Dealing with the start of a quiet revolution

A story on the World Wide Webs this week tells of Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest people, telling Jon Stewart that the future would rely on service workers to perform tasks for the people of means. Stewart said that was a “recipe for revolution” as people want to be proud of their work and feel like they are contributing to society. 

That seems a fair assessment. With Crested Butte and the upper valley, we live in a place built in large part of service work. Whether it is making the food, changing the oil, loading the chairlifts, shoveling the roof or sharing the information, service work is one of the valley’s economic foundations. A distinction of Crested Butte and the valley has always been that service work has been a proud occupation and one where it did not carry a negative social stigma. Those serving and those served would happily socialize and respect one another in the greater community. That was easier when the place was smaller and more affordable but that too is foundational to Crested Butte.

 I can recall when the president of the only bank in town lived a block from one of the hippie ski bum houses. There aren’t many of those left any more — local bank presidents or hippie ski bum houses. It was common on Friday nights for the Wooden Nickel to be filled to the brim with the entire cross section of community and shots were shared by the ski area CEO and the lift ops. I don’t see that happening much anymore either.

As this place matures into a more traditional resort community – and I use the term “mature” loosely – we must take care to honor the history of what has always distinguished Crested Butte. It is that notion of egalitarianism that brings people together as opposed to separating them and has made CB unique. The school still does it. So do the outdoor opportunities that abound. Sock It To Me Ridge doesn’t care how much money you have or what sort of car you own — that place treats everyone the same based on the focus and skill needed to get safely down the terrain.

I do smell separation as the restaurant scene dries up and the prices get adjusted. If the local snowplow driver who is doing pretty well financially this season can’t afford to belly up to the bar next to the stock trader who lives and works here, that is a detriment for the community in general. When a schoolteacher can’t afford tickets to a show at the Center when her students can, that is a step backward. I sniff separation forming as one of the movers and shakers in Crested Butte, Mark Walter (hey – I’m still open if you want to sit down for an interview), apparently has moved to not just buy up Elk Ave. commercial and down valley ranch property but has apparently spent $2 million recently on several individual lots in the Kapushion subdivision. That pretty much is a final nail in the already nailed coffin for local workers hoping to buy a piece of dirt in town and build their own house. It will also impact the local workers already owning in town who will no doubt see their property tax bill jump noticeably if just the dirt is valued at millions of dollars.

The people of means coming here may honestly like what they see. I understand that. It is a beautiful town with incredible outdoor opportunities. The worry is that they do not comprehend what truly makes it special and different from the other beautiful mountain towns with gorgeous outdoor opportunities. They may not comprehend the history that this place was based in mining coal and not silver or gold like Telluride and Aspen. That has mattered. The history here is of working people who help one another and come together through the weird traditions that respect the past and pave a way for the future. People here have mingled happily together for decades to talk recreation, politics or family no matter their financial status.

If the money coming here now to live or visit has no desire to share elbow space with the workers, if they simply see the guy behind the bar and the woman bringing them their meal as just a servant for their desires, Stewart is right in that that is a recipe for revolution.

CB is nothing like it used to be, but I will argue it is still pretty darn good. This place still attracts people who value experiences and opportunity for “quality of life” over money. In Crested Butte, quality of life includes the time to be able to enjoy what is around here. It includes being respected for a hard day’s work and an even harder day’s fun. Quality of life here includes forming real social bonds not found on FacefrickinBook. It includes being honored as a member of the community for what you do and how you act as opposed to how many zeros you have in the bank account. 

While CB people value experience more than money, it still takes money to live here. And as the price of everything from rent to groceries to gas skyrockets, it takes more than ever to get by in any resort community. So, while workers here may not care if they have a fat 401K, they do need to survive and do so comfortably. You can’t pay people here the minimum wage for a place like Tulsa and expect them to be able to live and contribute here with any quality in their quality of life. 

Stewart’s revolution in places like this will not come with torches and pitchforks. It will start with people just saying ‘f it and either moving on or walking away from the system that is broken. Hmmmm. That is why there is the important need for workers to live throughout the community (in ADUs and economically mixed neighborhoods as well as deed restricted projects) and not be isolated in crowded serf city pods down valley. Not everyone will get a place, but those that do should have a good one. Quality on top of quantity. Crested Butte needs to remain a place where the lift op and the financial planner share shots and talk trails.

As this community moves into the next phase of figuring out housing with several ideas and projects, there needs to be a laser focus on planning for ways to keep the service workers in and around town. They must remain a part of the community and have opportunity to grow as a part of that community. They need to have a room as a 20-year-old ski bum, a condo as a 20-something couple and a house as a 40-year-old couple with kids. FYI, the Miller Ranch in Eagle County seems to have many of these attributes and might be worth studying as we move forward. 

The revolution seems to have quietly started. Many once proud workers have walked away from the jobs that make this community spin. Newbies aren’t jumping at low wage jobs that require an hour commute. The new ski bums are figuring out how to work and ski without a pass job. We are at the tipping point, but we are set up pretty well to now address the causes, turn it around and make it work for a balanced, economically diverse and still distinctive community.

—Mark Reaman

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