It’s election time again. Transparency, efficiency, win win, out of the box, managing growth, solving parking, creating housing and protecting the environment, blah blah.
Pretty much covers it. But before we jump to solutions, before we get partisan and personal, maybe we have time to look at a few facts.
Maybe. So at the risk of boring some and alienating the partisan true believers, I want to offer a few data points that candidates won’t bring to the fore for fear of being labeled boring and geeky. I am not making predictions on who will win, nor intending this space as an endorsement of any person, so as not to besmirch anyone with a reputation for being a data downer or uncharismatic.
I recently heard a trusted voice speak up at a meeting and state quite clearly there are a substantial number of Aspen people who believe it doesn’t matter who gets elected, we will get unmanageable growth. Others lament that traffic is out of control, construction is outrageous and the town is packed.
Perception is reality in politics, so maybe all this is politically true. But is it reality or just hype?
If growth is out of control, you wouldn’t know it from the population data. Looking at the census data published by the state, Aspen’s population grew at an annualized rate of .46 percent from 2010 to 2017. At that rate, Aspen will double in population in approximately 151 years, reaching about the same level experienced during the silver boom at 13,200.
If the population bomb has dropped, it’s pretty much a dud. The number of births in the county is stable or declining slightly, averaging about 154 per year for the last 20 years with a peak of 175 in 2011 and an all-time low in 2013 at 124 babies. School population continues to grow, fueled largely by people in-migrating to put their children in a nationally ranked school system, or buying cheapo million-dollar units in Snowmass to qualify their children in a system where college entrance is virtually universal. The kindergarten entry classes are still in the 90-110 range, as they have been for a quarter century.
The demographer’s office estimates net out migration from the county of 184 persons in the years 2016 and 2017, even though some housing units were added. It’s reasonable to assume that much of the out migration is from the private, free market housing and assessor data supports that conclusion as the number of locally owned single family homes and other residences in Aspen continues to decline as second home owner uses and VRBO take over.
Looking at the jobs data, Pitkin County has consistently hosted more jobs than human beings. The state estimates there were about 21,000 local jobs in 2017, no surprise to those of us who have to work one or one-and-a-half or two jobs to remain here. Job growth has been relatively flat since 2001.
Are we having a construction boom? The state data says construction employment is a little more than half what it was in 2001, about 1,071 jobs in all. But perception is driven not by data but the sight of contractor trucks and machinery clogging the traffic lanes when we have more time to view them.
To that point, the city downzoned much of the commercial areas downtown since 2012 with reduced height allowances in response to the holdover approvals from the “infill era” 20 years ago. The red “Lego” building, the redevelopment of “Hechtville” from the law office to the Aspen Art Museum is complete, and other opportunities for big downtown buildings have lapsed.
And traffic? The number of vehicles crossing the Castle Creek Bridge has yet to exceed the 1993 peak. More people are coming here to work those jobs as the population ages and free market neighborhoods darken, a shrinking workforce base supporting 21,000 jobs. Vehicle numbers are flat while RFTA has picked up the slack, bringing in millions annually. More people are coming to town to work the jobs that used to be filled locally.
As noted, you won’t be hearing much of this at the political forums. The reportage much favors discussion of personal scandal and character failings rather than boring reality.
I have to wonder if it’s growth we fear or change. I hope to hear more on the reality of Aspen over the next two months but I won’t be holding my breath.