Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler than economic self-interest?”

– Milton Friedman

Paul Menter

Last week the Basalt Town Council approved on first reading the Aspen Skiing Co.’s application to construct an employee-housing building on the parcel of land known as Block 9 in Willits. A final vote will come in August. The approved project includes 48 units and 148 bedrooms in the heart of Willits, walking distance to the BRT stop, groceries, bars, hotels, etc.

On the heels of the city of Aspen’s approval of the Gorsuch Haus/Lift One lodge application, and SkiCo’s recent approval for its Pandora area expansion on Aspen Mountain, it seems many Basaltines and other midvalley dwellers see this project as an example of the inevitable externalization of Aspen’s world-class resort community housing needs to its downvalley neighbors, rather than taking care of all its housing problems inside Aspen’s roundabout. In reality it’s the latest example of how sometimes strident local political views are increasingly clashing with the reality of our regional economic interdependence.

According to the local papers, SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan interjected a bit of backhanded humor into last week’s public hearing, by opining how well his team had negotiated with the town, demonstrated by the fact that the project cost had increased by a third since the original application. Then, in response to public comment that SkiCo should be required to construct a parking garage on site, he labeled such opinions “Stone-Age thinking and Stone-Age planning.”

Op-eds regarding climate change and national political trends notwithstanding (they do, after all, constitute free speech), Kaplan is not a politician, but rather a businessman who, in that moment, might have been on the verge of losing his patience with all things Basalt. People who own and operate private businesses, and carry such responsibilities as meeting payrolls and generating profits, tend to think first in economic terms. Time is money, and money is money, so 33-percent project cost increases and drawn-out development review processes are not typically such people’s cup of tea.

It’s important to remember, as a valley, we voted, more than once, to implement and expand the second largest transit system in Colorado, primarily to improve worker mobility and reduce dependence on personal automobiles. Basalt decided many years ago to create Willits, a high-density master-planned community providing both residential and commercial spaces and opportunities, right smack dab in the middle of the Roaring Fork Valley. Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.

Given these circumstances, and the company’s needs, how would it be economically rational for SkiCo to seek a parcel of Aspen land for this housing project? Let’s face it, in addition to the astronomical cost, Aspen is the place that large private development proposals often go to die. Even Gorsuch Haus and Lift One, collectively Aspen’s only new ski lodge development this millennium, mustered only an “Aspen landslide” approval margin of 26 votes.

It’s easy to pick on Aspen, particularly in light of the mass and scale of its soon-to-be-constructed, 47-foot-tall, 37,500-square-foot, yet-to-be-programmed, city offices building. But it is impossible to argue that Aspen is ignoring its workforce housing challenges. You may struggle with its methods, I know I do, but the fact remains the city has more workforce affordable housing units under construction and in the planning stages than it has had in a very long time.

Given these realities, why would we not expect the valley’s cornerstone employer to seek housing for its workers (also known as our neighbors) in areas with adequate services to meet their needs, at prices they might have a ghost of a chance to afford? If this is not what we wanted, perhaps Basalt should never have approved Willits, and the valley’s voters should have turned down BRT at the ballot box. My guess is, these SkiCo workers will be buying groceries and patronizing services, retail stores and restaurants, and their money will be just as green as everyone else’s.

The late great Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, famously coined the phrase “All politics is local.” I don’t know if he visited here, but the Roaring Fork Valley seems to me to stand as object lesson No. 1 confirming his point. Each of the valley’s communities retains distinctly local political identities, that’s for sure. But economic realities often overlap political interests. And as another late great thinker, economist Milton Friedman, once asked, is it really true that political self-interest is nobler than economic self-interest? Personally, I think not.

The Basalt Town Council saw matters similarly enough to approve the SkiCo application on first reading by a vote of 4-2. I am sure the project is not perfect, they never are, but it is the latest example of the midvalley’s new millennium reality.

And what exactly is that reality? Aspen and Snowmass Village will always be the renowned destination resorts at the valley’s upper end. Glenwood Springs provides our valley’s intersection with I-70 and the rest of the world. But the midvalley communities, Carbondale, Basalt, and the developing enclaves of unincorporated Eagle and Garfield counties, will primarily define the Roaring Fork Valley’s next 20 years or so of growth and change. And to expand on Kaplan’s point, Stone-Age political thinking isn’t going to cut it if the Roaring Fork Valley is to grow in an economically stable and sustainable manner.