Aspen is not a cheap place to live, or even visit. That’s especially true now that the summer season is picking up. During peak seasons, in the winter and summer, the cheapest hotel room in Aspen goes for about two-hundred-dollars a night. But the local government is trying to change that. Over the past month, Aspen City Council has been considering a new lodging incentive program that would encourage more hotel development. Dorothy Atkins has the story.
“We're combating a trend that's been in place for 20 years, and it may continue for 20 years."
That's Chris Bendon. He's the community development director for the city of Aspen and he's talking about the recent drop in the number of hotel rooms in Aspen.
“We don't have to do anything this year, but every year we wait it's another year goes by and eventually it's one of those things that if you wait 20 years from now and look back you'll say, 'Gee we really should've done something about it then' but our opportunity has evaporated."
According to Bendon, Aspen lost nearly a third of its hotel rooms between 1995 and 2006. These are the so called “hot beds” Aspen needs to house tourists.
That's why one of council’s top goals this year is to create a new program that would encourage people to build new hotels and restore aging lodges in Aspen.
To do that, Bendon suggests the city relax rules that make it so costly to build here.
“We've seen a long-term trend of outright losing lodging rooms. There's been some evidence of a decline in quality. It is a long-term thing that we have to deal with."
While aiming to relax some regulations the proposed program actually contains a set of new rules. Some of these changes are controversial. One would relax height restrictions on new construction and reduce the amount of affordable housing hotel builders would need to create. The proposal would also allow developers to build free-market apartments alongside hotel rooms. Each of these ideas has met resistance from local residents.
"If we can a balance of those three things then we have an opportunity for a successful lodging program."
At a council meeting last week, multiple people spoke in favor of the new lodging program. Most of them have a financial interest in hotel development.
Among them were Stay Aspen Snowmass President Bill Tomcich, David Corbin, vice president of planning and development for Aspen SkiCo and architect Stan Clauson;
“There's a very real undeniable decline in our bed base that I feel like I played a key role in identifying back when I considered it an epidemic.”
“It's really quite clear there's a substantial loss in bed-base. We think it's critical to stop that slow erosion — It's critical not just for our own vitality, it's critical competitively.”
“The Free-market component is the most important element in financing new lodges.”
The new incentives are needed according to these supporters because of the high costs developers and lodge owners face in creating new lodging space. Critics fear the changes will lead to a shift that could alter the character of Aspen. LJ Erspalmer is on the city's planning and zoning committee.
“Free-market residential - that just creates a nightmare. I just wish we could do it without that, I just wish we could.”
City council members have suggested adjustments to the proposed program. Still, they appear generally supportive— with one exception, Mayor Steve Skadron. He worries about potential unintended consequences.
“Those words incentivice, relaxation and tipping the scales quite frankly scare me. I want to be thoroughly careful about how we approach this. It's one thing to have a vibrant lodging community as a product of an incentive program, it's another thing to remake the entire community into something it doesn't want to be. I'm not convinced that we have fully protected ourselves from unintended consequences for the relaxation of these codes — I'm not against them. But as it's presented I think we should scrutinize every step forward.”
Over the next month, Council will make a final decision about whether the new lodging incentive program will pass.