The Aspen Ascent conference this week brought together the gear industry, local government officials from multiple West Slope locales, representatives of the state’s economic development office and others interested in the growing cultural phenomenon of skinning uphill on skis and other human-powered recreation.
A centerpiece of the three-day conference held at the St. Regis and organized by the city of Aspen was the unveiling of a market research study funded by the city that, according to officials, was the first detailed examination of the population that participates in uphill recreation activities.
The study, based on over 1,000 responses to an online survey and presented by New Normal Consulting, revealed numerous valuable takeaways for planners in Aspen and others with a stake in the economic, recreational and environmental implications of uphilling, said Phillip Supino, long range planner with the city and lead organizer of the conference.
For example, respondents who answered questions about what would motivate them to travel to engage in uphill-related activities were much more likely to list educational and experiential opportunities, as opposed to competitive races.
In a similar vein, a majority of the participants in the sport consider themselves to be “aspirational,” according to the data, meaning they may have tried it a handful of times and are not regulars but they want to do it more.
“They are already participants but they aspire to increase their knowledge and experience,” Supino said. That ties in to the preference for travel related to education and experience — say, an avalanche course paired with a hut trip — as opposed to competitive races that draw elite athletes.
The city of Aspen has been working on its uphill economic development initiative since 2014, when Mayor Steve Skadron and fellow council members included it on a list of top city goals.
A small conference was held in 2014 and this is the second version of that concept. The city and SkiCo have partnered multiple times in the intervening years to host an uphill gear demo and sponsor festival at Buttermilk, which took place this year on Sunday in conjunction with the conference.
“It’s about Aspen and the region being proactive and ahead of the curve,” Skadron said.
The grand vision, which could take a decade or more to implement, takes a regional perspective and aims to attract gear companies to the Western Slope. Aspen could be the “white collar” center where design and testing happens, while manufacturing could be based along the Interstate 70 corridor. It’s about “putting together a package on the West Slope to be competitive with Denver and the Front Range,” Skadron said. “I can see it, the opportunity on regionalism.”
Supino said much of the value in the conference, which attracted about 80 people, was in the collaboration and exchange of ideas — between local government officials from various West Slope counties interested in comprehensive recreation, conservation and economic development planning, between Grand Junction-based economic development officials and representatives of gear companies; and with officials from the state of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, who presented in multiple sessions at the conference.
“Our community benefits from sitting at the center of really high-level conversations around whatever the topic is,” Supino said, referencing local history going back to the founding of the Aspen Institute. “We want to be thought leaders in the uphill and outdoor recreation industry.”
The conference and the interactions that took place there served those goals, he said.
“We really were able to foster other folks making connections to grow the uphill economy regionally and statewide, not just in our valley,” Supino said. In addition, “We drummed up a lot of interest … in an integrated approach” to comprehensive planning for recreation, economics and conservation, which Supino referred to as a “triple bottom line.”
The city is planning to release its comprehensive uphill recreation plan in June, in partnership with the county, Aspen Skiing Co., user groups, public lands managers and environmental nonprofits.
With the conference finished and the upcoming completion of the recreation plan, “there will be a bow” on the uphill recreation and economic development goal to which the city council allocated around $100,000 in 2018, Supino said.
The future of the initiative beyond that will depend on the new city council, which for the first time will consider focused policy on the topic without Skadron sitting at the table. The mayor will be stepping down in June due to term limits after six years in office as Torre takes over and new city council members Skippy Mesirow and Rachel Richards assume office.
“We look forward to having a conversation with the incoming council on what their priorities are as it relates to the uphill policy initiative generally and the good work staff has done in the last few years,” Supino said, adding that the recreation plan will include numerous action items that could provide a roadmap forward.
Skadron noted that Richards, Mesirow and Ann Mullins, who will remain on council for two more years after coming up short in her run for mayor, all attended portions of the Ascent conference. Torre and Skadron plan to meet next week and uphill policy goals will be discussed among other topics of interest that Skadron has worked on and that the new mayor may carry forward.
“No one is saying this is a dumb idea, don’t do this,” Skadron said. “In the end, my responsibility as mayor is to inculcate a set of values to the next generation that they will embrace and carry forward.”
He added that he hopes the next council will allocate funding for the city of Aspen and Grand Junction to take out a booth at next year’s Outdoor Retailer convention in Denver “so we can start presenting ourselves as a regional opportunity.”
As to the ultimate goal of jobs and career opportunities coming to the community because of the uphill work, Skadron suggested that some benefits are starting to accrue. While no European manufacturer has put a stake in the ground here yet, there does seem to be growth in sales of uphill gear from local retailers, as well as the explosive popularity of SkiCo events from the Power of Four race to Buttermilk full moon uphill dinners, the most recent of which was attended by hundreds of people.
“I can’t say there are X number of jobs, but I would suggest that the data suggests that the pie is growing,” Skadron said.