Whetstone is about the people…

Digging down to what makes this place special — it comes down to the people. The views are great, the amenities fantastic, the weather spectacular, but it’s the people. And people need a place to live. 

It’s not like there aren’t people living full-time in Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley. Compared to other resort communities, Crested Butte is actually near the top of the list for percentage of full-time residents. But given the widening gap between housing prices and incomes, the variety of economic demographics of the community is shifting and becoming more monochrome. That whittles away from the interesting deepness of a funky technicolor community. While more people than ever live here, and that’s a good thing, the middle and working class can’t comfortably live in free market housing north of Almont anymore.  

There is no doubt some people are dealing with a housing crisis in the valley and that makes it a crisis for all of us. Some camp or live in their vans. Some crash on friends’ couches. Other situations might have two parents with two kids living in a one-or two-bedroom condo with little hope of finding a bigger space. Employers, whether it is a local retail shop or the much bigger economic drivers like the hospital, university or ski area, have difficulty hiring new employees because they cannot find adequate places to live. It is not easy to live and make a living in an increasingly popular paradise.

The sincere efforts of local public officials to try multiple paths to release some steam from the pressure cooker is a good thing but as the town’s urban planning consultant Neal Payton mentioned at last week’s Public Policy Forum, resorts will never build enough housing to solve the problem and affordable housing is rarely affordable.

Last Monday’s council discussion over the proposed Whetstone “affordable” housing development near Crested Butte again shined a light on the conundrum. The 252-unit project is currently estimated to cost $146 million. Ouch. At that price, rents are expected to be above current market rate but stay there for the duration so would actually look cheap in five, 10 or 20 years. But not now.

Officials said the project will put a dent in the problem but will not come close to solving the current housing situation in the Valley. Whetstone will come on top of other projects in the pipeline like Paradise Park, Homestead and Mineral Point that all target different parts of the housing situation. Not everyone likes the idea of a typical big resort housing development. Understandable. But aside from turning a blind eye away from the issue and letting the free market eventually deal with the problem, what else is to be done? Whetstone addresses the people. 

There were parts of Monday’s discussion I really appreciated. While I am a bit leery about the density of the project and see no need to stack the tallest buildings housing the most people on the highway since a roundabout will slow traffic, town and county officials said they had “value engineered” the project as much as possible without really hurting the livability standards for future residents. CB councilmember Anna Fenerty, a resident of a town affordable housing project, said such residents expect some compromises given the fact their living situation is being subsidized with public money, but you can only cut so much before impacting a quality of life. Absolutely. I am an advocate for better quality of life for working people even if it means fewer units.

Whetstone is targeted to be a home for teachers, nurses, small business owners. It would be wrong to have it simply be an island of working folk serving the fortunate wealthy expecting their servers to be seen only at work. The North Star should be one of assisting friends and neighbors to share a good life in this place.

It seems lessons were learned from the oftentimes volatile Corner at Brush Creek discussions as this project more clearly addresses things like traffic mitigation, park and field space, a school expansion to serve kids who will no doubt live in Whetstone. 

Given all that, the public feedback has been legitimate. There should be questions about possible financial impacts on current residents. There should be a transparent discussion about what the council and commissioners will be giving up on its ‘to do list’ when they take the public’s limited funds and put it toward Whetstone instead of…whatever. There should be solid answers about water and sewer capacity now and what it means for the future by adding that many more units.

With Whetstone, given its cost and scale, it would be ideal if Mt. CB was able to significantly partner with the rest of the stakeholders. For the CB council, it seems a no-brainer to figure out the details of allowing the development to pay its water and sewer tap fees over time…a money saving option that makes the project easier on the county now and on the residents in the future with slightly lower rents.

Neal Payton’s reality check that workforce housing is really expensive and you can never build enough — after all adding more people in Whetstone brings with it a need for more people to serve them — is the conundrum. One of his answers to a question at the forum raised my cynicism meter. When asked by an audience member for an example of a successful place using the traditional planning templates, he paused, then prefaced his answer saying that he hated his answer… “Houston,” he said. 

Damn. That’s not a confidence builder for any direction we might be considering.

Crested Butte sure ain’t what it used to be but where then is the better place? As I have been told more than once, no one is entitled to live in Crested Butte. I don’t dispute that but to me, making moves to allow a variety of people to live side by side near their jobs makes for a better and deeper technicolor community experience for everyone. Having the teacher and construction worker able to have a beer next to the hedge funder or retired entrepreneur makes a community better. It just does. It provides opportunity for a more well-rounded life in a special place.

As beautiful as the place is, as many wonderful things as there are to do here, it is still the people that make it special. I wish I could think of a better way to keep the working people here…I haven’t. Whetstone gives the valley a chance to continue that specialness. 

—Mark Reaman

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