Growing wealth gap in Aspen discussed with county officials

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism
The growing gap between the very wealthy and the working class in Aspen and Pitkin County emerged as a theme during a meeting Tuesday of county commissioners and several local leaders on community challenges.

“I see the community as continuing to be a magnet for the very affluent, as long as we don’t screw it up by making them feel unwelcome,” said BJ Adams, a real estate broker who lives in Snowmass Village.

When asked by Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock to elaborate, Adams, who first came to Aspen in the 1970s, said it has now become “very clear” in Aspen who has money and who doesn’t.

She said, for example, it can be hard for working parents in Aspen to deal with situations such as when their children’s classmates are taken to soccer games in other towns on the family jet.

“That can be kind of a messy situation,” she said.

But, conversely, she has also heard from wealthy clients who feel they, and their trappings of success, are not warmly welcomed here.

“I don’t see that Aspen or the county has done a whole lot to really embrace the second homeowner,” Adams said. “There are so many places those people can go.”

Adams also said many of her clients bristle after encountering Pitkin County’s growth and building regulations.

“They get really frustrated with the rules and the regulations and the fees,” she said, adding that some clients get back to her with feelings that they have been mistreated or “picked on.”

But Adams also said it was important to make sure that those without vast fortunes feel like they can live in Aspen, too. She said she has lost many good employees who felt they needed to leave the valley in order to raise a family.

Alan Fletcher, who is in his ninth season as president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, said many wealthy, and relatively young, people are moving to Aspen.

“They are coming because they see this as a great place to bring up their kids,” Fletcher said. “People who could live anywhere in the world are choosing to come here, and then they become involved. And we’re having a big success in attracting those people to be involved, to be generous, to be on our own board.”

On the other hand, Fletcher said that when trying to hire senior staff members recently, he felt compelled to discuss the income disparity in Aspen with them.

“If you are going to try to live in Aspen, you are going to encounter this income disparity, which either you learn how to navigate or you don’t,” Fletcher said he told job candidates. “And ... most of my staff (with families) live in Basalt or Carbondale because they want good schools, but where they are not always next to billionaires.”

Fletcher said he recently met a local student who helped him understand the wealth gap in the valley.

A young girl in the classical music lesson program sponsored by the music festival and school introduced Fletcher to her father at a recent school event.

“She said, ‘Look at his shoes,’” Fletcher said. “And I looked at the gentleman’s shoes, and they were held together with duct tape. She said, ‘My dad couldn’t get new shoes because we had to rent my violin.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, and this is a family living in Aspen.’”

Fletcher then asked local teachers how many kids in the classical music program likely needed a scholarship to stay in the program, and he was told about 75 percent could use the help.

He said he then went to a member of music festival’s board who has kids in the local schools and asked her for a donation to fund the necessary scholarships.

“She said ‘Of course,’” Fletcher said, but the donor added that she didn’t want public acknowledgment of the gift.

When asked why she didn’t want to be recognized, Fletcher said, “Because her kid was in the program, and she didn’t want to be seen as Daddy Warbucks.”

Karen Schroyer, the new Forest Service district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said that affordable housing was a key issue as the federal agency struggles to fill vacant positions.

“Housing is our biggest concern for our employees,” she said. “They are government employees. They don’t get paid a whole lot. They come here because they love the area, they love the environment, they want to recreate, and they want to be part of a community that cares about the environment.

“But, when they can’t find housing to live here, and they can’t afford to pay rent to live here, we lose them pretty quickly.”

Schroyer said the Forest Service now plans to stage most of their employees out of Carbondale “just, quite frankly, because they can afford to live there.”

Commissioner Rachel Richards said the issue of income and wage inequality has been stirred up nationally and that it will be hard to resolve just by the community being more welcoming.

“Our economy is one that will always depend a lot on service-industry jobs, and yet at the same time, the message that comes from a lot of the national politics is that ‘These guys don’t deserve anything. They should better themselves if they want to be able to have a job where they can afford health insurance,’” Richards said.

She added that conflict often comes out of what people perceive as attacks on their self-worth, whether rich or poor. And knowledge of that might be helpful when looking at the local issue.

“The very wealthy might say, ‘You’re not even looking at my contributions, you don’t look at what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve worked, and you’re attacking my self-worth and think that this has all been handed to me,’” Richards said. “On the other hand, someone else might say ‘I’m working 60 hours a week, I still can’t make ends meet, and they’re attacking my self-worth, because I don’t earn a lot. They feel I’m not a valuable part of the community.’”