Archived Ants
« ISSUE #112: Who's The ANTagonist Now? | Main | ISSUE #110: Enjoy Your ThANTsgiving Weekend! »

ISSUE #111: A Holiday InformANT

"At The Red Ant, the fun never ends... Holiday blessings to you, your family and friends."


While grappling with public outcry about the current construction boom in Aspen and working diligently to curb development in general, the city is readying to embark on the largest construction project in town in years -- for itself.  And I don't mean roads, bridges and infrastructure.  Ostensibly those things would be for us -- the taxpayers.  What they have in mind is nothing more than a massive monument to their own mediocrity.  Read on...

Yes, it's true that the Aspen Police Department is soon getting booted from the basement space in the county courthouse it has long shared with the Pitkin County Sheriff.  And it's also true that the city's building and engineering departments will need to relocate from their leased basement digs in the Aspen Daily News building by 2018.  But relocating these functions has created a tangled matrix of office space needs, wants and dreams for the city that, if left unchecked and unsupervised in their planning and funding, are currently approaching nearly 80,000 sf with cost estimates nearing $40 million.  The tab is not just for the 24,500 sf of space for the evicted departments, however; it also includes upgrades to bathrooms and hallways (per code) as well as larger meeting rooms and more offices, plus a to-be-constructed 45,000 sf facility long dreamed of for the Zupancis property, just east of the courthouse annex on Main St. across from St. Mary's Church.

Ever the sly one, city manager Steve Barwick knows better than to raise taxes or float a bond to cover this ridiculous expenditure, both of which would take a public vote.  (He has learned the hard way that the fiscal hawks in town are well organized and motivated!)  Instead, he plans to use the buckets of gold tucked under mattresses in various department accounts at city hall to fund the massive physical expansion.  And if he needs more money?  No problem. There's a financial tool called a "certificate of participation" which is a form of government debt similar to a bond.  Current estimates and cash reserve requirements project a $21 million debt issuance need, to be repaid at a 4% rate ($1.34 million a year -- for about 25 years). City officials are confident that "redirecting" funds currently spent on leased office space would contribute significantly to the debt service.  Isn't that confidence reassuring??

But please note, given the "independent" nature of the financing, the city is moving ahead with nary a public process.  They don't need to impress us, convince us or get us to approve anything at the polls so they are not even bothering to ask us.  It's kinda like the "remodel" of the Rubey Park bus station that is more of an expansion than any kind of remodel I've ever seen.  They did that without our input too because they managed to fund it -- with our money -- without us!!

We all know that City Hall, currently ensconced in the historic Armory building at the corner of Hopkins and Galena, is a crowded and tangled fire-trap of office space.  But given the commercial real estate already owned by the city (and located IN the city), doesn't it equally make sense that we consider using and maximizing what we have before hauling off and building something new just because we can??

From the standpoint of perspective, the projected space "needs" of the city are approximately the size of TWO Aspen Art Museums!  Councilman Adam Frisch recently asked the $40 million question, "How do you hide 70,000 sf?"  Exactly.  While some city functions should be readily and easily accessible to the public (and therefore justify a convenient location downtown), many others are invisible to the public and can be located ANYWHERE.  Just think for a moment about the EXISTING spaces owned by the city -- possibilities that include but are not limited to the vacant Mountain Rescue cabin next to the Hickory House, the ACRA offices below the parking garage on Rio Grande Park and the Aspen Youth Center space, currently utilized by several community groups for about 22 hours per week.  And don't forget the $18+ million paid by the city in 2008 for the BMC Lumberyard out by the airport.  Ever development-hungry when it comes to projects and expenditures that suit itself, the city is indeed dreaming BIG.  The wish list gratuitously includes an upgrade and addition to the current City Hall AND perhaps booting ACRA out of the Rio Grande building, but we know the city bureaucrats all too well, and they have long had their eyes on a shiny new edifice to themselves right on Main St.  This whole boondoggle begs the even bigger question .....

Long occupied by the Aspen Art Museum, the historic Old Power House building on the Roaring Fork River at the corner of North Mill St and Gibson is currently vacant.  Owned by the city, it was leased to the AAM for $1/year until the museum relocated to its new in-town space last summer.

Think about it.  At 7200 sf, the Old Power House represents a MAJOR SOLUTION to the city's office space needs.  Couldn't the IT department, human resources, engineering or environmental health, or all four, be located there?  Sure, it's a few blocks from the central core, but really.  Would that matter?  The space is there AND IT'S PAID FOR!  What about the Police Department?  I'm a neighbor and admit it wouldn't be ideal, but heck, if the space works, I would live with it.  As much as I respect the non-profit entities vying for the Old Power House space, I am sick of the subsidized culture that is out of control in this town.  When the municipality owns the space and needs the space, frankly, it should use the space.  This is not to imply that any of the potential lessees offer dubious benefits to the community (although in a couple of cases it might be argued).  The space should simply not be given away.  Not now.

However, in an ill-timed and mad rush to "fill" (read: give away) the clearly valuable space (although the AAM found it less than desirable as a tourist destination given its ~ 4+ block downhill distance from the Hotel Jerome), the city has been drumming up interest from community groups eager for cheap in-town real estate.  The recent application process drew interest from many viable and several not-so-viable parties that came to the table offering such "community benefits" as a homeless shelter, a youth hostel, a rehab center and a John Denver museum.  A community panel vetted the applications and came up with the finalists: a science center, a Red Brick Center for the Arts performance and events center and a new HQ for GrassRoots TV that would provide public access to its archives.  Ok, each of these has its appeal, some more than others.  (Personally, I think GRTV is best suited to inhabit the space because it's a proven long-term community organization that already serves a diverse group of organizations and individuals in the valley, and more importantly, its services and offerings will not significantly increase the intensity of activity in this transitional zone between downtown and one of Aspen's more densely populated residential neighborhoods.)  But in its inimitable fashion, city council took the recommendations and added two of their own: a "community gathering place" for locals and support groups, as well as a brewery.  The final decision will be made before the May municipal election.  Frankly, the city needs to look long and hard at just giving this space away, especially when its own "space needs" are front and center.  And ridiculously expensive.

A fascinating theory was presented to The Red Ant about this enormous development over-reach by the city.  Could it possibly be that the city (whose ineptitude led to the lawsuit settlement that brought us the new Aspen Art Museum with all of its waivers) is going to "show" the AAM who's boss in this town by building an EVEN BIGGER edifice to the "because we can" movement??

A harbinger of things to come actually reads more like history repeating itself.  Remember Mohamed Hadid, the guy who bought 88 acres of primo Aspen real estate in 1986 where the St. Regis (nee Ritz-Carlton), Hyatt Grand Aspen and Silver Circle Ice Rink now stand? (He was also the one who incidentally gifted the Meadows property to the Aspen Institute, ensuring it would stay in Aspen.)  Hadid was a controversial guy at the time.  It was nothing personal, just that he had the land and the bucks to make some serious changes to the Aspen landscape.  How dare he, many cried at the time.  But today, with the St. Regis and Grand Hyatt serving as thriving additions to our bed base and tourist amenities, those criers have a new target.

Mark Hunt of Chicago and his investment group have snapped up numerous commercial properties in Aspen over the past couple of years.  Earmarked for redevelopment, such properties include the Conoco gas station on Main Street, the Crystal Palace building, the Bidwell Building (where Kemosabe currently resides), the Aspen Daily News building on Hopkins Street and the Buckhorn Arms building (where Johnny McGuire's and Domino's are located).  Hunt recently completed "Aspen One" at the corner of Hopkins and Galena where the Gap once stood.  High end retail fills the ground floor while a much-anticipated restaurant will soon open on the second floor.

The local papers enjoyed reporting on a "bro-mance" last summer between Mayor Skadron and Hunt after they met to discuss Hunt's vision for his properties.  With the city vociferously lamenting the loss of small lodges over the years, Hunt returned to city hall this fall with not one but two mid-priced lodge project concepts for the central core.  Two lodges with a total of 88 small rooms (under 200 sf) with price tags to match, and public amenities such as a bowling alley and rooftop deck were put forth.  Never understanding basic business concepts such as "gives and gets," anti-development naysayers and public officials went nuts when Hunt requested waivers on parking requirements for these two lodges and well as relief on subsidized housing mitigation.  They simply want what they want (cheap hotel rooms) and are unwilling to negotiate with the person willing to build such an economically poor use of very valuable real estate.  To this push back, Hunt said it is hard to hear some of the criticisms, especially when he designed the project at the request of city officials who have been clamoring for an affordable lodging development.  He said the concept wasn't his first choice for the lot and still isn't.  Of course it isn't!!  The city should be very careful here.  Mark Hunt is willing to build something no one else would even touch.  But that willingness obviously comes with a price.  Miss this opportunity now and Hunt will surely construct more high end ground floor retail space and perhaps even some very nice free market condos upstairs.  The unique lodging opportunity won't just be lost in the near term, it will be gone forever.

Besides, did you hear that commercial real estate is HOT HOT HOT??  Commercial leases are going for $250/sf in the core!  And even at this rate, vacancies are very hard to come by.  If the city squanders great opportunities to work with those who come to the table with unique solutions, skier visits (which are down 15-20% from the high in 1997-98) will never recover, commercial lease rates will continue their climb, and you know the rest. Now, no one is saying Hunt's affordable lodge proposals are any kind of "must do," but they most certainly are "must considers."  You don't get somethin' for nuthin' in this world.  (Well, unless you get subsidized housing, a free ski pass, free bus service, discounted/free access to cultural marvels, etc. as an Aspen local, that is.  But I digress.  However, now you can see how the mentality has gotten so unbelievably warped around here!!)

Mark Hunt is a businessman. My guess is this offer of his won't be on the table for long. Nor should it be.  Frankly, given the pushback and vitriol directed Hunt's way, I just don't see the proposed affordable lodge projects happening.

As a friend of The Red Ant is quick to point out, we have groceries and we have Gucci, and very little in between.  It's just the economic reality.  So when the city pushes for more "affordable" in-town lodging, is not the elephant in the room the inevitable question, "Once we get these people here and into 'budget' hotel rooms, what will they do when there is nothing else 'budget' that we offer?"  My guess is that the law of unintended consequences will once again answer that for us.  Aspen is NOT a budget destination.  Sorry folks, it just isn't.  To represent ourselves as such is disingenuous and will surely backfire.

We all knew that city manager Steve Barwick has an employment contract worth $170K per year.  As it turns out, according to our city charter (Section 6.1), the city manager is also appointed "without definite term."  It's been this way since 1970 when the charter was adopted.  Who knew!?! One of just two municipal employees overseen by council, the city manager currently rests easy with a fat contract into perpetuity.  This doesn't mean he can't be fired -- he most certainly can!  He can also be reviewed by his bosses -- city council -- but they don't seem to see the need for that, despite a long list of egregious offenses and outright dereliction of duty by this bureaucrat.  Why is this?  Nobody knows and council isn't talking.  It's actually as though they really don't know or understand how the system works!

In the wake recent "issues" (such as the parking meter scandal and lies to council about an unnecessary $750K drainline), Barwick, never one to accept responsibility, moved a few bureaucrats on his staff around and even demoted the parking director.  But no one was fired, and no further answers have been forthcoming on the independent audit and the enormous amount of missing money.  Barwick continues to deflect from his own poor management by trying to re-focus on the individuals who scammed the machines instead of his organization which ignored (at best) or (more likely) was complicit in raiding the coffers.  He also fabulously commented on his own failure(s), "Right now, departments pretty much go straight to city council with very little review by the city manager's office."  Now why is that, Steve?  If you were doing your job -- and that job is to manage your staff -- not one item should get before the council before its time.  And when something is finally presented to council, it should be with your full knowledge, approval and sign-off.  Anything short of this is simple dereliction and you ought to be formally reprimanded.

The latest Barwick oversight is spectacularly illustrative of the problems in city hall.  Over the summer, a $580K overhaul of the gondola plaza intersection at Durant and Hunter streets was completed.  The idea was to make the intersection safer for pedestrians.  Numerous citizens criticized the plan before its start, but the city dug it up anyway.  In the end, two large stormwater "rainfall pits" (now appropriately nicknamed "face planters") that jut out into traffic lanes await disembarking bus passengers and pedestrians like open mine shafts.  There have been several instances of people falling in already.  When brought to council's knowledge recently, the mayor called this situation to the attention of the relevant department head and assumed that matters would be quickly corrected.  But no.  The city charter PROHIBITS council (including the mayor) from directing staff.  No wonder staff doesn't do council's bidding nor do they tell council the truth.  These folks work for Barwick!  The responsibility for directing staff is the city manager's alone.  Instead, if council understood the basic workings of our government, they would direct the city manager to fix the problem.  That way, the responsibility would lie with Steve Barwick each and every time, 100% of the time.  And he would be solely responsible.  (Note: at press time and as a result of a letter to the paper from an out-of-town MD, the city has filled the "face planters" in with snow as a temporary fix.)

The management of Steve Barwick (as well as city attorney Jim True) is one KEY responsibility of council.  This responsibility is being grossly neglected and as a result, city hall is in disarray with a void of leadership, missing money, poor morale, zero accountability and a series of mishaps that continue to shock and awe the public.

And don't forget, while council fiddles, Barwick is surely fine-tuning his own "city-owned housing for life" plan, similar to the one he designed for and granted to former utilities director Phil Overeynder (see Issue #22).

Please contact city council and let them know that you would like better supervision of city manager Steve Barwick, including better oversight of our public funds:              

In one of the best published columns of the year, Maurice Emmer presents a few very actionable changes that would enable council to better focus on their given responsibilities (supervision of the city manager and city attorney, enact laws, consider initiatives, appoint civic boards and hear land-use appeals).  In short, take away council's responsibility to hear land-use appeals.  Leave this in the hands of Planning & Zoning where conforming proposals will be approved and those non-conforming will be rejected.  It's very simple.  Same rules for everyone.  Council does not need to play "Super P&Z" with every application.  When truly compelling variances are requested, P&Z can refer these to a public vote.  The variance proposals that are indeed truly compelling will be approved by the voters.

Please take the time to read this piece, entitled "New Rules for the Monkey Cage."  It suggests such obvious things such as adopting a guideline that requires the city manager and attorney to do what the council instructs them to do.  Imagine that!?

Instead of coddling developers and doling out variances and waivers on an ad hoc basis, council should tend to its knitting.  And when our land-use code doesn't work, make the needed changes - for everybody.  With their new-found time, council can then get our "renegade government" back under control.

They can't manage their two employees but council CAN pick winners and losers! You like pizza -- I know you do.  And I do too!  Taster's makes a good pie and I've been known to order from them from time to time.  Taster's Pizza is currently located in the city-owned Rio Grande Place where the city is looking to move its operations amidst the planned municipal expansion.  Unlike its competitors (Ryno's, NY Pizza), Taster's pays below-market "subsidized" rent to the city.  The fine economists on council were in rare form when the issue of relocating Taster's came up recently.  It seems the Romero, Frisch and Daily families are regular customers of the eatery, therefore these councilmen are emotionally invested in keeping Taster's in its location, even if this means the city having to rent high-priced office space elsewhere in town.  Yep, in an effort to "prevent further erosion of affordable eateries in town," Dwayne Romero and the others seem willing to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize one local pizza joint and not the others.  The great irony?  It was Mayor Skadron, the council member with the least amount of business acumen, who actually raised the "subsidy" issue as a potential problem.  He predicts "complaints" if the city ends up paying market rent for office space so that Taster's can keep its subsidized tenancy.  Ya think?!?

Busted in its attempt to snow council into approving $750K for a drainline that would complete the CCEC Hydro Plant despite council's decision to shelve the project, the city has been under public pressure to sell the custom $1.7 million turbine that it commissioned years ago, long before getting the approvals to build the hydro plant.  The sale of this albatross would signal the true "end" of the hydro plant and its archaic technology that was nearly employed on Castle Creek.  There isn't much of a market for this outdated technology so it's likely the city would only recoup pennies on the dollar for its premature expenditure, so what did they do?  I hope you're sitting down.

The mayor and city attorney recently approached a local water rights lawyer and several of his clients (who have actively opposed the CCEC and continue to monitor the city's hydro-on-Castle-Creek activities) with a proposal that is not to be believed.  Except that it happened.  The mayor and city attorney asked the water lawyer to ask his CCEC-opposing clients to pull together $2 million (TWO MILLION DOLLARS) that would be "donated" to a Peru-based non-profit (that the city attorney is involved with) so that the non-profit could buy the hydropower turbine and generator from Aspen and ship it down south where the Peruvian government can use it.  Yep.  City officials are asking local property owners along Castle Creek to pay for the city's mis-step of buying the turbine and generator in the first place.  Is this even legal?  Importantly, do not overlook the veiled threat in the proposal:  the city knows that as long as they are in possession of the turbine which is specifically designed for the 42", mile-long water pipe they have nearly completed, the very real prospect of resurrecting the CCEC hydro plant remains.

How disgraceful.  And at the same time, what a laugh. Can't make it up!

Meanwhile, the city continues its quest for hydro on Castle Creek and council does nothing to stop them.  (Staff does NOT follow council direction because they don't report to council.  Barwick simply ignores council direction because it is not firmly given, especially when it conflicts with staff's agenda.)  In the last quarter of the year, the city's independent water lawyer filed a report with the feds (FERC) to maintain the city's place in line in case it ever filed an application to build and operate the CCEC hydro plant.  The cover letter to the report additionally lists 16 activities by city staff during 2014 that are noted as "project-specific" to the CCEC.  It is unclear given council's lack of oversight what is going on and who is in charge.  But you can guess.  Hint: staff works for Barwick and Barwick only.

Several questions jump out:

1       City council issued a directive not to expend city resources on CCEC.  How is it consistent with that directive for city staff to be performing "project-specific" activities to advance the CCEC?

2       How is it consistent with the above-mentioned directive for the city to pay legal fees to prepare this filing?

3       Did staff inform council of its intent to file this report with FERC?  If not, why not, in view of the directive?  If so, how is council's involvement consistent with the directive?

It has become abundantly clear that the $70K study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that, by council's own determination, yielded renewable energy alternatives for Aspen to pursue that did not include the CCEC, is now being rejected by city staff.  The third part of the study, originally scheduled to be delivered in July 2014, has never been presented.  It seems that staff is now telling council that at least one of the NREL recommendations selected by council is "dubious" and that CCEC hydro should be reconsidered.  Really?  Whose recommendation is more dubious, city staff's or NREL's?  It's gotten ridiculous that council actually listens to these buffoons.  City staff must be told (via Steve Barwick) once and for all and in no uncertain terms that they ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT include the CCEC in their renewable energy plans.  Period.  And sell that turbine, legitimately.  Now.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend