Mountain Rescue Aspen is under contract to purchase the land where Planted Earth is located on Highway 82 across from the airport so the nonprofit can build a new headquarters.
Planted Earth, a garden center and nursery, will close in November, provided the deal goes through.
Bill Hawkins, owner of Planted Earth, said the two parties are going through the due diligence phase and he expects the sale to be finalized at the end of November. He declined to reveal the purchase price, as did MRA representatives, because of ongoing negotiations.
The 1-acre parcel and the business have been for sale for a few years, Hawkins said, adding he hoped that someone would continue providing gardening and landscaping services but no one was interested.
“It’s the end of an era for me, unfortunately,” said Hawkins, 70, who will consolidate services and inventory from the Aspen store into his Carbondale location. “It’s kind of sad to me.”
But the sale is the beginning of a new era for MRA, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to saving lives through backcountry rescue. Since its inception in 1965, MRA has operated out of a roughly 3,500-square-foot cabin on Main Street, which it leases from the city of Aspen at a nominal price.
MRA has outgrown its small headquarters and is now able to build a new facility largely because of a $1.5 million grant given last year to the organization from Oklahoma resident Lynda Cameron, who was rescued by a MRA team after her father’s plane crashed in the Capitol Creek Valley during a snowstorm on Nov. 27, 1977. Her father, C.B. Cameron, was killed in the crash; Lynda and four others, including her mother, brother and the pilot, were rescued.
The new facility, planned to be 13,000 square feet, will be named after C.B. Cameron.
Jeff Edelson, operations director for MRA, said a garage will encompass more than 6,000 square feet, so the organization can store its equipment, which includes three rescue vehicles, six snowmobiles, five all-terrain vehicles and the trailers that carry them, plus a lot of gear used in backcountry missions.
As it stands now, those vehicles and equipment are stored at MRA members’ homes, local streets, the Forest Service’s parking lot near the S-surves and on the Zupancis property next to the courthouse. The cabin also has become too small for larger operations and trainings, MRA representatives said.
The new operational headquarters for the MRA team will house a 50- to 60-person training space; a command and control room; locker rooms; a kitchen; a couple of small sleep rooms designed for members who need rest after coming out of the field in the middle of the night and for responders providing mutual aid from outside jurisdictions. There also will be a one-bedroom apartment for an on-site manager.
Edelson said MRA is currently going through a rezoning process with Pitkin County to make the land suitable for a public institution. He said he expects the organization to submit its application to the county in October.
Doug Paley, president of the MRA board, said Cameron’s exceptional donation will cover a significant portion of the acquisition and facility but the organization also will dip into its reserves, set aside specifically for new headquarters. A capital campaign is now underway to help fundraise and generate philanthropic contributions to the cause. MRA will soon announce naming opportunities for the new facility.
“Now that we have that momentum, we really need the support from the community,” Paley said. “We’re not slowing down.”
MRA is a 100 percent-volunteer organization with no paid staff, and it has no tax base or mill levy to support its critical training and missions that involve high-risk rescues and recoveries in the backcountry under the authority of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is huge for us,” Paley said of the new facility and Cameron’s financial gift.
MRA approached Hawkins in June about the potential acquisition. Edelson said the location is ideal for the organization’s headquarters, centrally located in the upper valley and across from Sardy Field, where often times helicopters are deployed. The airport also serves as MRA’s incident command post during some missions. The location also allows MRA to have access to more radio frequencies, Edelson said.
When Cameron’s financial gift was announced last November, it prompted the MRA to conduct a needs assessment of its organization and headquarters. The MRA team considered its options at the Main Street cabin but quickly realized it was under too many constraints, including being in a historic district with limited expansion opportunities, Edelson said.
Paley added that while MRA has a long history at the cabin, the organization’s needs have changed over the decades. He noted that expansion has been discussed among MRA board members for at least five years.
The new facility will be designed to serve MRA for the next 30 years with an eye to easy and affordable long-term maintenance, and will consider all environmentally-friendly options.
Preliminary conceptual drawings for the facility and layout of the site are currently being worked on by Charles Cunniffe Architects and Stan Clauson & Associates.
“Ideally, we would break ground next summer,” Edelson said.
If the deal goes through, MRA offered Planted Earth to lease the premises through January. However, Hawkins said business isn’t that strong in the winter months and he will use the time to move inventory to the Carbondale location.
Hawkins bought the property and the business in 1999, when it was called Grizzly Landscaping. The property has been on the market since the recession began, and business has waned.
“It did OK up until three years ago,” he said. “The last few years haven’t been that great.”
Susanne Barnes, manager of Planted Earth, said a huge liquidation sale will begin next week. The seasonal employees are now gone, leaving a few full-timers left to help close up shop.
Barnes stressed that Planted Earth will still service clients in Aspen and the surrounding area.
“We intend to maintain a presence for our clients in Aspen,” she said, adding that offerings like spring baskets, flowers and Christmas trees can all be pre-ordered and delivered.
Barnes noted that the closing of Planted Earth in Aspen is unfortunate.
“I’m sad,” she said. “I think it’s a huge loss.”