In what is expected to be an extensive work session this evening, the Aspen City Council will use lessons learned from COVID-19 response in the last year to guide ongoing policies for community vitality.
The session will begin with a report from Finance Director Pete Stecker summarizing the state of the city’s tax collections as well as following the trail of COVID-19 relief dollars set aside by council last spring.
“In obvious contrast to the recent rollout of vaccinations across the globe, the local economy continues to experience the effects of COVID-19,” Stecker wrote to councilmembers. “With the Board of Public Health decision to move into level red restrictions on December 21, Aspen’s December tourism-centric economy experienced a one-third drop in local spending.”
One takeaway learned from tax collection is that visitors seem to be more comfortable with private accommodations through the short-term rental market than traditional lodging. Nearly one-third of holiday visitors went the private lodging route.
“This experience is believed to be influenced by the pandemic with tourists desiring their own space; but is also anticipated to reflect how changes within the municipal code have resulted in greater compliance in registering and tax remittance by these less traditional offerings,” Strecker said.
The city was on the verge of enforcing tax collections from those operating their homes as private rental spaces when the pandemic hit in March. Software comparing AirBnb and VRBO listings with the city’s tax collections from short-term rentals showed a drastic differential in those complying with businesses licenses and tax remittance requirements and the number of spaces listed as available.
Not all sectors took a hit in 2020. Notably, liquor sales were up 21.4%, and as has been widely reported, the housing market had a banner year, and has not slowed yet.
“Elevated market activity continues despite the record-setting 2020 year, though staff believes this cannot continue indefinitely as inventory has been significantly reduced and as price per square foot has risen to unprecedented levels,” Strecker said.
When businesses were shut down at the upstart of stay-at-home orders, the council came to the aid of commercial operations by offering rent relief and public gift certificates. Council also reworked city code to allow for the expansion of businesses onto public right of ways, while also reducing or eliminating encroachment fees.
In a summary of the recovery work the city has done during the pandemic, City Manager Sara Ott notes that the new spaces built across public sidewalks and parking spots totaled an increase of 14,700 square feet of restaurant and retail space in town.
“The City of Aspen waived permit fees for local businesses,” Ott reported. “This allowed them to build structures which expanded the size of their businesses and helped them adhere to local public health orders.”
With the winter tourism season well underway, a team of city staff led by Ron LeBlanc, special projects manager, has coalesced to create a Summer in Aspen Vitality plan, or SAV. While the state of the pandemic and corresponding health mandates is unknown, LeBlanc said his team is operating under the assumption that pent-up desire for travel will drive summer tourism numbers.
“Summer 2021 promises to be more operationally challenging than summer 2020, because most events and activities were canceled or severely limited. The ever changing public health orders and continuing saga concerning vaccine availability cause us to remain nimble and flexible,” LeBlanc said.
Councilmembers will be asked to give the green light to allow restaurants to continue operating in the right of way through the season. Challenges last summer with businesses’ sporadic and conflicting uses of public space has led staff to recommend that retail be left out of the public space exceptions this go-round.
New this summer is the conversation regarding food trucks in Aspen, a use not traditionally approved. The council will discuss a proposal this evening that would allow already-established restaurants to explore the mobile option, which may allow for increased customer access and social distancing. If the council is open to the idea, a food truck ordinance would come back to the table sometime in March.
Council also will be asked to weigh in on a matrix for evaluating social events within the city’s public spaces and parks. Councilmembers reviewed multiple event requests leading into the winter, including a request that the annual Snow Polo championship be allowed to operate in Wagner Park.
The request was ultimately denied, as members of the public protested the use of downtown’s central park to be used for a private and exclusive gathering.
The events team is proposing that a priority system be put into place as events are evaluated individually, while pointing out that the event world of summer 2021 remains a moving target.
“The summer program for special events is changing by the hour. Staff will present the guiding principles that will be used to evaluate each application as it is submitted. With the anticipated changing public health order environment, this item will likely return for discussion at a work session in March,” the memo states.
Longstanding community events would receive top priority, as well as nonprofit fundraising gatherings. New events would be lower on the totem, with private events at the bottom.
The virtual work session begins at 4 p.m. today, and will also cover updates on the recovery efforts the city has funded and the council’s top priorities for the year.