"We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it."
-- E.F. Hutton
MORE SOCIAL ENGINEERING IN ASPEN
A small group of vocal citizens has recently been lobbying council and city staff to expedite a change to Aspen's land use code that would limit or ban new chain stores in the downtown core. The plan would be for potential new chain store tenants to go through a "review" process before being granted a business license. The Chain Store Control Act (CSCA), as it is being referred to by detractors, is being pushed as a means of enabling "locally owned" or "locally serving" businesses to get into the retail game in our expensive and exclusive resort town. The CSCA pushers specifically want lower rents for these local businesses which will occupy the same spaces that they can't currently afford in the existing market. Never mind the spaces are private property.
The Red Ant sees this whole CSCA charade for what it really is - social engineering, a taking, a solution in search of a problem and the city government's latest attempt to control the "use mix" of what will be allowed for sale in our commercial zones by being the one who picks winners and losers to please the loudest subset of our community.
Aspen's "millennials," who want desperately to make their mark on Aspen, are the loudest supporters of such controls. They understandably want their own businesses here and feel that it's simply not fair that the high rents paid by national "formula retailers" are keeping them out of the game.
You see, framing this as a "millennial" issue sets up the battle lines. Support for a limit or ban on chain stores signals your love and support for the younger set who, by benefit of birthright or mere arrival, want to stay in Aspen with the fulfilling and successful careers owed to them. If you oppose limiting chain stores, you clearly don't love our local young folk and the children of your local friends. Brilliant. And frightening.
MEET THE WHINY MILLENNIALS
By demographic definition, "the millennials" are the cohort following Generation X, typically being born in the early-to-mid 1980s through the early 2000s. In Aspen, the same definition applies, except we just so happen to have a particularly virulent strain of the whiny variety that have become politically active. Usually, The Red Ant would say that this is an excellent thing, to have this generation's up-and-comers of our community get invested and engaged in the political processes of our community. But our Whiny Millennials are special -- even more so than their brethren elsewhere. Yes, it's all about them, of course, but our particularly toxic strain is not only willing but adamant about forcing the government to interfere with the local free market economy to benefit THEM! Imagine that!?
Aspen's Whiny Millennials failed spectacularly in their recent attempt to co-opt the public process by strategically and emotionally convincing city council to grant them the city-owned Old Power House (formerly inhabited by the Aspen Art Museum) for use as a brewery and party HQ with subsidized office spaces upstairs for the creation and development of their grand plans. Tapping into council's weakness for the romantic and idealized "mind, body and culture" ethos -- and saying "no" to this group -- the Whiny Millennials' plea for beers, music, small bites and big ideas down by the river enchanted our elected reps. In the end, however, after vociferous pushback from neighbors and concerned citizens alike, not to mention serious legal challenges, council was harshly reminded that not only was the original RFP for the space specifically for non-profit use, a commercial enterprise is most certainly not allowed there under current zoning. In the end, with tails between their legs, council relented under the pressures of reality and rescinded from the Whiny Millennials this erroneous award. See The Red Ant Issue #124 and #125 for a recap on the last gasps of breath of this idiotic chapter from the depths of Aspen's public policy rat hole.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they're back. The Whiny Millennials and their Millennial Sympathizers (*MS) are again galvanized to take what's theirs, or, better put, what's yours that they want to be theirs. Buckle up.
*MS: just who are the Millennial Sympathizers? Sure, there are a couple of boldfaced names out there, a couple of former mayors, and, combined with a council that is easily and emotionally distracted by symptoms and not actual causes, this just might be 2017's perfect storm for the government again trying to manipulate and control the local economy. (Noteworthy is the support for the ban by former mayor Bill Stirling, perhaps best known for his ridiculous attempt to ban the sale of fur in Aspen in the late 1980s. The attempt garnered national headlines, but in the end, only served to make Aspen look foolish. Any surprise that he likes this new idea?!)
But if this sounds a little hinky, it does to me too. Yes, the effort is being marketed by the Whiny Millennials, but who is really behind it? Sure, they are an aggrieved bunch, by definition, but why the heavy handed city support? Who there in city hall is encouraging this? The Millennials are most certainly the straw men posing as the dispossessed to bring this issue to the fore and ostensibly generate interest and sympathy, but at whose behest? What has been offered to them in exchange for leading this charge? And really, while it is being promoted as settled science, what proof does city hall have that brand name retailers widely accept losses in Aspen as solely a marketing ploy? Sure, the city can contrive assumptions from sales tax results, but without access to corporate financials (which they have absolutely no right to access), this is all simply conjecture and the basis for restrictions on the use of private property?! And how did this whole brou-haha emerge, fully developed by the esteemed community development department with no public process? This is right up there with the very worst public policy making, even for Aspen. It smacks to me as city hall higher ups manipulating our young and impressionable folks to do the dirty work of sticking it to Aspen's relatively small cadre of commercial real estate owners for having the unmitigated gall of being successful. Sounds city manager-ish. And, combined with Mayor Steve Skadron's ongoing and vapid "mountain town values" drivel, this is a shot over the bow that challenges the right of individuals to use their privately owned property as they see fit under the law.
IF YOU CAN'T BUILD IT YOURSELF, STEAL IT
From a declared standpoint, the motivation and objective (beyond just limiting or banning chain stores) of the proposal at hand is conspicuously absent. The intent of being so vague is to additionally tap into the "stick it to the man" mentality that pervades our local culture, especially among those who lament the end of The Quiet Years (such as the *MS former mayors) -- those who just can't accept that it's still not 1975 in Aspen and never will be again. The hope of the CSCA pushers is that emotions will again take over and no one will think beyond that. (Along those lines, I must admit, I too sorely miss A LOT of stuff that's no longer available here: the #2 at La Cocina, shoe shopping at Ozzie's, the clever revue at the Crystal Palace, breakfast at Gerhard's Wienerstube "stammtisch" and just about everything on the menu at Lauretta's, but I live in reality and know that on planet earth, simply put, things change).
Having endured the painful experience of listening to the whiners once again appeal to council for pity on their plight ("It's not fair, we can't do what people who moved here in 1980 did"), their true motivation became undeniably clear (intentional run-on sentence to illustrate the "all about me" nature of this pathetic action): They live here and they love it and they want to stay here, but for many reasons they can't get their own "things" going in order to afford them the financial ability to have the life they see others living and want for themselves, so they'd like council to take action to intentionally collapse the commercial real estate market in the downtown core so that they might then get some sort of TBD commercial toehold and ostensibly live happily ever after in Aspen like they deserve to because they were born here or moved here and others who came before them appear to have done this and it's what they want too but the world is different and it's harder and more expensive now so clearly the government needs to help them no matter the cost or inconvenience to anyone. It's the participation trophy, Aspen-style.
Pleas for more "entrepreneurial opportunities" and emotional lament at losing leases that were only "pop up" (discounted due to their interim nature) to begin with abounded at last week's meeting. It was pitiful, as in full of pity -- exactly what the whiners want from council. And the blame (there is ALWAYS blame) fell squarely on the shoulders of chain stores. Somehow, they whined, if chain stores were outlawed, the greedy landlords of Aspen would surely HAVE TO deeply discount downtown commercial rents so that Whiny Millennial bric-a-brac shops could proliferate and they too could have their longed-for slice of the Aspen pie. (See, it's easy, just give it to us, otherwise, we'll steal it.)
No one has yet bothered to remind this entitled crew that maybe their struggle is not unique to them, so I will, starting with: there's probably a reason why Apple was invented in a garage. Throughout Aspen's relatively short history, people have come here and fallen in love with the place. Again, what's not to love? I've written it many, many times, but the mere act of crossing the Castle Creek bridge from the West into Aspen DOES NOT guarantee you one single thing except getting to the other side. What makes this group more special than the last? Or the generation before that? Or the post-War 10th Mountain Division war heroes who founded the ski area? Or the silver miners? Or the Ute Indians. There were no safety nets, no trigger warnings, no safe spaces, fuzzy blankets, play-doh or guaranteed outcomes for any of our forefathers in Ute City. It was hard work and risk, not entitlement, that built this city. (Ok, a little rock and roll too, but I digress.)
Don't be fooled. The Whiny Millennials say all they want is a "level playing field." It was one of the big buzz-phrases of the evening at the council meeting. But they don't want that at all. The level playing field implies that all comers play by the same rules -- in other words, a market economy. The Whiny Millennials want just the opposite. They want a slanted slope of a field that benefits one side and one side only, theirs. They want government redistribution but not even through taxes, rather via a direct taking of private property through devaluation and assignment to someone approved by the government. Affirmative action at altitude.
THE RETAIL DEATH PANEL
In every Aspen recipe for public policy disaster, there is the critical ingredient of subjectivity. There simply must be exceptions to the rule! And since rules in general don't apply to the Millennials, why should the specific rules for banning chain stores be anything but ambiguous? Well, guess why -- the Whiny Millennials actually kinda like chain stores, but only some of them -- the ones where they like to shop. Great distress was shared about the loss of The Gap and Banana Republic. The desire for Anthropologie was expressed. Surefoot and Sunglasses Hut are good, but Prada and Gucci, no way. In short, chains that please the whiners and their friends are welcome, but "those places" that are also found on Madison and Michigan Avenues and Rodeo Drive -- be gone!!
The plan is to empanel and empower a select "commission" that will determine retail winners and losers. A retail death panel, if you will. Just who gets to sit on this court, prescribing judgment on which consumer durables are ok to buy and sell in Aspen (and by and from whom) is anyone's guess, but smart money is on Planning & Zoning, even though it makes no sense at all. But it's where several of the whiners and champions of this proposal already strategically serve. Kinda convenient, dontcha think!?
It all promises to be beyond any subjectivity we've ever seen from city hall. What exactly will constitute a "chain"? Word on the street today is a business with 11-15 or more locations. So 10 is ok? Promise? Which chain store brands would automatically trigger a review? Are existing leases to chain stores grandfathered in? What about renewals? Is this just a ground floor ban? What about multi-level buildings that don't have an obvious ground floor? What's the timeframe for death panel decisions? Appeals? Will there be quotas? Interior design mandates? The list goes on....
COUNCIL INQUIRIES MET WITH PATHETIC REVELATIONS
When asked what it was they were REALLY looking for, the whiners' answers were alarmingly telling. Rhetoric such as "locally owned" and "locally serving" was bandied about, although no one can or will (yet) define for all of us just who is a real "local." When the issue was pressed, in the end, "locally owned" doesn't really solve it for the Whiny Millennials. You see, if a local guy were to take over the space in the Andre's building (where Prada currently exists) and sell high-end Italian clothing, would this be ok? Apparently not, since the Whiny Millennials "still wouldn't shop there." They're looking for something called "locally serving." It has more to do with WHO shops in WHICH stores than who actually owns them. Good locals and bad locals, real locals and fake ones. The idea is that our entitled local, young folk, (literally) given space, would be able to their sell "funky" and "homegrown" stuff not only to our tourists (who they assume are looking for whatever it is they're selling) but primarily and especially to each other.
THE LAWS OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
Aspen is ground zero for making hasty decisions and dealing with the terrible unintended consequences later. Or not dealing with them, as the case so often is. Here are just a few that the Whiny Millennials and their nostalgic co-conspirators have no sense of:
- Empty storefronts in the core. THAT's not vitality. It's blight.
- A rotation of failed businesses over multiple years creating uncertainty in the marketplace that will drive shoppers elsewhere.
- Immediate term rush by landlords to secure long term leases with chain stores before this nonsense goes into effect.
- There are many, many high end retailers that are not "chains" per se that can and will step in and secure leases in the absence of competition for space.
- Does anyone think local landlords will quickly and suddenly slash their lease rates just so some entitled schmuck can sell recycled water bottles in the downtown core?
- ACRA neutered. Where is the esteemed Aspen Chamber Resort Association in all of this? Do they really represent the business community or have they become just a shill for city hall?
- When the government effectively subsidizes some businesses and not others, does this same government provide "relief" when said subsidized businesses fail? (The Whiny Millennials will surely be looking for someone to cry to when this happens.... "But it was my life savings...")
- Financial impacts. Has anyone bothered to consider the financial impact of this ridiculous folly? Ok, right now, things are ducky, but what happens when Aspen's sales tax base slowly erodes? What of the parks and recreation facilities that serve locals at subsidized rates? Or housing values that generate the RETT and make the subsidized housing program possible (so that all the Whiny Millennials have an in-town place to live) decrease? What of the subsidized daycare that Millennial families benefit from - a direct result of the sales taxes paid by those who visit and shop at our high end (chain) retailers?
- Economic downturn. Yes, the economy has recovered and is on the upswing now, but what happens during the next downturn when revenues that subsidize the lifestyle of our local subsidized housing residents can drop as much as 40%?
- What do we do when Generation Z shows up, wanting that era's version of what we did for their predecessors?
- And the age-old wisdom: We all know what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you!
A RED ANT MESSAGE TO THE WHINY MILLENNIALS
Aspen is a top-tier, high-end, world class, international tourist destination. Ours is a service-based economy where jobs are primarily those that support local tourism and secondarily provide additional services to the community that developed as a result. Over time, the jobs in Aspen that are NOT in the tourism service sector have indeed broadened and evolved. Where it was once just teachers, doctors, first responders and those in the hospitality business, the growth of the community has come to include architects, builders, designers, lawyers, realtors, a ridiculously large bureaucracy of city and county employees, and just about every other profession found in every other large city. But at the beginning and end of every day, Aspen is a tourist town. We just get to live here because we each figured out our own way to make it work.
Sorry, Millennials, Aspen is NOT all about you. Aspen owes you NOTHING -- certainly no more than it owes anyone else! It's great that you want to start and own a business of your own. It's the American Dream -- chase it! But you might want to think about doing it somewhere where you stand the best chance of success, if indeed that is your goal. But if your goal is not quite that ambitious and dreams of powder days and mountain bike rides are more proliferate, that's ok too, but maybe this business thing isn't for you. But don't get me wrong, there are literally thousands of people who live in Aspen who have found out how to make their version of "it" work. Talk to them. Learn from them. What do they all have in common? They figured "it" out. They looked at the opportunities and the costs, weighed the risks, and threw their hats (and sometimes life savings) into the ring. Some succeeded, some failed. Some failed many times. Others will fail again. But doing it the hard way is the reality in a place like Aspen. To the victors go the spoils. Sorry, no blue ribbon just for showing up.
Aspen is the epitome of the level playing field. We are open to all comers. And sure, there is a price of admission. But anyone is welcome to show up and give it a go. You too are as welcome in this community as anyone who has come before you and anyone who comes afterward. But you are NOT more special than the next guy. And there are no guarantees of a successful outcome. That's just life. It's hard here. And it's expensive. And that can make it even harder. Yeah, had you been born in another era**, things might have been different if you'd made your way here. But you weren't and you didn't. Neither did a lot of us. Short of a quick trip in a time machine, get over it. Life isn't fair.
**In 1968, you could have moved to a town with dirt roads, no support system and little in the way of infrastructure of any kind. And if you'd had the courage, you could have invested your own money, worked your ass off for several decades, and if you ended up being one of the few who made it, built your fortune. There was risk then just as there is now. Now think about it - these are the very people who you and those who represent you are imploring the government to take from in order to give to you. Is this really who you are and what you stand for? (Don't answer that, I think I know.)
Some say Aspen isn't the real world, but just like the laws of gravity, reality DOES exist here. The question is can you exist (and hopefully thrive) in the reality that is Aspen?? The selfish act of trying to change Aspen at the cost of others to fit your selfish desires is not the path to Nirvana, regardless of where you practice yoga.
But most notably, look around -- not all your peers are whining. Many are notable local attorneys and award-winning architects. And don't forget the restaurant owners with multiple local outlets and those manufacturers/distributors of locally-produced beer and wine. Some figured "it" out somewhere else and now do "it" in Aspen. And others just worked hard at "it" and climbed their way up -- heads down, not hands out. None of them demanded special favors and dispensations. It IS possible to make "it" in Aspen, but perhaps recycled water bottles and ground floor yoga smack dab in the downtown core aren't the best fit for this tricky and expensive economy. Again, that's just life. Being born, raised in, or merely enamored of Aspen does not inherently assure you a ride on the glidepath to success. And really, it's nothing against you or your dreams, it's just that Aspen doesn't owe anyone anything. Go make something of yourself. Make E.F. Hutton proud. Earn it.
WHAT'S AHEAD FOR THIS NONSENSE
Thankfully, at press time, it appears as though council has recently received enough pushback (and maybe a tad of common sense) and has slammed the brakes on a hasty decision on this issue. Good thinking, seeing as how such foolishness was hastily thrown out there. Those laws of unintended consequences loom large. Staff will not be pushing this down council's or our throats until sometime in the new year. Instead, everyone has been asked to wait for the building moratorium in downtown Aspen to be lifted in late February. At that time, significant changes to the land use code are supposed to include streamlined and incentivized zoning opportunities that will enable second tier retail establishments in second tier downtown spaces (second floors and basements). In other words, can't we just wait to see how the public process works out?! In fact, this very issue (to meet the needs of locally owned/serving businesses) is specifically expected to be addressed! Patience, people! It sounds to me like lower barriers to and costs of entry are a'coming!
But no one ever said the Whiny Millennials were ill-prepared for possible council pushback and a potential delay. A citizen's petition effort has been threatened and is widely expected whereby just a couple hundred signatures will ensure that a ballot measure determining the issue will be on the May 2017 ballot. Public process be damned; just kick it to the voters who hopefully won't see any downside. It's the Whiny Millennials, folks. Why would they wait for something that staff has been working on for nearly a year? And of course they're not interested in "second tier" anything. They'll be out there in front of City Market asking you to sign their petition, and they just might get the requisite signatures. If that happens, the real fun begins. A divisive election season: emotions and entitlement vs economics. Fun times ahead.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Weigh in. Write to council. Write to the local papers. This issue, if not properly addressed by the upcoming significant changes to the land use code, can certainly be revisited in the future. But to jump the gun and rush ahead is as ill-advised as the very issue itself.
My friend and co-conspirator Maurice Emmer wrote a great letter last week:
"Locals who lobbied city council to regulate chain stores should be applauded for upholding a rich local tradition. This is how government should work: an interest group talks to elected officials to seek a change the group thinks will improve life for the group.
It's not clear what improvement this group seeks. It could be lowering commercial rents so locally produced water bottles can be sold in local stores; or changing the commercial mix so Aspen isn't Rodeo Drive; or substituting the tastes of a small group for those of the market. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that Aspen perpetuate a richly observed local tradition -- attempting to repeal the laws of economics.
We've tried limiting development, thus limiting the supply of leasable space, then complained about escalating rents for the limited leasable space. We've tried banning fur sales, having no effect on fur sales but driving the resulting revenues and sales tax receipts to other communities. We've tried building an uneconomic hydro-electric plant instead of buying far less expensive renewable energy from our utility provider. We've tried mandating that a developer install an affordable restaurant in a basement only to create a perpetually vacant basement. We've tried offered get below-market leases in city-owned buildings on the condition of below-market pricing without any way to measure that pricing.
In the tradition of these quixotic causes i say, go ahead. Regulate chain stores. Persuade yourselves that you know what to do and how to do it. And that you can predict the consequences. But before you do, I suggest one other endeavor. Recently there's been a trend of amending Aspen's home rule charter when deficiencies are identified. Before taking on more pointless causes, we should amend the home rule charter to empower city council to repeal the laws of economics. Maybe then these Rube Goldberg schemes can work."
And don't miss popular columnist Paul Menter's articulate and amusing thoughts on the subject. Read it HERE.
Stay tuned. And buyer beware.