Mayor’s big six-year shift

Following a plan: Outgoing Aspen mayor Steve Skadron pictured on May 24 with snow still on the mountains

During a visit to Queenstown’s American sister city, Aspen, Philip Chandler interviews mayor Steve Skadron, who’s wearing Fergburger T-shirt and has just hopped off his mountain bike. The outgoing mayor ticks off his achievements and outlines why their summer’s now bigger than winter

In March 15, 2016, under emergency ordinance, Aspen City Council controversially approved a year-long ban on commercial development.

Introduced with just 24 hours’ notice, to stop developers circumventing it, it’s a highlight of activist mayor Steve Skadron’s six-year reign, which ended this month.

The idea was to give council time to match the resort’s land-use code with residents’ vision for the town, the Aspen Area Community Plan.

“It’s been helpful,” Skadron tells Mountain Scene two weeks out from stepping down.

He explains everything his council enacted – in development codes, environmental stewardship, affordable housing and transportation – stems from that plan.

“One of them was we limited our building size ‘cos we want views of the mountains and sunshine on our streets, and we want to be respectful of our surrounding natural phenomena.”

However, Skadron points out, the result of limiting building sizes – after a period where the reins were loosened – is it limits supply and pushes up prices.

About 40 to 50 per cent of Aspen’s workforce is assisted into housing, he says.

Anyone developing a new building has to accommodate about 65 per cent of the workforce it will generate.

“We talk about going to 100 per cent but there’s concern about that stifling any reinvestment.”

Also, many workers are happy living down valley where living costs are cheaper, he adds.

One problem, however, is that people in their 20s who moved into new subsidised housing in the ’70s are retiring – “it’s becoming retirement housing and that’s creating an inability to house the next generation”.

Despite that, Skadron was adamant no one got kicked out.

Like Queenstown, he admits Airbnb visitor accommodation taking over workforce housing has also become a huge issue – a person’s been tasked by his council’s finance department to look at the issue.

Skadron says Aspen’s free bus service is “the largest rural mass transit in the United States”.

It helps bring in workers who live down valley, and gets people out of their cars, as does the free bike-sharing system.

“We were the smallest city in the US, I believe, to have bike share.”

That transport policy also helps drive Aspen’s environmental policies.

Energy use is now 100 per cent from renewable sources, Skadron says.

“We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas footprint quite significantly.”

He attended the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and has spoken around the world about Aspen’s policies, though he admits they could do better with recycling.

Though Aspen’s renowned as a ski resort, Skadron says its summer revenues – driven by huge arts and cultural festivals – have overtaken winter’s in the past two years.

That, too, is linked with the environment – “we’ve lost a month of winter due to climate change, so our economy’s changing”.

Some of summer’s programme is driven by the Aspen Institute – a think-tank that’s just set up a Queenstown-based New Zealand chapter.

Skadron has also promoted Aspen as the epicentre of uphill fitness in North America – some days there’s more skinning up than skiing down.

Skadron says he had job offers out of Aspen but accepted an invite to become vice-president and dean of Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen and Carbondale campuses. He’s quoted in The Aspen Times saying: “This is an opportunity to do big-picture work and policy stuff, which I am good at.”