Economy trumps old ski town issues

PARK CITY, Utah – A group called Citizens for Responsible Economic Growth and Vitality has formed in Park City and is challenging local officials to achieve just that.

In Park City, as in all other ski towns, the challenge to government officials in recent years was to ameliorate the effects of an overheated real-estate economy. People were concerned about loss of open space to development, about worsening traffic congestion, and about the need for affordable housing. In turn, however, revenues were high, bureaucracies grew, and major new buildings debuted.

Now, public officials are having to adjust their priorities. In Breckenridge, for example, the town government chipped in an extra $250,000 last winter for marketing. With some evidence that the extra marketing resulted in increased skiers, the town is prepared to do the same this year.

But at the same time, Breckenridge will reduce snow removal, reports theSummit Daily News. Tim Gagen, the town manager, said the snow-removal level will be more akin to a high-end Oldsmobile as compared to the former Cadillac-level.

In Vail, it’s much the same story, according to a report in theVail Daily. “The town will have to make some hard decisions in the next six months,” says Stan Zemler, the town manager. “We can’t sustain the path we’re on today in the near term.”

In Park City, the top priorities of years’ past were improved walkability, reduced traffic congestion, and lower carbon emissions. But in an editorial, thePark Record agrees that it’s a “discussion worth having” whether the town money should be jostled to reflect new imperatives.

In many places, affordable housing has become less urgent. That’s certainly the case in Revelstoke, B.C., where a ski area with aspirations to become a major destination resort opened two years ago. Even then, real estate prices had been appreciating rapidly.

But real estate prices have dropped 10 to 20 percent, officials tell theRevelstoke Times Review, and an affordable housing complex that might have ultimately yielded 200 units has been postponed indefinitely. There is only one person on the waiting list.

The story is the same in Jackson, Wyo., where administrators of the local hospital have decided against spending more money on a housing project intended to benefit hospital employees. Three homes and three rental units available to hospital employees already sit vacant.

But there are emerging signs of rebound in the real-estate sector. In Aspen and Vail, there were reports of a thaw in real estate activity in August. Taking gauge of the real estate market in Jackson Hole, business columnist Jonathan Schechter reports stability if not exactly a rebound. He says prices are finally coming down. The more interesting question, he says, is why it took so long.

“Things have been so good for so long that many property owners – speculators and long-term owners alike – had come to believe they deserved to make a profit on their property, regardless of what they paid for it or when they bought it. Because changing market conditions didn’t affect the sense of entitlement, owners continued to ask prices far higher than buyers were willing to pay. Slowly, painfully, reluctantly, that’s finally starting to change, so we’re starting to see a bottoming out in the free fall in sales.”


Aspen seeks answers to bear problem

ASPEN –By all accounts, the bear problems in Aspen this year took everybody by surprise. The production of berries and nuts had been good. Town and county authorities in the last couple of years tightened regulations, demanding that trash containers be bear-proof – not bear resistant, like a plastic can, but bear-proof as in hard steel.

But bears were so abundant in town that wildlife officers and police found it necessary to kill 19 of them, and transport many others up to several hundred miles away.

More worrisome yet, at least two bears seemed to attack people. Wildlife officers had long predicted that would happen unless people stopped making food available that bears could eat.

From a report inThe Aspen Times, it appears nobody has yet delivered a silver-bullet solution. It has not been for lack of trying. At a recent community meeting, all manner of ideas were presented – including one proposal to consult the Ute Indians, who claimed the Roaring Fork Valley as home until the silver miners arrived in about 1880.

One essential problem is that the Aspen area just has lots of bears. Wildlife officers call it “primo” habitat. Wildlife officers also think that Aspen represents a special problem, because it has

so many part-time residents, visitors and non-English speakers.

But, none of this is new. So why, after 130 years of steady human habitation in the area, have encounters become so much worse? That’s the million-dollar question.


Medical marijuana mixes communities

VAIL — One by one, towns in Colorado have been taking up the issue of whether to allow dispensaries of medical marijuana. Most have allowed the dispensaries, but with restrictions, but others have not. Still others, such as Telluride, have declared moratoriums while officials sort out the implications.

Colorado voters in 2000 had approved use of medical marijuana, among 13 states to have done so. Federal law, however, continued to define marijuana as an illegal substance. The friction was eased in March, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer spend federal money busting medical marijuana dispensaries established under state law.

Gypsum, 37 miles west of Vail, has chosen not to allow the dispensaries, while nearby Eagle decided to open the door. TheEagle Valley Enterprise reports mixed opinions on the Town Board. One council member called it a “legitimate pharmaceutical business.” But another trustee disagreed. “It’s not a pharmacy. It’s not regulated like a pharmacy. It’s not even regulated like buying a beer is,” said Roxie Deane.

In Vail, meanwhile, planning commissioners have come up with zoning districts in which medical-marijuana dispensaries will be allowed. There are currently eight applications, although nobody seems to think that there’s enough business to support eight dispensaries.

Aspen and Breckenridge have also taken action to allow dispensaries.


Aspen weighs energy upgrades

ASPEN – Aspen city officials continue to chart their path toward a smaller carbon footprint. The latest discussion has to do with upgrading 14 government-owned buildings to use less energy.

The town has been talking with McKinstry, an energy-performance contracting firm that last year conducted energy audits on the buildings. McKinstry now proposes to complete the upgrades. Upgrades range from energy-efficient lighting to retrofitting of vending machines.

But how much will it cost to save energy? And how much energy will truly be saved? Those are the hard questions. McKinstry estimates the costs at $1.4 million, but promises that the changes will reduce energy use 12 percent, saving the city about $68,000 annually.

The city council, reportsThe Aspen Times, has plenty of questions. Such is the hard work of trying to reduce use of energy. Yet improving energy efficiency and its first-cousin, conservation, are what experts say should be done first before investing money in renewable energy.

Aspen is also doing that. Again in theAspen Times comes a story about an effort by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to be carbon neutral within 10 years. One of the steps along that path is installation of a ground-source heat pump. Such a system taps heat of a residual source - in this case water – to deliver heat in winter and coolness in summer. It cost $80,000 - $90,000, officials say.


Whistler fears Olympic backlash

WHISTLER, B.C. – The statement of Yogi Berra, the one-time catcher for the New York Yankees, comes to mind when reading about the situation in Whistler this coming winter. Asked why he had stopped going to a certain restaurant, Berra supposedly said: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

That’s the fundamental perception that Whistler expects to confront this winter as it co-hosts the Winter Olympics with Vancouver. The resort community expects a 3 percent decline in visitors as crowds stay away for much of the winter, owing to the perception of crowds.

But, there will be crowds – during the Olympics. Because the highway between Whistler and Vancouver will be so congested during February, people who might ordinarily use it to commute to work will be asked to work from home if possible. As well, bus service will be improved. The cost for the two-hour ride will be $35 one way.

– Allen Best