Buttermilk Drive In

The slide shared by Aspen Skiing Co. officials with Pitkin County commissioners shows the proposed layout for the Buttermilk drive-in event venue, with a stage in red and rows of parking stalls with room for roughly 150 cars.

Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday signed off on the use of the Buttermilk parking lot as a drive-in event venue through September, with Aspen Skiing Co. officials saying they are in contact with more than a dozen entities ranging from churches to performing arts groups that would like to make use of the space.

An amendment to the local public health order that would allow drive-in events with social distancing guidelines is expected to be processed before June 26. The first event — likely a drive-in movie — could take place on or before July 1, Deric Gunshor, director of event development for SkiCo, told commissioners in a work session.

According to Gunshor, one movie a week would pay the bills to keep the infrastructure up and running through the summer and allow community groups to access what is believed to be the largest parking lot in the county. While that is not normally a superlative, it presents an opportunity during the summer of the coronavirus to bring the community together in ways that would not otherwise be possible. 

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said she’s concerned that without some semblance of normal community interaction, adherence to public health orders could wane. Therefore, she said, a creative, adaptive use that allows neighbors to get together in a safe manner should be encouraged.

Commissioners gave their blessing to three nights of events per week at the lot, though SkiCo officials will have to continually check in with the county’s planning department on how the programming is going and respond to community concerns. Those could include enforcing a curfew, managing traffic issues and making sure bathrooms and concessions can be operated in adherence to social distancing. 

Commissioner George Newman said he didn’t want to see organizers “get carried away” and start holding an event every night, which could raise the ire of neighbors.

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who has been vocal in his advocacy for staging drive-in cultural events as an antidote to the cancellation of most community programming, said he wanted to “err on the side of opening it up” and that he trusted the SkiCo to not abuse the lot while being responsive to concerns.

He said opening the Buttermilk parking lot as a venue would “go a long way toward invigorating the community.” Poschman also suggested looking at using other parking lots, such as Two Creeks in Snowmass, as well. He added that this kind of use is happening all over the country this summer and that Pitkin County would not be going out on a limb.

Plans shared with commissioners show a stage and room for 150 cars, similar to the set up that was employed for the Aspen High School graduation ceremony at Buttermilk last month.

Gunshor said the lot would be set up so that each parking space has room for people to get out of their cars and sit in a lawnchair. The site would have an FM transmitter so attendees could pick up sounds from the movie on the screen or the event on the stage on their car radios. He noted that the screen for showing movies would not be effective until dark.

He also said at least a dozen groups have reached out to SkiCo to inquire about using the lot to stage drive-in events. Interested parties include Jazz Aspen Snowmass and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, he told the commissioners, who are looking for ways to provide live performing arts to the community this summer. Other user groups could include nonprofit organizations holding a fundraiser, other concert promoters or church groups looking to hold a Sunday morning service.

The county’s health department and board of health is reviewing proposed guidelines for how to hold drive-in events in a COVID-safe manner. County Manager Jon Peacock said it’s relatively simple, as long as people stay in their parking area. The difficulty comes when folks get up and head for the bathroom or concession stand. Gunshor said such facilities could be controlled by limiting the amount of people who can queue up at one time while maintaining distance.

The Buttermilk parking lot is normally used by commuters, trail users and for construction staging. Officials will work to develop a plan to make sure those uses can be accommodated when events are taking place.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.