photo by Lydia Stern

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The Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce estimates from aerial drone footage that about 14,000 people were on Elk Avenue late Saturday morning. A pretty mellow parade full of color, kids, cars and craziness (not so much) marched up Elk for about 90 minutes. I didn’t see any traditional small town games after the event, but the music kept people dancing on a nice afternoon. It was a pleasant summer party in the center of town.

Saturday was our busiest day of the year in Crested Butte. July is our busiest month. And with good reason. The weather is nicer than most other places, there is no shortage of things to do, culturally or in the backcountry, and kids across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Colorado are out of school. While other ski resort communities are catching up and summer is getting busier, Crested Butte is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that summer is already busier than winter.

So a question hanging over the valley I’ve heard a lot already this summer: Is more always better?

The answer is: No. But the alternative is rough—so it really depends.

Let’s consider context. Looking at an old photo from former Crested Butte town planner Myles Rademan taken in July 1975, there was one car on Elk on a sweet summer’s day. One. As he said, “good luck trying to run a business with that volume.” Granted, rentals were plentiful and probably pretty cheap. But you still have to buy food and pay the landlord.

Now, pick any day this July and you can bet that starting before lunchtime, every parking space will be filled and a constant line of traffic will be trolling Elk. Volume is big. Mountain Express hauled around 6,872 passengers on the Fourth of July alone. Heck, the volume flows at the Crested Butte sewer plant increased by about 60,000 gallons a day from the first of July through the fifth. That’s the equivalent of 12,000 extra toilets flushing every day. Talk about more! My off-the-cuff guess is that sales tax in town will set a new record—again.

Now, there had to have been a sweet spot probably 10 or 15 years ago. Rents were cheap(er), jobs were plentiful and paid well, there was always one parking spot available on Elk at all times and people had plenty of work and free time to enjoy the place. Businesses weren’t stressed and the town handled every visitor seamlessly.

We aren’t in the sweet spot. It is crowded and workers are having trouble finding places to live for the summer—so businesses are having a hard time being fully staffed. At least one Mt. Crested Butte business stalwart, the Avalanche Bar and Grill, cannot find enough people to open for dinners most of the week. As owner Todd Barnes noted, if you can’t even open during the time a business traditionally makes its nut, it is hard to pay the bills. How do you explain to the loan officer it is tough to make the payments, even in July? That is weird and has long-term consequences for everyone. There are fewer employees making money up there, there is a sales tax impact to the town, and just a general ding to morale for both locals and guests. The trickle-down effect is gloomy.

So, there is an example of the “depends” element of wondering if more is always better. Just having more without being able to handle the ramifications is not better.

Coming down Slate River Road this weekend after a hike on Cinnamon, it was like a tent exhibition. Just about every field, every nook along the Slate, every place a car could park, had a tent. As refreshing as a swim in the Slate might be, I would advise against taking a dip in what is probably a tainted river. Certainly don’t take a drink.

Sheer numbers can be overwhelming for some in the valley who are not used to crowds. It puts them on edge. And in July there are sheer numbers. Again, some simple advice for those of living here: If you can’t handle the crowds, walk the alleys in town rather than the streets; stay off Elk Avenue after 10 a.m.; even take a vacation to the backcountry or someplace like Ohio City. There are places less crowded, even in this county, than the flagship resort town.

Oh, and get out—and up. A guy who grew up here told me probably 20 years ago that it was easy to get away from the crowds—just climb 1,000 feet. And while you might have to climb 2,000 feet these days, I can attest that there was no one but my wife, a friend and my dog at the top of Cinnamon on Sunday.

So the community has discussed the “growth” issues a fair amount in the last few months. Housing is tight. The backcountry is getting pounded with campers. Businesses are struggling to fill shifts.

How a community prepares and reacts as growth and “more” keeps coming ultimately defines a community. Because attractive places will continue to attract people and grow, we can choose to face the issues or just hope for the best. As one of the “attractive” places, we don’t want to cannibalize ourselves or the virtues that we like about the place. Let’s see how we handle the end of the month with the Arts Festival and an international mountain bike competition here at the same time. Honestly, I’m not sure we need to promote “more” in July. January and February could use some help.

For those who say they want to actually stop growth and stop attracting people here, you can hope to be less attractive and lobby for a mine. That isn’t likely to realistically happen. But if we like where we live and like the amenities that come with crowds (more restaurants, better trails, higher incomes, great days with fewer people in June and September), then let’s deal with July and all the busy times. Look for ways to become even better as a community to deal with the ramifications of what we keep asking for—a cool town with an economy that allows us to live here. That likely means finding more affordable housing, better ways to corral people camping along our rivers and paying good wages to those who work here in the busiest month of the year. That will take money and good partnerships.

The bottom line is that this is a nice, cool, attractive place. We are lucky. Let’s keep it that way.

—Mark Reaman

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