Aspen man warns Steamboat

Commissioner: High cost of living will force young people out

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It doesn't take much to get Mick Ireland talking. He has lived in Aspen for more than 25 years, and the more he has watched the quality of life change for the people around him, the louder his voice gets.

Ireland will be in Steamboat Springs on Saturday to speak about affordable housing and the effects of unattainable real estate costs to the vibrancy of a town.

His lecture will be part of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley's annual meeting, and his comments will be followed by a question-and-answer period and chance for discussion.

Ireland became a Pitkin County commissioner 10 years ago. He ran for office for the first time when he looked around and saw that most of his social circle was gone.

"My friends were moving out of town in significant numbers," he said.

He blames the shift in the population on rising real estate prices caused by uncontrolled speculation set against stagnant incomes that failed to keep up with the changing cost of living.

"It sneaks up on you," he said.

Ireland recognizes that people in Steamboat bristle when he uses Aspen as a reference point to give them warnings and advice about the future of this community, but he continues to give his warnings.

Aspen seems an extreme example, but the two communities are facing the same issues. He points to the population figures to prove his point.

When Ireland moved to Aspen, the population was much younger, he said, and most of the work force lived in town.

"The great wealth was not as evident. Housing was expensive, but it was still within the reach of a two-income household. Now, we are afflicted or blessed with a wave of extremely wealthy baby boomers moving to town."

Because the changes came slowly and because many of the policy-makers are longtime locals who have owned their homes for years, people running the government don't realize how much things have changed.

For Aspen, it may be too late to react to the loss of young people, but Steamboat still has time to look at the numbers and decided what to do before the approaching economic snowball.

"There is a disappearance of residents between the ages of 20 and 45," he said. "And that fact is not in the face of policy-makers.

"Here I am. I'm 50. Most of my friends own a house, and it's not my direct experience of how hard it is to own a home. It was hard to buy a house when I moved to town, but it's hard to distinguish between hard and impossible. The reality is most young people (in Aspen) couldn't buy a house if they worked eight jobs."

Ireland looks at Steamboat and sees the demographics already starting to shift.

In a paper he published about affordable housing, Ireland calls young people in resort communities the "lost generation."

He wrote: "Steamboat shows a loss for the 30 to 34 age groups and another characteristic seen in resort communities: low or declining numbers of new babies and explosive growth in the 50 to 60 age group.

"The result is that communities like Steamboat are beginning to lose their younger workers and service personnel such as teachers, police, health care providers and ski patrolmen. This pattern is repeated and already far along in places like Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge. The result of these trends have been increasing sprawl, loss of community and increasingly expensive local government."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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