What Aspen can teach us

By Jacob Richards

Back in the ‘90s, when writer Hunter S. Thompson held court at the Woody Creek Tavern just outside of Aspen, he’d often rail against the “greedheads.”

I grew up in Aspen, and sometimes my dad took me there to look at all the dollar bills on the wall. He made sure a picture of me and my first bull elk joined pictures in the bar of ski bums in head-to-toe denim.

Nowadays the bills are $100s and the pictures on the walls look like fashion shoots. What would Hunter Thompson think? Likely that the greedheads had won. Most of the West’s resort towns have undergone something of an Aspenification, and that includes Aspen’s bedroom communities of Basalt, Carbondale and Rifle that send workers to the ski lifts and restaurants.

When I was young, my family bounced around Aspen-area trailer parks, and even lived in the office of a horse-stable at the base of Aspen Highlands Ski Resort. The cabin had no running water, and the only heat was a wood stove. We’d sled down the hill hanging on to our groceries and water jugs.

When I was eight, my mom was able to buy a deed-restricted condo in Aspen. Even then we needed to add a roommate to afford our 740 square foot, two-bedroom apartment, one of us sleeping on the day-bed in the living room.

Dad called it “condo-bondage,” and a love of horses, hunting and open spaces pushed him farther down-valley before he settled in Silt, over an hour from Aspen. 

I spent my middle-school years there, living with my dad in the early 1990s, and it felt like a different world. Decades later I remember the first Sotheby’s “for sale” sign I saw outside of a ranch near Silt. 

A feeling of dread swept over me. The same dread I felt as a senior in Aspen High School with a job, basic math skills and a sinking realization that I couldn’t afford to live in my hometown. I thought, “My dentist commutes from over 70 miles away, how could I afford to live here?” 

Twenty years ago, I moved to Grand Junction, a historically blue-collar town, the biggest in Western Colorado with 65,000 people. Now, even humble Grand Junction is undergoing Aspenification despite being over two hours from the glitz of Telluride or Aspen.

It’s a long way from the town’s history of milling uranium and then stashing its tailings—still containing high amounts of radioactivity—along the Colorado River, not to mention meth epidemics and an ongoing homelessness crisis. 

But these days you can ride a zip-line across the Colorado River, rent an electric scooter or buy a luxury condo downtown, built by Aspen-based developers.

The downsides of this Aspenification are hard to ignore. A 2019 study found that the Grand Valley surrounding Grand Junction was short some 3,736 units of affordable housing. Since then, housing costs and homelessness have both risen about 45%, according to Grand Junction Housing Manager Ashley Chambers.

“Seniors are getting creamed, service workers are getting creamed, and it’s adding to the homelessness crisis,” said Scott Beilfuss, Grand Junction City Councilman. 

“If we remain a healthcare, service and retail-based economy, wages will never catch up with housing costs,” Beilfuss said. “This has consequences for the entire Western Slope.”  

But here’s what I’ve learned from growing up in Aspen. The perpetrator of this rural transformation has lessons to teach us. The town has run a robust and affordable housing program for years, and a recent study found that two-thirds of occupied housing units in Aspen were affordable. 

Additionally, Aspen has long invested in a world-class public transit system so workers can commute from miles away.

There are glitches. My mother, who still lives in her deed-restricted condo, learned that her basement often fills with leach water collected from Aspen’s toxic mining heritage. Repair estimates are $10 million—a sum she and the 79 other households can’t begin to afford. 

What Aspen’s success teaches us is that the greedheads can’t be stopped, but they can be pressured to build or subsidize affordable housing, something that’s in the resort town’s interest.

Aspen also shows us that communities downstream need to organize to fight for affordable housing. And they need to stay organized, because the greedheads would rather fight you every step of the way. 

Jacob Richards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and outdoor guide in Grand Junction, Colorado.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

05/27/2024 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
05/27/2024 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
05/29/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
05/29/2024 Denver Post Denver CO
05/30/2024 Taos News Taos NM
05/30/2024 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
05/29/2024 Delta County Independent Delta CO
05/30/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/02/2024 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
05/29/2024 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
06/02/2024 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
06/02/2024 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
06/01/2024 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
06/02/2024 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
06/01/2024 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
05/03/2024 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
06/01/2024 Aspen Times Aspen CO
05/30/2024 Leadville Herald-Democrat Leadville CO
06/01/2024 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
05/30/2024 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/01/2024 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/04/2024 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
06/01/2024 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
06/05/2024 The Mountain Mail Pagosa Springs CO
06/05/2024 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
06/07/2024 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
06/06/2024 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
06/09/2024 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
06/09/2024 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
06/12/2024 Colorado Springs Tribune Colorado Springs CO
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Nancy Cavazos
24 days ago

What’s “affordable” in Aspen?

Mike Foster
23 days ago

But these days you can ride a zip-line across the Colorado River, rent an electric scooter or buy a luxury condo downtown, built by Aspen-based developers.

Mike Foster
23 days ago
Reply to  Mike Foster

Just an FYI the project referenced is a typical rental project that is four stories with an elevator instead of the typical three story walk up that was redeveloped from an empty grocery store.

22 days ago

Although I enjoyed this article immensely it’s flawed in its reasoning. It’s rife with bail me out mentality… America is always at its best when we are aspirational not counting on the government to build us affordable housing. He’s right in the sense that Aspen is an extreme place… but you are stretching it saying Aspen has reached to GJ. Sorry, nostalgia is a hard emotion. We used to have a much less populated state. In a lot of ways it was better… we certainly used to have a political debate but the state has dipped darker and darker blue and sadly even though it sounds nice I don’t think we can build affordable housing and e-bike our way out of this.

21 days ago
Reply to  Dom

Better than dipping darker and darker blood red.

June Wilen
20 days ago

Enjoyed this article very much. Thank you for sharing this life story!

T.A. Stevens
19 days ago

At one time, I could afford to live in Aspen; now, I can’t even afford to visit, and I’m far from poor. The horse is more than out of the barn. It’s dead.

14 days ago

So nicely written, I feel like you could write a whole book on this topic. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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