“Aspen has always been a resort town.”
It’s an irritating thing to hear. It’s especially grating when said to justify things like building new hotels, expanding real estate footprints or describing someone else’s daily commute from Rifle as a “punch in the gut” they’re lucky to be able to take for the team.
Aspen wasn’t always a resort town. A hundred years ago there weren’t any tourists. Fifty years ago there were just a handful of second-homeowners and their vacation homes were as modest as the residences of working Aspenites because “who would put money into a house they only visit a few weeks a year?”
Today, Aspen is mostly a resort. We have more tourists and part-timers than full-time residents, and that is what a resort is. When no locals are left, we will be a full-fledged resort like Beaver Creek, a spectacularly lovely and fun place to visit — and nothing else.
So, in the span of a human lifetime, we went from not being a resort to being mostly a resort. Somewhere along the way was Aspen’s sweet spot, when this town was so cool that anybody who wasn’t here simply cannot understand it any better than those who were can describe it. It’s like chocolate ice cream. If they quit making it tomorrow, how would you explain it to a kid in 2035?
Once a town starts its evolution toward becoming a resort, can it reverse direction? At the moment, it feels like we can’t even slow it down. Damming a river of money is challenging. The more people cupping their hands and dipping in to slake their unquenchable thirst for it, the more people vote to keep the golden floodgates open.
We might be so far removed from being a real town that we have to think about how one works. Start with a rancher selling some cattle and heading into town with the family for dinner and then the restaurant owner takes some of those earnings to the cobbler to have a pair of shoes fixed who then spends some at the doctor’s office whose car isn’t running right and so pays the mechanic to have a look at it who uses some of that payment to square up with the carpenter who added a room to their house which generates more property taxes that pay for the schools where the science teacher works who buys clothes at the dry goods store and you get the idea. In a real town, people primarily make their livings taking care of each other.
It is different in a resort. People in a tourist town make their livings taking care of visitors. It’s not such a subtle difference as we might hope. For starters, when we all make our livings taking care of guests, the only reciprocity is cash. We are servants, no matter how large our commissions, gratuities, or fees may be. Never in this scenario will the person we are helping today be personally taking care of our needs or desires tomorrow. They give us money and we buy underwear and socks from Amazon.
Another thing that happens when we become a servants-only economy is that our interests become superseded by those of the people we serve. All things being equal, nobody would support the idea of people they will never know buying the house next door and turning it into a revolving door of short-term rentals. But, once I make my living off of the STR market as a broker, property manager, cook, cleaner, lawn person, architect, accountant, etc., then I might become more interested in what the property owner, whom I will never know as a neighbor, thinks, and vote accordingly. Outsiders decide the local government.
Lots of resorts were designed to be resorts from the get-go. We originally said, “Vail sucks,” and there weren’t any Vailians there to offend. We watched them build that resort in the middle of nowhere next to the highway in only a few years, according to a master plan that originally didn’t include schools, churches, or even a jail — only dreams of a zillion tourists. We were different: a real town that happened to have a ski area.
Not so much anymore. Places to ski are becoming homogenized and all the leftover locals at ski places from Truckee to Taos and Jackson Hole to Snow Summit, even Vail, are empathizing with each other, even if nobody anywhere else is.
At some point, even the last residents living here and getting rich off the resort model will decide it’s no fun to live in a place without friends and neighbors. And so, they will sell their businesses to corporations and head somewhere more interesting. Remember, at one time, even most of the real estate brokerage and property management businesses in Aspen were locally owned. Eventually, every business in town will be run by outside interests. When all the profits made here are shipped off to shareholders elsewhere, there won’t be anyone around to remember when the biggest powder year was. Or, even care.
Roger Marolt knows there are bigger problems in the world than a changing Aspen. He wonders why some people reminding him of this aren’t spending their money trying to solve those problems rather than investing it in real estate here. Contact him at email@example.com.