Wasatch powder in coming decades, and then little snow altogether to support a viable skiing economy by the year 2075.

Temperatures in the Intermountain West have been rising more quickly than elsewhere in the United States, he said. Climate models project 2 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit increases by 2030 and 3 to 5 degrees by mid-century.

By 2075, he said, temperatures will rise 5 to 9 degrees as compared to those now, he said.


Gondola riders file suit against Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. – Seven lawsuits have been filed from among the 53 people who were evacuated from a gondola that yo-yoed during an accident at Whistler last December. In one case, the gondola cabin bounced up and down before landing on a bus shelter. The lawsuits claim that some of the defendants sustained psychological injuries and soft tissue injuries. Some of the affected continue to have nightmares, they say. Pique Newsmagazine says Whistler-Blackcomb, the operator of the ski area, expressed its “sincere concern and sympathy.”

– Allen Best


In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows