council retreat

Aspen City Manager Sara Ott, center, talks with staff and others as the Aspen City Council’s annual retreat wraps up on Tuesday afternoon. 

At the second and final day of Aspen City Council’s retreat, council and city staff discussed possible goals for the next two years in specific focus areas including solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions, child care, affordable housing and support for local businesses.

These areas were chosen by council and staff as priorities before the retreat. The gathering’s purpose was to gain some direction in each area so that staff could present action items to council at later meetings that will hopefully lead to solutions. In the past year, despite the interruption caused by COVID-19, the city accomplished a lot compared to other places, City Manager Sara Ott said.

“A lot got done on this list, in my eyes, over the past year, despite everything else going on in town,” she said at the beginning of the meeting. “Most communities suspended their council goals during the pandemic. We chose not to do that because we knew that these issues weren’t going away and that they would need to be addressed.” 

With that in mind, councilmembers continued their efforts to make a dent in these issues by starting the morning with a discussion on the climate crisis. They expressed interest in participating in Race to Zero, a program in which businesses and governments can participate to aim for zero percent carbon emissions by 2050. According to science-based data, the next eight to nine years are crucial if that goal is to be reached, Environmental Health and Sustainability Director C.J. Oliver said. 

“Now we have an opportunity to jump back ahead, and going net-zero waste is where we can use our microphone to have the biggest impact because we are an extremely consumptive town,” Councilman Skippy Mesirow said. “So if we can demonstrate that you can live a high-quality Western life without the Co2 emitted from waste and the disposal of waste, well then we’ve created a model that anybody can follow.” 

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said that participating in Race to Zero makes sense to her, and council agreed it should be considered in addition to the smaller steps such as electrifying the city, adopting a fleet of city vehicles, updating existing buildings to release fewer emissions and other ideas that have previously been discussed and reported. 

As for child care, Kids First Director Shirley Ritter told council that day care programs in Aspen are still full and that parents have said they need center-based, full-day, year-round care. Ritter also said that Kids First has received a cost estimate for a new building at Burlingame that could be used as a child care facility. The building would hold six classrooms for children from toddlers through pre-school, and could hold approximately 70 children a day. The project would cost just under $8 million to build, she said. 

“The reason this is important to me is I recognize that the impacts of it are community-wide,” Mayor Torre said. “We’re not just talking about the child who gets child care, we are talking about their parents, who their parents work for. This is a community impact, so I’m very supportive of this.” 

Council also discussed the need for child care to be affordable, not just for parents but also employees. The cost of housing in Aspen makes it difficult to retain teachers, Ritter said, and there is always a need for more teachers and more space. Councilman Ward Hauenstein said any goals set by council should focus on teacher retention and adding space for classrooms. 

In the late morning, the discussion moved to affordable housing and the various issues branching off of it. Councilmembers wondered how many units would be a reasonable goal for the city and whether a timeline could be established, given that the workforce and population are bound to change over the years. 

“At the end of the day, I think if we set a 20-year timeline, we really could hit that,” Mesirow said. “If we froze everything today, how many units would we need to create — not build, but create — to house 60% of our workforce, and could we reach that number 20 years from now? I think we can, but then it begs the question you’re asking, which is, is that even the right number?” 

He added that he would consider it a home run if council could decide that by the end of this year they would have a well-researched, well-justified, numerical target for how many people they hope to house and why, because everything could fall into place after that. 

By the afternoon, council named several topics they would like to set goals around — including the success of Burlingame III, revenue sources, expiring deed restrictions, construction and short-term rentals. They decided to plan a mini-retreat later before finalizing any goals. The housing crisis is too big to handle all at once, although they’d like to be able to do so, Torre said, calling it “a margarita appetite on a beer budget.”

Later, council discussed the equal importance of supporting existing local businesses and welcoming the development of new small businesses. They acknowledged the rising prices in most stores and restaurants and the explosion of banks while essential businesses like gas stations seem to be disappearing from downtown. Council ultimately decided to devote work session time to discovering priorities.

Later in the day, councilmembers discussed some possible goals they plan to bring back to a regular city council meeting. Staff was asked to gather more information to be presented at future meetings.