Aspen City Council got a check-in this week from the city’s events staff, which was seeking direction on events the city hosts, funds and charges for throughout the year.
Nancy Lesley, the city’s director of events, told the council in a work session on Tuesday that there is always a balance between the economic gain and the crowding that events inevitably bring.
“When the economy is good everybody is like ‘stop on the events,’ and when the economy is not so good we get the exact opposite, ‘bring on the events,’” Lesley said.
The city’s event team produces six events a year, including three long-distance trail races, a fat bike race and a winter uphill day. Lesley told the council that every participant in these events brings 1.7 additional visitors to town.
The city also has taken on hosting a handful of other partnership events, including the Fourth of July parade, New Year’s Eve fireworks and the community picnic.
While, overall, council praised Lesley and her team for the work they do, several members pushed back on prioritizing events as economic drivers.
“The economics will provide for themselves if the event is good regardless,” Councilmember Skippy Mesirow said. “I would ask for a focus and a shift to community cultivation, connections and integration as the primary reason that we do these things.”
Mesirow suggested conversational prompts on tables at the community picnic as an example of more intentional integration between community members.
He also encouraged the events team to pare down all they do, if it would mean better serving the intended demographic.
“We do a lot and I’m sure that you guys feel that,” he said. “I would rather take the approach of, who are the people that we really want to get to know, who we want to experience Aspen, and what are the events that would attract or service that type of person.”
Councilmember Ann Mullins also pushed for what she called a cultivation of city-produced events, and better defining who should be included.
“I think we should take a much more proactive approach … looking much more carefully at why we are having the events. Is it community connectedness? An economic driver to bring visitors to town? What is it exactly, and start looking at each of those events and how they achieve those priorities.”
Sandy Doebler, special events coordinator for the city, highlighted some upcoming events meant to focus more on the local community, including the every-five-years community photo, and a “let go” ceremony and bonfire being scheduled for this New Year’s Eve.
Councilmember Rachel Richards encouraged the city to expand its definition of community events to something that appeals to those that work in Aspen, even if they reside elsewhere.
“Sixty to 65 percent of our workforce is not a citizen resident of Aspen,” Richards said. “But when you work 50-plus weeks a year at some place you are part of the community.”
She suggested events that take into account commuters’ availability, partnering with downvalley business and expanding the cultural offerings.
“Particularly the large role that the Latino community plays in supporting a workforce for our community. I’m not sure we are able to hit that mark,” Richards said.
Mayor Torre emphasized the need for a better one-stop-shop community calendar that allows locals and visitors to see upcoming events hosted by the city, Pitkin County, Snowmass Village and local nonprofits.
The events team also gave the council a summary of the permits they issue for private events that take place in public spaces. Athletic events and community events make up the majority of the permits the city issues. A handful of permits are sold for commercial photo shoots each year. This year, four parade permits were issued, one of which was for a “climate action march” organized in September by local students, who were building off the global movement. In the upcoming year, new fees will be implemented for street closures.
Lesley told the council that in the past applicants have sought the use of on-street parking spaces if a retailer wanted a one-day booth outside of their business for a celebration or sale. The past council discouraged parking spaces from being used in this manner, but the current representatives said they are open to seeing a proposed fee structure for that use on a limited basis.
Richards encouraged city staff to reach out to businesses and restaurants to get their input on how best to use the street — a step local businesses owners said did not happen when the city suggested that parking be removed from Hopkins Avenue to make way for alternative transportation and sidewalk activation.
“This sounds a lot like the pedestrian bikeway on Hopkins, and without that feedback I’d go nuts,” Richards said.
Parking Director Mitch Osur told council that a more comprehensive discussion about long-term encroachment on parking spaces will be presented in February. This includes the regulation of spaces like the “horse only” parking in front of Kemo Sabe, or Carbondale’s use of parking spaces on Main Street as outdoor dining options in the summer.
Osur said the problem with seasonal encroachment is that most businesses will want the feature in the summer, when the weather is nicer, but that is the peak demand for parking because of an increase of vehicular traffic from visitors.
“Seventy percent of our guests fly in the winter time, 70 percent drive in the summertime,” Osur said. “So we are in a little bit of a conflict.”
For the most part, the council members did not like the idea of businesses being able to use a parking spot event permit as an extension of their retail space. They were more open to temporary parking space rentals if there was a community benefit. Richards pointed out that the proposed fee of $50 a day would be significantly cheaper than the rent per square foot charged for commercial space in the core of town.
Overall, Torre encouraged the events team to be more creative with the programming produced by the city. He asked why the city doesn’t capitalize on the 40,000 X Games attendees who descended on Buttermilk Ski Area in January. He pointed out that they remain outside of downtown for the outdoor concerts at night, but that perhaps live music in town could help lead them to local businesses during their stay.
“I’m hoping that tonight these are ideas that we can put out there,” Torre said. “We are not saying ‘go fix this,’ we are just trying to evolve a little bit.”