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Mountain News: Good economic news sparse in Aspen

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ASPEN, Colo. - The economy continues to be wobbly in Aspen, but overall far worse than had been expected last year when city officials drew up their budget.

Bolstered by a $43 million home sale, real estate during July posted a 1.73 per cent increase as compared to the same month last year. It was the first uptick after 21 consecutive months of declining sales, according to a report from Land Title Guarantee Co.

For the year, however, real estate sales volume continues to lag last year by 29 per cent.

In the retail sector, sales tax collections for July were down 17 per cent as compared to the same month last year. Citing a city report, the Aspen Times says that lodging tax collections were down even more, 32 per cent for July. That suggests that hoteliers have been cutting their rates.

The Aspen Times also reports that the Aspen Chamber Resort Association expects to lose 50 members from its 866-member ranks, resulting in a 4.5 per cent decline in revenues.

A report from Don Taylor, the city finance director, notes that the recession continues to be deeper and more widespread than anticipated last year.

City officials a year ago assumed sales tax revenue would be flat, but it was much worse - a correction noted in January. Still, even that projection assumed an improvement by summer that hasn't happened. Now, Taylor predicts a "tough budget year" for 2010.

Mick Ireland, the Aspen mayor, said boom cycles tend to lead people to devalue frugality and vacationers stop thinking about value. It's the responsibility of the city and the resort to create a culture that keeps it sustainable for the long run.

Children chart rising snowline

PARK CITY, Utah - The base elevation of ski runs at the Park City Mountain Resort is 6,900 feet. From Thanksgiving through Easter of most years, snow can be found there.

But while predictions are dangerous, because climate scientists really don't know how much snow will be falling in future years, one thing is clear: temperatures will rise. And so will the snow line.

To illustrate how much the snow line may rise, a non-profit group called the Park City Foundation recently assembled children at the top of a lift, at an elevation of 8,200 feet - or about 1,300 feet higher. That's where the early and late-season snowline will be at mid-century, according to a study done several years ago.

The event was called "Save our Snow," and it is one of several events planned by the group to draw attention to the challenge - but also opportunities to act locally. "We want to raise awareness about climate change and empower people to make changes in their lifestyles," said Trisha Worthington, the group's executive director.

Organizers expect 1,200 people for an event in early October. At that time, local kids will be positioned at the various levels on the mountain where the snowline is expected to be in the years 2030, 2050 and 2075.

By 2,100, according to some climate scientists, skiing will be impossible because the snowline will be 200 feet higher than the mountain's highest slope.

Four Seasons opening delayed

VAIL, Colo. - Opening of the $250 million Four Seasons Resort has been pushed back six months, to summer of 2010.

It's the latest in a series of postponements for the project, which is located in the middle of Vail. Completion had been targeted for 2008 when ground was broken in 2005.

The Vail Daily notes that construction halted at one point for nine months when a prospective lender backed out because of rising construction costs. In February, says the newspaper, citing construction sources, the original developer defaulted on the project. That left the senior lender, London-based Barclay's Capital, in the driver's seat. Barclay's insisted that the general contractor be replaced. In the latest twist, Barclay's Capital has officially acquired the development from the original developer, Black Diamond-Vail.

There seems to be some dispute about whether Barclay's has honored commitments to contractors and subcontractors, as it maintains, or whether they have been shorted, as they seem to think.

Higher fees considered for bigger houses

AVON, Colo. - Avon town officials think that larger homes consume more water, and as such developers of such homes should pay fees to cover the costs of acquiring water rights sufficient to meet future needs. The formula now being considered, reports the Vail Daily , would levy an extra $1.40 for every square foot greater than 3,000 square feet.

"The underlying issue here is that the houses that are being built in Avon are bigger in size than the houses that were originally planned in the town, for which water was allocated," said Mayor Ron Wolfe.

If adopted, the law would allow the town to use money from the impact fee to acquire new water rights. In one neighborhood, called Wildridge, the average size of houses built since 2005 has been just more than 3,800 feet. Homes in another Avon neighborhood have averaged 8,300 square feet.

Energy proposals sent to voters

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Voters in three mountain counties in November will be asked to approve an innovative program designed to encourage property owners to undertake energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements.

Commissioners in Eagle, Pitkin, and Gunnison counties (which include Vail, Aspen and Crested Butte, respectively) in recent weeks all agreed to put the question on the November ballot.

If approved, the counties can collectively issue bonds, making money available for loans. The idea came from Colorado's Boulder County, where voters last November approved a similar program. In California, the city of Berkeley had earlier introduced a somewhat different program but with the same intent.

The thinking is that we tend to move around a great deal, which is why most people are hesitant to spend money to improve energy efficiency or perhaps install a solar thermal collector. The payback on some improvements, such as insulating of walls and ceilings, can be rapid. Still, why go into debt to reduce the energy bill if we might sell in five years?

But the program in Boulder County tries to ease past that logic by offering below-market loans that are attached to the property itself, to be paid with the property tax. A government-backed issue of bonds will produce lower interest rates than would otherwise be available.

Even in Vail, the ceiling insulation in some condominiums and townhomes is only R-10. In comparison, energy-savvy experts now recommend at least R-49, and some even insist it's time to install R-59 or more.

While this program looks uncontroversial, at least some county commissioners worry that two months won't be enough time to sell it to the public. Especially daunting is the fact that the language, by Colorado law, must say in the opening sentence that the measure will increase the debt of the county.

There is some risk, if perhaps small, that each county in question would absorb debt for individual properties if the programs should fail.

In Gunnison County, there were additional concerns. According to a report in the Crested Butte News, the latest news out of Boulder County is that it's taking more staff time to administer this program than had been expected. Partly because of this, Commissioner Paula Swenson voted against sending the proposal to voters. If it gets rejected this year because of the hasty preparation, she said, it might not return for four or five years.

Longer runway means more profit

GYPSUM, Colo. - Runways at the Eagle County Regional Airport now are 9,000 feet long. That extra 1,000 feet will allow Boeing 757 jets, the most common users of the airport, to carry more weight when taking off during warmer months, thus accommodating more passengers, and hence improving profitability. Planes have more loft in winter, when temperatures are colder.

A majority of passengers who use the airport go to Vail or Beaver Creek, located about 30 miles away, although a substantial number also go to Aspen, about 65 miles away. Vail Resorts Inc. has traditionally posted revenue guarantees for many of the flights.

Vail has also explored the potential for flights from London and other international destinations during winter months. But that won't happen soon. Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon tells the Vail Daily that the cost of creating a dedicated customs and immigration facility at the airport would be upwards of $5 million.

Besides, it's just a short hop to Denver, which already has most of those connections.

Small step towards geothermal

ASPEN, Colo. - Aspen continues to take steps toward developing what utility officials hope will be a reservoir of hot water below the town that can be used to heat buildings and melt snow on sidewalks.

Anecdotal evidence for such a reservoir of heat exists in the accounts of miners, who reported they couldn't endure the warmth of the Smuggler Mine for very long. More recent measurements of underground water during winter months reveal consistent temperatures of 50 degrees.

If the theory holds, then Aspen will need to get water rights for the underground treasure. To secure the rights, the city has appropriated $33,000 for a report to be filed at the state water court.

If those rights are approved, the next step will be drilling a well 2,500 to 3,000 feet deep.

That drilling will start to create the bigger bills, and city officials tell The Aspen Times that they hope to secure a federal grant for $3.5 million to cover these and other costs if the drilling should bear out the considerable optimism.

Real estate may be pared back

SOUTH FORK, Colo. - Plans for a real estate development in the so-far semi-virginal forests adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area are being revised - again.

The plans have fluttered forward and backward for 25 years, since Texas-based investor B.J. "Red" McCombs arranged a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that gave him property adjacent to the ski lifts. No lodging currently exists at the ski area, and almost no non-skiing commercial development.

Now, McCombs has a new front man, Clint Jones, who has been meeting with government and environmental group representatives about a smaller, gentler real estate development. Previous plans had called for nearly 2,200 mostly time-share units at the site, located at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, just below Wolf Creek Pass.

The Associated Press reports that Jones appears to have won conditional support from Davey Pitcher, president of the ski area, who said he would support a new land exchange between McCombs and the Forest Service "that would provide more protection to wetlands and interfere less with skiing."

City hall won't be shaken

PARK CITY, Utah - After a year of remodeling, Park City's government has returned to its municipal building, a one-time schoolhouse built during the Great Depression that has served as city hall since 1983.

Building officials had declared the old building dangerous, because it could not survive a substantial earthquake. With new walls of reinforced concrete, the 23,000-square-foot building is expected to remain standing during an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude.

The $7 million retrofit also included installation of an elevator, and many measures were taken to reduce energy use. For example, the new light fixtures will dim themselves as sunlight enters a room.

Trees removed to thwart beetles

AVON, Colo. - Bark beetles arrived several years ago at Cordillera, a sprawling, high-end real estate development located in the folds of mountains above the Eagle River Valley about five miles from Beaver Creek.

To thwart the beetles, 23,000 trees have been removed and the logs hauled to other Colorado towns to be sawn into lumber or reconfigured into pellets for wood-burnings stoves. Some of the material has also been shipped for use as landscaping material, the resort reports.

In addition to cutting down trees, the resort has sprayed more than 25,000 trees in hopes of saving them.

Forestry efforts to mitigate potential for wildfire were originally expected to last five years, but Bob Egizi, public safety director, now says he expects the work to last indefinitely.

Eagle County to improve greenability

EAGLE, Colo. - Eagle County has received $1 million in federal funding to help improve the environmental footprint of a low-income housing project located between the Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas.

The 72-unit housing project, called River View, was built in 1978. The county government received $6 million to remodel the project, with $1 million expressly devoted to ways to improve the energy efficiency of the units, create a better drainage to minimize contamination of a nearby river, and in other ways improve the environmental impact.

Yuri Kostick, the county's sustainable communities land planner, said officials considered razing the buildings and starting over. However, a lifecycle analysis found that retrofitting the existing building will result in a lower environmental cost.

County officials have also been considering whether solar panels could be erected over the parking lot at Eagle County Regional Airport, as has been done at some airports. Many analysts foresee the day when car batteries will become the storage medium for solar-produced electricity. At the moment, however, the plan is on hold in Eagle. While the airport gets only seven inches of precipitation annually, occasionally that moisture arrives in major snowstorms. That, says Kostick, could be a problem.

Ski towns fret about gas drilling impacts

JACKSON, Wyo. - Natural gas drilling is on the periphery of several resort valleys in the West.

In Wyoming, conservationists have long worried about the impacts of natural gas drilling to the Wyoming Range. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reverently describes the range as a 100-mile string of low-lying mountains that lacks the mesmerizing jaggedness of the Tetons but remains sublime in its native ordinariness.

Federal land officials have announced the decision not to issue 23 leases for energy extraction originally planned. But energy companies still hold legitimate leases on huge swaths of the range, reports the newspaper. To purchase and retire those leases will require activists to raise millions of dollars, the newspaper notes.

The newspaper also describes an "unlikely coalition" brought together in the interest of preservation. "This speaks to the power of a landscape and how that landscape defines those who enter it."

In Colorado, another unlikely coalition of ranchers, landowners, governments and public activists have assembled in hopes of replicating the story in Wyoming. The land they hope to protect consists of 121,000 acres of public lands in the Thompson and Divide Creek drainages. This is west of Aspen 40 to 50 miles and southwest of Glenwood Springs.

The group, called the Thompson Divide Coalition, hopes to prevent gas producers from developing 81 existing leases.

In Colorado, natural gas drilling has also been in the news at Durango. One of the nation's major gas fields is located just to the south. Of concern is whether chemicals pumped down wells in an effort to dislodge natural gas from sandstone and other formations have been polluting drinking water.

Wally White, a commissioner in La Plata County, tells the Durango Telegraph that he supports federal legislation that would force companies to divulge the chemicals used in the process, called fracking. "The longer we drag our feet, the more potential there is for damage to human health and our fragile water supplies. If we lose our water supply here, this community is screwed," he said.

Responding to an earlier story, a reader identified as Sue Lin Wood angrily writes that the newspaper and others must surely have another agenda. The information about fracking compounds, she claims, is "readily abundant to anyone who wants to find out."

Climbers notch new route on Grand Teton

JACKSON, Wyo. - After all these years, some unclimbed routes remain on the Grand Teton. Landon Wiedenman and Paul Rachele recently ascended a new route on the north side of a sub-summit of the Grand Teton. The sub-summit is called the Enclosure.

Wiedenman, a massage therapist, said the climb took most of a day. "It was definitely the most challenging route I've ever done," he told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. "Maybe not the technical grade, but because of the sheer immensity of it."

He said that in climbing both delicate ice and moderate rock with crampons and tools, he used all the skills he's developed in 15 years of climbing.