Fabric of resort towns is changing

Pitkin official advises careful analysis of shifting population

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— Aspen Drug, a successful corner drug store in downtown Aspen for more than a century, closed about a year ago. A timeshare "Discovery Center" now occupies the space.

There used to be about five nightclubs where residents and visitors could hear live music in Aspen on any given night. Now there basically are none.

It's happened in Aspen, and it could happen in Steamboat Springs if the community doesn't take notice of population trends, Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland told a crowd at the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley's annual meeting Saturday.

Ireland, a four-time county commissioner, has helped implement affordable housing policies seeking to balance high costs of living that are continually accelerated by the growing number of second homes in Pitkin County.

Still, Aspen is struggling to save itself from becoming a "Disneyland" or place where workers disappear every night to outlying communities because they can't afford to live where they work, he said.

Population trends, which generally show a loss of residents between the ages of 20 and 45, reveal the changing fabric of Aspen and other resort communities.

Between 1990 and 2000, despite the addition of 1,000 new affordable housing units, Aspen lost population in each age group between 20 and 44, according to Ireland's analysis.

At the same time, the 50 to 59 age group grew by more than 120 percent.

Vail and Steamboat's patterns were similar -- little or negative growth of the "lost generation" and significant growth in the 45 to 59 age group. The analysis also shows little or negative growth in babies and young children.

"That's a telltale sign of resort communities," Ireland said.

Although Aspen and Vail may be more extreme examples, Ireland pointed out real estate is appreciating the quickest in places such as Grand and Routt counties.

"Steamboat is not Aspen," he said. "But Steamboat is the next Aspen, potentially to some degree."

Declining enrollment in schools and a loss of middle-income teachers, firefighters and other essential employees are among the results of the population trends.

Communities also will see their downtown areas change because service-oriented businesses can't compete with timeshare and other upscale offices. Commercial areas in general become threatened, Ireland said.

Typically, policy-makers focus on protecting residential areas from encroaching commercial operations. In resorts, however, residential growth threatens to eat commercial areas, he said.

The changing fabric of resort communities is based largely on members of the baby boom generation, who are three times more likely to buy second homes -- and have the money to do it -- than those in the previous generation, Ireland said.

Boomers likely will be gathering and spending wealth on second homes and other luxuries for the next 10 years.

Major tax policy changes in the late 1980s also made real estate a much more attractive place to invest accumulated earnings, he said.

The implications of populations trends can sneak up on a community, particularly because policymakers tend not to be a part of or in touch with the two fastest-growing segments of their communities: Affluent residents who make more than $350,000 and immigrant labor, which includes people who come to towns to work from other countries or other towns.

"You have two groups reshaping your community, and you and your public officials don't have much first-hand experience," Ireland said. "You have a policy-making group struggling with two worlds."

Tools for dealing with "economic success" in communities include land-use controls, restrictions on development, public transportation and affordable housing.

Aspen has achieved some of its affordable housing goals with a zoning plan that calls for 70 percent affordable housing for every 30 percent free-market housing.

Aspen has about 2,300 affordable housing units, many of which are "70/30" units that developers are required to build as a condition of approval. Pitkin County also supports creation of affordable housing with a real estate transfer tax, which provides up to $10 million a year, according to Ireland's analysis.

All the talk of perceived disadvantages of the growing segment of second-home owners frustrated audience member Linda Laughlin, who lives in Steamboat Springs about nine months a year, and emphasized that residents such as herself have the dedication, time and resources to contribute to communities where they live.

Ireland agreed that second-home owners not only have the time and expertise to contribute, they also want to preserve the open space and other characters that make a community the place where they want to live.

What they don't necessarily have, however, is the youth or desire to work as volunteer firefighters, ski patrol staff or in other jobs that must be filled, he said.

-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com

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