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Economic Recovery, Affordable Housing Discussed At Candidate Forum

Mar 25, 2014

Basalt Town Council candidates Bernie Grauer, Jeff Orsulak, Richard Duddy and Mark Kittle participate in a forum at the Basalt Library. A fifth candidate, Gary Tennenbaum, wasn't there. The five men are vying for three open seats in the April 1st election.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Issues like economic recovery, marijuana and affordable housing were discussed at a candidate forum in Basalt Monday night. The candidates are vying for open seats on Basalt’s Town Council.  Four of the five registered candidates participated. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen was there and filed this report.

A number of issues at the forefront of the election were considered at the forum, hosted by the Basalt Chamber. At the top of the list was how to revitalize a struggling downtown. While tourism is increasingly becoming Basalt’s main industry, business owners say attracting visitors downtown is tough.

Local architect Jeff Orsulak said the town should look to its assets to draw in visitors. He used the example of the creator of Kentucky Fried Chicken who realized his product, not his location, was the draw.

"Basalt’s vitality comes from its versatility. Towns that adapt thrive. I’m an architect and planner of vibrant communities and I help people figure out what their “fried chicken” is. Whether it’s designing a bus stop for Snowmass or Willits, I find out what our fried chicken is and that’s my goal, is to help us find out what our “fried chicken” is going forward."

Bernie Grauer is retired and chairs Basalt’s Planning and Zoning Commission. 

"Our fried chicken is a charming, historic small town, keeping its small town character," he said.

He said more residential and hotel development will get people downtown, as well as maintaining the core’s connection to the riverfront.

"I think we definitely need more greening of the town, more pedestrian connections and a central focus, a public plaza with fountains and public art."

Mark Kittle, whose roots run deep in the Valley, says he’s watched the area transition from farming and ranching to construction and finally to tourism.

"The lodging’s the big item for me. Without hotels and conference centers, we’re not going to attract the tourists, the fly fishermen and the big groups of 300 into this pretty little community. If I was elected, I’d push hard to get the lodges in," Kittle said.

Richard Duddy, a former Basalt restaurant owner and realtor, said because small towns have fewer jobs than cities, finding vitality is more challenging.

"We’ve basically got three industries: the service industry, the construction industry and the real estate industry, and so, unlike some towns, we don’t have the ability to broaden a huge industrial base," said Duddy.

Next the candidates were asked about marijuana and how local government should handle possible sales of recreational pot. The answers varied, but most candidates said voters in the area supported approving legal weed so that should guide decision-making.

Kittle, who works as the Chief Building Official in Snowmass Village, says responsible education, regulation and taxation are key.

"As far as my position on marijuana, it’s similar to alcohol and we need to have similar regulation to alcohol and stiff penalties, and if that doesn’t work for the town, put it on the ballot in November."

Grauer said he’s in favor of heavy regulation because of concerns about pot getting into the hands of kids.

"I would say I’m leaning strongly against allowing marijuana but I would wait for the open council discussion and for the public to weigh in. And, I think at a minimum, we should enforce the moratorium for another year until we have a clear regulatory environment."

Another question zeroed in on public-private partnerships and whether they should be pursued. In recent years, the Town has partnered with non-profits, governments and private groups on things like development projects. Orsulak said such partnerships are the bedrock of the community.

"I think it’s great, whether it’s tax incentives, partnerships, or just reaching out to landowners, this is what we’re doing now. And, I think it’s great because now we’re looking to create a strong future for Basalt, we’re looking to create the Basalt that we want."

Affordable housing was another topic the candidates tackled. Candidate Richard Duddy said dealing with the problem of finding homes workers can afford is difficult and he sees it regularly in his work as a realtor.

"For the last two years I could get two teachers, both making $40,000 a year, and I could find them something, find them a lender and it only took one year and I can’t find those buyers anything anymore, so clearly we have to bridge the gap."

Retiree Bernie Grauer said any family making under $60,000 a year probably has a need for affordable housing. He prefers partnerships over requirements for developers to build affordable housing. He said those are too onerous.

"Results have shown we’ve built very little affordable housing using that economic model. We are on the cusp of building 100 units of affordable housing by being in partnership with the Archdiocese and the developers of Willits, and Real America and Eagle and Pitkin County."

Candidate Gary Tennenbaum, who works for Pitkin County and served on town council in the past, couldn’t be there. The election is April 1st.