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The Uphill Agenda: Aspen’s mayor ushers in a new wave of ski-focused economy

Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron pushes uphill—all year round. [Photo] Jeremy Swanson 

Mountain-town culture is a notoriously fickle subject. High-rise hotel and conference centers can threaten authenticity, but too little investment can lead to a ghost town. Luckily, Steve Skadron, Aspen, Colo.’s mayor, understands this fragility and is working with an uphill economy in mind.

“I came to this community 21 years ago,” Skadron says, “because, at its heart, it’s a ski town.” And now, serving in his second term, he’s rallying Aspen around a growing interest in earning turns. “I want to lure the kind of businesses here that will deliver certain jobs to a certain kind of person that wants to share in the mountain-town attitude or culture,” he says.

Skadron plans to develop an “uphill economy” to combat what he sees as precarious growth—Aspen, he believes, has become inundated with development over the past decade that has attempted to fundamentally change the town’s downtown, historic core.

On a 2013 trip to Italy, he pitched Aspen as a U.S. base to a number of Italian ski-mountaineering manufacturers, and he’s been working with several U.S.-based businesses, too, eventually culminating in the first skimo industry meeting in 2014.

Attracting businesses to Aspen will take time, Skadron suspects, and he first has to prove that his town is enticing. “My big, bold goal is the creation of a job base,” he says, “but practicality suggests that to get there, we first need to build this festival stuff that we’ve been doing.”

These festivals—or “uphill extravaganzas,” as Skadron calls them—have been an effective tool in promoting skimo culture. Two races in particular have are considered among the toughest in North America: The Power of Four, which climbs and descends Aspen’s four peaks, and The Grand Traverse, from Crested Butte to Aspen.

In both events, Skadron has competed alongside former Crested Butte mayor Aaron Huckstep. “Working together,” Huckstep says, “has served as a reminder that high-altitude communities are unique places that can be laboratories for new, winter-based initiatives.”

Lifelong Aspen resident, business owner and high-altitude skier Mike Marolt is leaning into developing Aspen’s skimo economy, as well. “In typical Aspen fashion, I bumped into [Mayor Skadron] on the street,” Marolt says. “We sat down over a cup of coffee and started formulating a plan and initiative to get public funding.” Since Aspen doesn’t have a traditional economic development department, the city was able to fundraise $50,000 to hire professional advisors to help create an uphill-specific economic development plan.

On a personal level, Marolt is contributing with his recently opened 8K Peak Technologies, a retailer for ski-mountaineering-specific gear, in downtown Aspen. “We’re an example that it’s possible to develop without creating urban sprawl and without big warehouses and facilities,” he says.

Marolt’s not the only one. Pete and John Gaston own Aspen-based Strafe Outerwear, and Pete Gaston sits on a technical advisory committee designed to brainstorm ideas for Skadron’s uphill agenda. Now with a decade of Aspen winters under his belt, Gaston sees the potential for businesses of all creeds to thrive on Aspen’s new objective.

Last year, for example, the Cliffhouse restaurant on top of Buttermilk opened after hours for one night a month to satiate the appetites of nighttime skiers. “It blew people’s minds,” Gaston says. “We are talking more than 300 people with headlights skinning up the mountain to go have dinner.” Gaston has also been advocating to make Aspen the official training partner of the U.S. National Ski Mountaineering Team. In the meantime, Strafe will be supplying them with outerwear for this upcoming season.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in Skadron’s uphill agenda could be Aspen Skiing Company’s reaction to the new push, but signs suggest that ASC is on board. “I have to give a nod to them,” Skadron says. “Our ski company has, perhaps, the most liberal uphill policy out there and is one of the reasons we’ve seen some success here.” Each of ASC’s four resorts allow uphill traffic, and Marolt says that anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people can be seen skinning on a given day.

ASC is one partner out of many, including community members, state officials and international ski brands, in Skadron’s vision for the future. While his plan may be lofty, it carries within it the central themes of collaboration and healthy recreation. And for the mayor, it all comes back to one thing, he says: “I love the gritty fabric and authenticity of a ski town.”

Comments

  1. Ian M. says:

    Ghost towns are under-rated. Not every ghost towns needs to turn into an international destination.

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