A tale of two Aspens

Mountains in Aspen

Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011.

Host Kai Ryssdal enjoying the view in Aspen as he works.

Flight attendant: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Aspen where the local time here is approximately 1:15.

Kai Ryssdal: The moment the little plane you're on descends down into Aspen, it feels like you're in a different place. The mountains still have snow on them -- it was a tough winter here, apparently. The valleys are lush and green. All of it is beneath a pale blue sky and fluffy, white clouds. And then, you notice row upon row of private jets parked on the tarmac and you know you're in a different place. Aspen is best known as a playground for the rich and the beautiful. And a lot of people are pretty good looking here. Not everyone is rich, though.

Sociologist David Pellow wrote a book called Slums of Aspen.

David Pellow: There are really two Aspens -- one for people who are there for pleasure, for relaxation, and rest and recreation, for the Aspen Music Festival, the Food & Wine Classic, those sorts of things. And then there is another Aspen for people whose labor makes it all possible.

Aspen is about as full-fledged a service economy as you're ever going to find. There's the skiing, of course. In the summertime there's whitewater rafting, trail tours, paragliding over the peaks. Not to mention the dozens and dozens of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and retail outlets that sell everything from ski pants to evening gowns. All of them staffed by guides, bartenders, waiters and housekeepers. Few of whom can actually afford to live here in town.

Wolfgang Taylor gets by driving a taxi out to the airport.

Wolfgang Taylor: Jobs. Better here in Aspen. A lot more jobs. But we live down valley because its cheaper.

The median home price here is $4 million. Four. Million. Dollars. But everything else is marked up too -- gas, food, medicine, all of it. So most, like Wolfgang Taylor said, live down valley -- that'd be the Roaring Fork River Valley that you can hear behind me. They live in towns like Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. A commute that by bus can take more than an hour. So to keep as many of those workers -- which includes nurses, firemen and cops too -- in town, or at least closer to it, there are subsidies for transportation, childcare and housing.

Nan Sundeen: When your community costs four times that of the average American city, you have to subsidize the working working population. We wouldn't have a resort without the working population.

Nan Sundeen's the director of Health and Human Services for Pitken County, which includes Aspen and a lot of those towns down valley I mentioned. She says there's another thing that happens when a lot of locals work in the service industry, usually for smaller companies that often don't offer benefits.

Sundeen: The Roaring Fork Valley has the highest rate of uninsured in the state of Colorado.

About 30,000 people live in the valley. Of that, about a quarter of 'em have no insurance.

Liz Stark: Or we have this other phenomenon here -- because the cost of living is so high, even working families might not be able to afford the insurance that they have. They have these huge deductibles that they can't afford.

Liz Stark runs Community Health Services in Aspen. It offers preventative care mostly, immunizations or prenatal services for those who can't afford it.

As nurse Betsy Browning takes a blood pressure, she says that with the economy the way it is there are a lot more people coming through the doors -- from newly arrived immigrants and laid-off mothers to young, adventure seekers.

Betsy Browning: I think we're way busier. It seems like every season when the new skiers come into to town, they don't necessarily always have insurance, so they end up over with us and word of mouth gets around.

Again, Liz Stark.

Stark: The services we provide are not full health care. But in terms of accessing primary care in our community, it's really difficult for the low income and even those middle income working families.

The funny thing about Aspen, though, is that while you'd figure it's frustrating to live a low or middle, or even normal, income existence here in a town dotted with multimillion dollar homes and $65-a-plate steak dinners, you don't really hear much complaining. For better or worse says the county's Nan Sundeen, the place just works.

Sundeen: You have to make a choice to live here. And it's very expensive for the working population and they give up things. And if people aren't willing to that, they don't stay.

Jimmy's Restaurant and Bar is packed with millionaires and ski bums alike who come for fish tacos and a shot of tequila with the owner. Jimmy is Jimmy Yaeger. He's from back East long ago. He's been here for about 20 years. And he says, when prodded, economic disparity? What economic disparity?

Jimmy Yaeger: The reality is very simple. It's this: We all hike the same trails, we ski the same mountains, we eat and drink in the same restaurants and bars. And they are all here because Aspen naturally creates a filter. There isn't one person in this bar that you do not have something in common with. Go try to find that in Washington, D.C.

That thing in common is what I talked about up top -- the mountains, the trees and the blue skies, the outdoors. If you're not inclined to take Jimmy Yeager's word for it, here's Nan Sundeen.

Sundeen: What we have found in Pitken County surveys is that those two populations share a lot of values.

Or as Nan Sundeen says, whether you are on the trail, the ski lift or an event like the Aspen Ideas Festival, it's not surprising to find everybody at the same party.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011.

Host Kai Ryssdal enjoying the view in Aspen as he works.

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