A developer’s request for a multimillion-dollar public subsidy should be viewed as a community investment instead of cost-sharing, proponents of the Lift One corridor project said at an Aspen City Council meeting on Monday.
Elected officials, in turn, asked why tax dollars are needed if the project involving two hotels, a more accessible chairlift, a ski museum and city park improvements appears to be moving forward anyway.
Jim DeFrancia and Michael Brown, representing the Gorsuch Haus and Lift One Lodge, respectively, responded at the outset of Monday’s meeting to a memo from City Manager Steve Barwick included in the meeting packet.
Barwick’s memo cautioned that requested city funds for aspects of the project, including investment in an historic building that will be refurbished into a ski history museum, plus street and parks improvements, would be competing for limited resources with other projects in the public interest. He recommended that the council deny the developers special consideration on a subsidy. If council does decide to participate in aspects of the project, Barwick wrote, it should allocate funds through the normal budget process where the requests can be better vetted against other funding needs.
Brown said describing the developers’ request as cost sharing is a misnomer.
This should be characterized as a public investment, in fact the best single public investment the city could make, Brown said, citing an estimate that the Lift One Lodge alone will result in $100 million in direct tax revenue over a 30-year period.
In addition, the project will revitalize a neighborhood desperately in need of it, create a second mountain portal, restore historic assets and create a new year-round park, Brown said. Building a new lift and creating a ski racing venue up to International Skiing Federation standards will also pay untold dividends to the town, Brown said.
“We just ask you to keep those things in sight and keep in mind that the stakeholders have really considered the lift first and all the other things around it second,” Brown said.
DeFrancia, a local representative with Lowe Enterprises, which is backing the Gorsuch Haus application, said that when his project came forward in 2016, it did not ask for any public support. The application at the time included a replacement lift, on what would be the Gorsuch Haus property, which DeFrancia characterized as “business as usual” in terms of the city development process. The council then directed the Gorsuch Haus to collaborate with the Lift One Lodge, the Aspen Skiing Co. and a private consultant on a plan to bring the new lift closer to town, taking the ski area to Dean Street when it currently ends three blocks up the hill.
That ask was a critical turning point in the project, DeFrancia said, and it is no longer business as usual. It marked a change in the “character of the project and the proposed spirit from being a customary, private-sector-driven application to one that was in large measure publicly driven.” That makes it different and worthy of the city-support request, he said.
The public hearing on the projects was continued to Dec. 3 and the voting public will exercise the final go-or-no-go leverage over the Lift One corridor with a ballot question that is expected in the March municipal election.
Many council member comments took place after presstime on Monday night, but Mayor Steve Skadron and Councilman Adam Frisch asked pointed questions following the applicants’ initial presentation and during a public comment session.
Public incentives are often used to spur growth, Skadron said. In a community that generally tries to tamp down growth pressures, why should such a mechanism be considered here?, he asked. He also noted that the fee “dedication” request, where monies paid for building permits and other project costs would be spent on improvements to the corridor, may be a “clever” method. However, the result is real money coming out of city coffers that has opportunity cost for other projects that the public wants and needs.
Brown and DeFrancia cited that the ongoing tax revenue generated by the redevelopment, including over 170,000 square feet between two hotels, nearly 190 new room keys plus 10 new condo units and new restaurants and services, is important to the city having enough money over the long term to fund those other priorities. The project will increase Aspen’s economic vitality over the long haul, they argued, in a theme that was repeated by other project proponents.
Paul Taddune, an attorney representing nearby condo owners who are in favor of the project, said the city’s participation would represent an investment in infrastructure. That’s what makes Aspen great, he said. We are “so far ahead” because the public sector makes funding quality infrastructure a priority.
David Guthrie, a former historic preservation commissioner, noted that the city subsidizes all kinds of things, from restaurant rents to Wheeler Opera House tickets. Lift One will return a bigger investment, he suggested — not just in real dollars but in intangibles.
“It will say a lot to how people can work together,” he said, referencing the unprecedented collaboration between developers and the SkiCo to craft a better mountain portal.
Frisch, who said his objective is to move a project to voters that will pass, said he is troubled by a particular facet of the ask.
“If a project is going to get done without cost sharing, what is the value of the community to put money in?” he said.
Skadron also echoed that pushback, saying that with a $300 million project — which he termed a “back of the envelope” calculation — “you are telling me $7 million is going to derail this?”
Whether or not the withholding of the public contribution would derail the project was not clearly answered by presstime. Brown, however, listed a litany of lodging sector projects that have been less than successful in the Aspen area over the last 15 years.
Bill Stirling, a former Aspen mayor, added his two cents in favor of the project, noting that the developers were responding to a city directive to bring the lift down the hill when they went back to the drawing board and worked together.
“It is not always the best thing for the city to get involved financially,” he said. However, sometimes cities, and this city in particular, will pay millions of dollars to buy land or make other arrangements with the private sector when circumstances dictate, enabling the city to exercise control over its destiny.
“There will be moments when to control our destiny, that involves investment in cash or services or other non-financial things that have benefit,” he said. He urged the city to consider some level of balanced participation and to “move forward sooner rather than later.”