Aspen Skico: Increasing housing inventory works better than increasing employees’ pay

Aspen Skiing Co. received first-round approval to build 43 affordable housing units that will supply 148 bedrooms at this site in Willits Town Center.
Scott Condon | The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. officials contend it doesn’t make sense to pay employees more to compete for the limited supply of housing in the Roaring Fork Valley. The key to easing the crisis is increasing the housing inventory.

Some critics of Skico’s 43-unit, 148-bedroom proposal in Basalt have claimed the company just needs to pay its workers more to reflect the reality of the housing market.

Jim Laing, who oversees human resources for Skico, told the Basalt Town Council earlier this week relying on pay raises to deal with the housing crisis is a tried-and-failed approach.

“Paying people more we know is not the answer,” Laing said Tuesday at the meeting. “We’ve done that. We also know of doctors, lawyers, town staff, etc., everyone struggles with housing. Simply paying people more isn’t the answer. If you do that, you’re just going to drive up rental rates further and landlords are just going to get richer.

“Really, the only viable way to affect the economics for our employees in this valley is to build new housing and charge reasonable and a fair level of rent,” Laing continued.

Support Local Journalism

Skico currently has 330 units in its inventory that supply housing for roughly 723 people. The company charges roughly half the market rate for its units, according to Laing.

Skico has an option to buy vacant land in Willits Town Center that is already approved for a mix of commercial and residential uses. The company applied to alter the approval and build an apartment complex that would include five one-bedroom units, two two-bedroom units, five with three bedrooms and 31 units with four bedrooms. A handful of units will go to workers outside the company. The priority will be workers in child care.

The council voted 4-2 to approve the project. A second reading of the ordinance will be held next month, but Tuesday was a big step for Skico.

Before the vote, Laing said the project represented a win for the community as well as the company.

“Our focus as a company is to add to the inventory not just to scoop up or control existing inventory,” he told the council. “When we add to the inventory, it essentially provides a double benefit. Not only do we provide housing for our employees but by doing that we free up beds for the rest of the community. So it’s a win-win clearly.”

That’s a change of heart in company strategy over the past 12 years. Skico spent $17 million in 2007 to purchase the Sopris View Apartmentsacross from Crown Mountain Park in the El Jebel area. It purchased the Thunder River Lodge in Carbondale the prior year.

Some midvalley officials at the time criticized the purchase of Sopris View because it displaced residents in more than 60 units. Skico officials defended the action by saying an investor would likely scoop up the free-market housing, condominiumize the complex and make it unaffordable. By purchasing the site, it will remain in the affordable-housing inventory, company officials said at the time.

Laing said Skico is regularly approached by property owners who offer to sell existing housing.

“We have regularly denied or turned those offers away because it’s not strategic, it doesn’t grow the pie, it doesn’t grow the housing inventory, which is the key here,” Laing said. “Sure, we would win. We would have more beds to control but it would mean fewer beds for the rest of the community. It would be more fighting for those beds and it would drive up rents even further.”

Assuming the Willits project proceeds, Skico will have about 871 beds for its workers. Its goal is to reach 1,200, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

Laing told the Basalt council the housing is needed to take care of the existing workforce, not because of Skico’s growth.

“Our needs are not because we’re expanding our workforce. Our workforce has been relatively flat for the last decade,” he said. “So, this is just a problem because of shrinking inventory and from employees turning over.”

One of the challenges Skico and other local employers face is the aging workforce. Older employees often have their housing secured. Workers who cannot afford to purchase housing replace them.

Hanle acknowledged that at first blush, it might be difficult to comprehend that Skico’s workforce isn’t growing, given expansion such as Limelight Snowmass and the Lost Forest adventure park at Snowmass in recent years. Skico has also earned initial approval Wednesday for the Pandora’s expansion at Aspen Mountain.

In the case of the Lost Forest and Snowmass bike park, that has allowed workers who were on the payroll for just winters to expand to summers as well, Hanle said.

Limelight employs 60-some workers, according to Hanle. Skico had to mitigate for some of the job generation with affordable housing and credits in Snowmass Village, according to the land use approvals. Snowmass Village’s goal is to provide housing for 70% of year-round employees.

The recent generation of jobs was offset over the past decade or so by Skico selling the Snowmass Club and ending its management of the Aspen Meadows property, both of which were large employment centers, Hanle said.

In closing his presentation to the council, Laing asked Tuesday night for assistance in helping the company help its employees with an approval. Council members Bill Infante, Katie Schwoerer, Gary Tennenbaum and Jennifer Riffle approved the project. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Councilman Ryan Slack opposed it.

Support Local Journalism