Mountain towns face similar challenges
Mick Ireland, the current mayor of Aspen and a former county commissioner of Pitkin County, said a major turning point for Aspen’s affordability as a community occurred because of a tax structure revision in the mid-1980s.
“In 1986 they changed the tax law to favor residential real estate… and it gave wealthy people big bundles of money,” he said. According to Ireland, within six months of the change, the cost of an average house in Aspen went from $400,000 to over $1 million.
The change in the tax structure ushered big changes, not only for Aspen, but also for much of the rest of the mountain west—and Ireland said the future could bring bigger changes still.
At the November 2-4 Western State College 18th Headwaters conference—this year titled “Resort Communities in the Great 21st Century Transition”—Ireland and Devon Peña, University of Washington director of environmental anthropology, weighed in on the forces of change and how mountain communities can survive intact.
Ireland, who began his tenure in Aspen nearly 30 years ago as a low-paid restaurant worker, said the only way communities can address the issues that arise from such changes is to first understand their origins.
“In order to be a resilient community, in order to sustain yourselves, you have to understand the roots of your problems,” he said.
Ireland said some changes, like global warming, are inevitable and therefore it is incumbent on the community to have the foresight to adapt.
“About every two years Aspen loses a day off their ski season,” he said, “and so does Crested Butte.”
Other issues, according to Ireland, can be addressed with the intervention of local government.
“Aspen houses about 30 or 40 percent of our workforce,” he said. “Our county has 2,800 affordable housing units.”
But in spite of its extensive affordable housing program, Ireland said downtown Aspen, like many similar resort communities, is actually losing population. This, according to Ireland, is because properties in Aspen are increasingly being bought up by wealthy out-of-towners to augment their investment portfolios.
“You get a hollowing out, which is eerily similar to what happened in the big urban cities when they created the 1950s and ’60s ghettos,” he said.
Although these investment properties no longer house full-time residents, they generate plenty of labor needs, said Ireland.
“People who replace the people who are leaving are very labor-intensive,” he said.
The newest incarnation of Aspen’s large houses, which Ireland characterized as “neo-Beowulfian” due to their large old-growth timbers, massive doors and copper flashing (“to resist dragon fire”), “are kind of a mini-mall for labor,” he said. “They need people to cut their lawn, stock their wine and wash those big windows,” he added.
The results, according to Ireland, are demands for labor that even the most vigorous affordable housing efforts can never keep up with.
Moreover, Ireland said, the new second-home real estate community is actually in competition with the resort and the local community because it doesn’t need the traditional economic drivers that the resort economy provides.
“Your ski company is not threatened by your community,” Ireland says. “It’s threatened by the new people who come to town and say, ‘I don’t want snow-making at night, it’s too noisy—we don’t need a hotel to put those buggers in, we have enough of them already.’”
Ireland gave the example of the local drugstore that had survived for 108 years, but finally closed to provide a venue to sell time-shares.
“It’s not just your residential stuff that goes neo-Beowulf, but your downtown that goes neo-Fifth Avenue,” he said.
Now, says Ireland, this generation of investors has displaced both the resident families and the tourists of Aspen.
And according to Ireland, people at the low end of the wage scale have actually seen a reduction in their earning power. He said dishwashers and lift operators are paid less now than they were when he worked in Aspen in 1979.
“Today, in real dollars, if you adjust for inflation, they’ve lost almost a third of their buying power,” he said. “So they’re competing for more expensive housing with smaller wages.”
Ireland said today’s Aspen resident cannot expect to be able to buy a house there, no matter how hard he or she works. And the same is true for a number of resort communities—including Crested Butte, he said.
“You could not do it on the typical job available to you,” he said.
But while the prospects for retention of community seem slim in rich counties like Pitkin, Peña, the director of the environmental anthropology program at the University of Washington, says the outlook is far brighter in Colorado’s poorest county—Castilla, a few counties south of Pitkin in the San Luis Valley.
Peña, who owns property in Castilla County, said although the per capita income is low, the residents don’t consider themselves poor.
“They are insulted by such characterizations,” he said. “They consider themselves wealthy.”
The reason, according to Peña, is because of the “density of social relationships” in the San Luis Valley. Peña said the people the San Luis Valley value their friends and community over material wealth.
“They never lost sight of the fundamental thing,” he said, “which is community.”
Peña said an early loss to the Battle Mountain cyanide leach gold mining operation in Castilla County actually sharpened the community’s ability to ward off subsequent threats from corporations.
“It created a necessary level of environmental activism to fight future battles,” he said.
So when a timber baron shut off the community’s traditional communal sheep-grazing area, Peña said the people adapted by switching to cattle, but continued to use the now-private land.
“Trespassing became a sacred act of survival,” he said.
Peña likened his community’s hardiness to his quarter-acre garden in the valley.
“When I think of resilience, I think of my corn patch,” he said.
Because Peña used a diversity of seed from throughout the world in his garden, his corn flourished despite a severe drought.
Like the corn seed, Peña said variety strengthens communities. “Diversity is essential to society,” he said.
Peña said communal living has been rooted in the San Luis Valley for centuries, and he pointed to the acequia system as a model. The acequia is a community-operated canal system that taps the high mountain snowfields for irrigation. Operating under the notion of “right of thirst,” even in times of scarcity, the water has to be shared equally.
Peña says a Koranic concept that “to deny water to any living organism is sinful” is the underlining concept of the acequia, and it’s this type of cooperation that allows the San Luis Valley community to flourish in spite of its lack of monetary wealth.
“It’s the most anti-capitalist corner of the country,” he said.
Peña says in order for towns to retain their sense of community, they must rethink their concept of wealth.
“The problem with the U.S. is that is it materially overdeveloped, but spiritually underdeveloped,” he said.
While it may be unrealistic for a county like Pitkin to adopt the communal mores of Castilla County, both Ireland and Peña advocate using the resources available, rather than wishing for things that aren’t.
“You, as communities, have to think about which problems you can solve, which things you have to deal with, and improvise from there—rather than waiting for someone to come along and end global warming, or stop baby-boomers from buying real estate, or fix the tax code,” Ireland said. “We have to deal with the problems at hand.”