Mammoth Real Estate Q&A: A Long Road To Aspen

This was my Q & A column that appeared in the March, 2006 Mammoth Real Estate Times. I had many wonderful responses from both local residents and folks from out-of-town. I had two negative responses; from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory who called me and used the term “f*cking @sshole” at least a dozen times and from MMSA President of Real Estate and Land Use Peter Denniston who said “you’re a very angry person and need help”.

A Long Road To Aspen

Note: This time I got to ask the question and I found a profound answer. With all of the comparisons and hype of Mammoth becoming the “next Aspen,” I took the opportunity to ask some questions of Diane Eagle, the new editor at the Mammoth Times and a former resident of Aspen for 25 years. Here is what I discovered.

A: Diane moved to Aspen in her twenties to be a ski bum. Hardly a bum, she was originally a Jersey girl and a paralegal in Washington D.C. Once in Aspen she performed research for Leon Uris. Now just the fact that Leon Uris was living in Aspen in the 70’s is our first clue. Imagine a writer like that living among us for inspiration. At least we have a new editor with such inspiration. Ultimately, Diane says it took her 20 years to really become a ski bum.

On a superficial level Mammoth and Aspen have plenty in common–small towns lying next to ski-mountains amidst beautiful natural surroundings. According to Diane, Aspen has their in-town transportation together even though it took a long time for people utilize it. Transportation needs to be accessible, timely and free, and is “absolutely feasible here.”

The transportation in and out of Aspen can be an entirely different story. With so much of the working class living in the “down valley” communities, the rush hour in and out of town can be worse than L.A. Some days it takes in excess of three hours to get out of town and the particulate matter pollution from automobile exhaust can be unbearable. Unlike Mammoth, Aspen is very pedestrian friendly. I guess the Old Mammoth Road renovations are a good start.

And Diane reiterated something that has been said here many times, “winters are much colder in Aspen.” So much so that when she sees the snow on the ground outside she finds herself overdressing. And she wishes Mammoth had better markets, especially for food (remember the Gourmet Grocer or Joe’s Mammoth Market?)

But the profound difference between the two communities is in the culture. Those cultural underpinnings grew in the 1950’s from the book and concept known as the “Aspen Idea”. The Idea was the work of Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and his philanthropist wife Elizabeth. They founded the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival, the Aspen Center of Physics and more. These attracted legions of writers, composers, scientists, and intellectuals to Aspen to share their work.

For Diane, the “Aspen Idea” was the combination of recreation and mind. Recreate in the mountains by day and stimulate the mind by night. What Walter Paepcke envisioned was a beautiful setting that could espouse the values and integration of Body, Mind and Spirit. What was established in Aspen were the people, institutes, special events and conferences (how about the International Design Conference?) and the financial mechanisms to keep it all going that created a cultural mecca. (Kind of like a winter Saturday afternoon at the Yodler bar.)

The growth of the resort economy in Aspen eventually overtook the ideology of the “Aspen Idea” and altered the Aspen experience. But the mind, body and spirit of the “Aspen Idea” remained. (Diane moved to Aspen at the end of the Hunter S. Thompson era–I think there are some stories to hear.) In 1987 at the opening of the Design Conference, Elizabeth Paepcke asked “Are we going to kill the golden goose by feeding the animal until its liver is so distended and we produce a pate which is so rich that none of us can digest it anymore? What price glory?”

In an article a couple of years ago for the Aspen Times titled “Is the ‘Aspen Idea’ Still Alive in Aspen?” the author poses the question as to why money, power and fame still come to Aspen. His answer is because the good, the true and the beautiful are still here, “the Aspen Idea is still the soul of the town, the real core and why Aspen is different than other resorts.”

So where does that leave Mammoth? The events of the last half-century assure that we will never be another Aspen. Diane says Mammoth “needs to be an original.”

We’ve got the best mother nature has to offer, we’ve got Dave McCoy and Andrea Lawrence, we’ve got a college, a Ski Museum and an awesome new library coming, we’ve got the Mammoth Advocates (a “very important voice” according to Diane) and now we’ve got Barry Sternlicht. Diane says the people she has met in Mammoth are “unforgettable.” (What Diane doesn’t know is that all the culture left town when the bar at the V.I. got ripped out.)

So all of this has got me thinking about what my “Mammoth Idea” is here in the spring of 2006? First, we need big changes on the Town Council. I thank John and Kirk for so many years of hard work, but they have helped us define insanity (insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.) The Council has simply consumed too much of the big developers Kool-Aid. Bottom line–we’ve had great plans but poor execution. In the 90’s the Council supported term limits. Now is the time to limit their terms. Change is good. More than 10 years ago I said the Town Council needed to be paid to insure we get the best candidates–and it would pay off. If this town is to mature, this has to be seriously considered.

The Council has simply got to stop buckling-under to the hit-and-run developers. The difference between what Intrawest marketed to their potential buyers and the blues they sang to the Council was night and day. And the Council continues to buy it. And now we’re holding Intrwaest’s bag of crap and they’ve gone off and are blowing big numbers on Wall Street. We need a Council that can stand up to the likes of Sean Combs (80/50 and Hillside/Ritz) and Peter Denniston (MMSA). At least with Tom Dempsey we got the feeling he was part of the community.

What else? Somebody up above has got to kick Mammoth Hospitality in the ass. Just the bed tax they alone should be generating (but aren’t) could be paying for our transportation system. (Just a short history lesson: I was Chairman of the Planning Commission and ran a very long public hearing when the Town down zoned the property at Chair 15 from “Hotel” to “Condominium” to allow the construction of Juniper Springs Lodge. The Town’s great concern was the loss of bed tax revenue. We were assured that the entity renting the condominiums would be a motivated, first-class business operation that would ultimately generate lots of tax dollars for the Town for things like transportation. Instead we got a marginal-at-best operation managing our best rooms that only seems capable of pissing off quality clientele and unit owners. This cannot be denied because I have lived right in the middle of it the past three winters.)

It was Rusty himself who took me to Vail 15 years ago and showed me the $20+ million dollar municipal budget they had (with lots of great amenities and services) because of all the bed tax. The abysmal performance of a Mammoth Mountain subsidiary has greatly shortchanged this community. Again, great plans but pathetic execution. I pray that Mr. Sternlicht will do something.

My next “Idea” has to do with the college. I hope Glenn Thompson isn’t rolling over in his grave. Part of the concept of having a college here was to create a learning institution (and make Mammoth a hub) for resort hotel, restaurant and hospitality management. What a great concept and plan. That could really put Mammoth on the resort industry map and locally create high levels of service. Now it seems mired in bureaucracy with no real direction and very few students. And there is no sign of anything, anywhere in this town (except for a few progressive businesses) resembling training for hospitality.

That’s enough ideas for now. We can’t build a high-quality home on a poor foundation. We can’t promote quality cultural experiences if we can’t exceute the basics. We can’t provide wellness for others when we aren’t well ourselves.

The unpolluted water that drains away from these mountains gave life to a megalopolis. Now its residents return here to regain some clarity in their lives. They are looking to us to provide them something special. I think we can do a better job and make our lives better while we’re doing it. Or maybe we should let a 21st century industrialist from Connecticut come and write the “Mammoth Idea”.

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