What Aspen can teach us (Opinion)

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 my dad always took me to the Tavern after a hunting camp. A picture of my first bull elk joined pictures of ski bums in head-to-toe denim and dollar bills with personal notes on the walls.

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, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and outdoor guide in Grand Junction, Colorado.