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This election season, Snowmass Village candidates wonder how big is ‘just big enough’?

A ballot drop box sits outside Snowmass Village Town Hall. There are four candidates vying for two Town Council seats and two candidates vying for the mayoral position in the 2022 election.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
A ballot drop box sits outside Snowmass Village Town Hall. There are four candidates vying for two Town Council seats and two candidates vying for the mayoral position in the 2022 election.

The candidates running for Snowmass Village Town Council and the mayoral seat are united in their desire to preserve what makes Snowmass Village such a tight-knit, small-town community.

But they have different positions on growth and development, and on how to preserve that character.

All candidates spoke at a "Squirm Night" forum on Wednesday, where they answered questions from local media about the community and the town government. (You can watch the recording from Grassroots TV on Youtube.)

As candidates for mayor in Snowmass Village, incumbent Bill Madsen and challenger Reed Lewis have a few things in common.

Both of them have lived in Snowmass Village for about 25 years.

They both have experience on the Town Council: Madsen was a councilman from 2014 to 2020 and has been mayor for the last two years; Lewis served on the council from 2006 to 2010.

And they’re both well aware of the town’s existential question: how to balance the resort economy with the interests of the community in a town that is, by definition, a resort community.

The approach to the answer is where they differ.

Madsen said he senses the pressure that this problem puts on the town and its leaders.

“How do you maintain a small-town community and also embrace the resort that we are in?” Madsen said. “It's a balance for sure, because we all want to live in that small town. But at the same time, you can't just throw the brakes on and not allow any development and no change.”

Lewis wants to talk more about that balance, and about what it looks like to maintain it.

He got into this election, after all, because he thought there might be better dialogue and more ideas with a bit of healthy competition in the race.

“I have been hearing from a lot of people in the community that the balance has sort of shifted — (that there’s) too much (focus on the) resort, and, ‘How come we're not focusing on the locals, the people that live here and choose to call this home?” Lewis said. “I think there could be a greater dialogue and what that could look like and how we can sort of build stronger community.”

Madsen doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“We want to make sure we're the best family-oriented resort experience out there, and that includes making sure that it's a really safe, welcoming community so that when people come here, they feel like they're a part of it,” he said.

He said that Snowmass is still both a resort and a community, with plenty of weight on the community side of the scales.

“I think that Snowmass is more of a community today than it ever has been, and one of the reasons for that is we continue to invest in employee housing opportunities,” he said.

You can see that investment in Snowmass Village’s housing master plan, which proposes a strategy to add 185 units of housing to the town-managed inventory.

The council adopted the plan about a year ago, with the bulk of the units proposed in built-from-scratch developments.

There are also ideas for improvements that would add units where housing already exists, and the town has made headway on renovations at the Snowmass Inn to convert those units to more livable studios.

Madsen says that an investment in workforce housing is critical to the vitality of the community and to its economy.

“If you want to have a community, you’ve got to have people living and working in the community,” he said.

“And granted, we're always going to have a transient population of people who live downvalley,” he said. “But the more that we can get people to live and work here, they're going to the restaurants, they're going to the shops, the more people you run into around town, and that's the sense of community that I really enjoy.”

Lewis also sees workforce housing at the crux of the community question — not only in Snowmass Village but in other places, too.

“It’s going to take everybody,” Lewis said.

“It's challenging,” he added, “but one of the things that’s also exciting is, if we can figure that out here, that will not just help here, but … we could figure out something that would help every resort community and every community.”

He said new developments aren’t the only answer, though, and public-private collaborations could be part of the approach, he suggested.

“I don't think we can build our way out of it,” he said. “I think we're going to have to get a lot more creative. That may be part of the solution, but I think that there's also going to need to be more creative ways to use our current resources better.”

There’s a philosophy for growth in Snowmass Village that suggests the town should be “just big enough,” and it comes up in conversations about new development all the time.

Lewis thinks it’s time to think about whether that idea still applies in Snowmass, where new buildings continue to pop up in Base Village and more development is on deck.

He acknowledges that the town has gained a lot of infrastructure from what’s already been built — but, also, that there are some times that the town can feel fuller-than-full these days.

“We still have more buildings that are already approved, and we're already sort of busting at the seams … It might not be a bad time to kind of reevaluate what that term actually means, because I think it's different from when it was first thrown around out there,” he said.

Madsen sees some new buildings such as Electric Pass Lodge as a good thing.

The all-electric structure in Base Village is the kind of development he thinks the town should encourage as it works toward its climate goals.

He also mentioned some proposed capital improvement projects — like a new transit center on the Snowmass Mall, or a new roundabout at Owl Creek and Brush Creek Road, or improvements to Town Park — that he sees as part and parcel of progress.

“I think it's important to recognize that there is development here, and that there will be more people here in the future and that we need to address that,” Madsen said.

“You just can't live in the past, you know, we're gonna have to advance in the future, and do it in the smartest way possible,” he added,

As a business owner, Lewis sees both sides of the resort-community equation: there’s an economic benefit to a bustling town, but also a cost for the workforce that gets strained in service to it, he says.

“Things did hit a point, after COVID, where it got so busy, I really wondered if it was sustainable,” Lewis said.

Lewis said the character is changing in the village, with more buildings and more of a corporate, professional feel in the village now than there was when he moved there in the 90s.

“It’s not quite as laid back as it once was. … When I first moved here, it was a lot more sort of locally owned with more of a local flavor,” he said. “And I think we've retained some of that, but I think we need to be really careful to continue to try to maintain that because I think that's what does set us apart from a lot of other places.”

Madsen, though, said he still picks up on the vibe of yesteryear in Snowmass Village.

It’s a place that he says reminds him of what Aspen felt like when he was a kid.

That’s the same stance he had in 2020, too, when he was running for mayor the first time.

“People aren't afraid to express their opinion with you — they want to start up a conversation, and they really care deeply about Snowmass,” he said. “I mean, Snowmass is a really unique place, and I think we realize that we're not Aspen: We are a resort community, but we are really a community and people are amazingly protective of this town, as they should be.”

In the race for two available seats on the Snowmass Village Town Council, four candidates all have years of experience in public service and plenty of tenure as village residents.

And they’re all thinking about the ways the town has changed and the ways they want it to stay the same, too.

Incumbent Tom Goode has been in town for nearly five decades and already has about seven and a half years of experience on the council.

Thanks to a quirky series of elections and appointments to partial terms, he gets to run again even though there's usually a limit of two four-year terms for members.

“If the community wants me to go forward, they will (reelect me), or (if) they’re tired of an incumbent, that's totally up to them,” he said. “But I know for a fact I'm not going to campaign much this year — it's a humbling experience, and I've done enough of it in my life.”

His fellow candidates, all appearing for the first time on the Snowmass ballot, are also longtime locals.

Britta Gustafson has lived in the village almost her entire life and documented the town’s history and character while writing a column for The Snowmass Sun helping to produce “The Story of Snowmass” book.

Susan Marolt has been here about three decades and previously served on the Aspen School District Board of Education for eight years.

And Matt Dubé has lived in the village since 2015; he currently serves on the town’s Planning Commission that reviews developments in the village and also looks at the big-picture of the town’s landscape.

So what’s on their minds?

Dubé sums it up: “Housing, growth and character, community character.”

“I'm running to help protect the endearing qualities of Snowmass Village, and bring my experience on the Planning Commission to the council and help us move forward in a positive way in the future,” he said.

To him, moving forward in a positive way means preserving the things that make Snowmass the tight-knit village that it is — things like running into your neighbor at the post office, or seeing kids playing freely outside, he said, but also things like affordable housing for the workforce.

In fact, all the candidates say they want to maintain that small-town feel and make sure that people can afford to live in Snowmass Village.

They recognize, too, that there’s an old-timey flavor to a lot of the characteristics that this community holds near and dear — and has held near and dear throughout the town’s history.

“It's a little gem,” Marolt said. “And I think that that may be nostalgic, you know, thinking about how it used to be, but it's also right now really great.”

“How can we make sure that we try to preserve that?” she said.

She sees a lot of big topics on the horizon in the village, and she said it’s an “interesting time” for the community to think about how to effectively preserve what people love so much about Snowmass.

“I think that if we look at what it is that we value in our town, then we can kind of work on how we can keep those things around,” she said.

For Gustafson, that means looking back at the town’s history.

“I think that the past is the best lens in which to view the future,” she said.

Her campaign platform is rooted in the idea that Snowmass should be “just big enough.”

She cites a recommendation from pop artist Sam Francis, who told developers that they should do “as little as possible” back in the 1960s.

“As we've moved forward, there's been enough recognition of that observation over the years that we are still treading lightly to make sure that we maintain what it is that we love so much about Snowmass,” she said. “And I believe that ‘just big enough’ is still a phrase that needs to be at the forefront of every decision we make.”

Goode says he doesn’t agree with that idea of “just big enough.”

“I think Snowmass Village is struggling to remain rural, even though we're going into an urban situation,” he said. “And, you know, as much as people like to think that they want to keep the village (as it was), it’s growth, and we can't stop growth.”

Of course Snowmass has changed, he said, and he’s come to accept that.

But that doesn’t mean the sense of connection and community has gone away.

“The feel for the community is still here, regardless of what the growth is,” he said.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.