How’s Your Aspen?

We are on Consecutive Gray Day #3 here in Gunnison, and the dreariest part of this report is that we once again have almost no moisture to show for it. I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, but I for one am heartily sick of Mother Nature promising so much and delivering so little this year.

We have been teased with what feels like an endless number of heavily overcast days since January. Crested Butte has realized some beneficence but those of us 28 miles south have absolutely nothing to bank our summer growing season on. (Yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition; as Winston Churchill once said to his critics: “That is precisely the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put.”)

It does feel, to me, like this is the first year in my recollection where the snow dividing line, a sort of Mason-Dixon thing but regarding weather, landed in the middle of the valley rather than above or below it. The Haves and the Have-nots, as it were.

This newest set of Haves, if we want to talk money rather than weather, is more Have than they have ever been, and it’s making the Have-not part of the equation fairly tenuous.

At least three restaurants in Crested Butte are undergoing immediate change, now that the ski season has ended. One of them, The Last Steep, is planning to continue forward, but under new ownership. This owner, who lives full-time in Crested Butte but made his fortune of indeterminate specification on Larimer Square in Denver, said his goal is to keep Elk Avenue the same quirky place it’s been. He did also buy property somewhere in Gunnison that he plans to develop as either affordable or employee housing, which are sort of the same but different.

But keeping quirky and leaving the Steep as is — with its newly-inflated prices — are two different things, and we will all have to wait to see what might change, or not, at this eatery that lives up one flight of narrow, steep, historic stairs. All we really know is that as of Sunday, the old owners were O-U-T out, their thank-you note to employees and customers issued in the CB newspaper.

Down the street a couple blocks, right in the center of Crested Butte’s downtown, no one knows anything, but rumors are rampant. The owners of the Brick Oven had no notion of selling — until they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse, reputedly by the Dodger billionaire, who so far has artfully dodged every request, no matter how respectfully issued, to let the people of Crested Butte know what his plans are for the town he is buying up in chunks and pieces.

The new rumor regarding the fact of the sale is that the Brick, as locals and those living 28 miles away like to call it, will not be open this summer. This restaurant, with its gargantuan and convivial patio, has often struck me as the very heart of a Crested Butte summer, as people finish their bike rides and hikes and shopping with one of the 100+ beers on offer at this pizza/burger place. There have been a couple love notes in the paper from distraught patrons, lamenting a loss that so far is nothing more than rumor since the new guy refuses to talk.

The third restaurant comes with even less certainty, and all we know for sure is the Avalanche Bar and Grill, one of the very few restaurants located in Mt. Crested Butte, has closed. My colleague Vann, who spent his weekends working at the terrain park at the ski area, said he’d heard the owner sold for less than he paid for the place, just to get out from under the nearly impossible task of finding staff.

But that seems weird to me, that someone would have to sell a well-placed restaurant with a strong history for pennies on the dollar when his fellows in the valley below are getting such lucrative offers. So I don’t know the real story, just that the owner is D-U-N done, peace out, no letter (yet) in the paper.

And just like that, Pat’s Screen Printing, far away — or so you’d think — from all the drama, is out three very good, longtime customers. Maybe. Perhaps it’s the gray, moisture-less days giving rise to my pessimism, or maybe it’s this new round of Very Much Haves.

They don’t seem completely unaware of what it takes to make a valley tick: there are all these discussions and rumors and plans for employee and/or affordable housing that may someday really get underway, but whether they spin all the threads out all the way remains to be seen, and I hold serious doubts.

Let’s take this growing rumor as a f’r instance: True Value Hardware is gone now, leaving for the moment a big empty building allegedly now owned by the Dodger billionaire. Word on the street holds that it’s going to be some sort of natural grocery store, a chain. Which does not likely offer solace to Mountain Earth in Crested Butte, nor Gunnison Vitamin & Health, nor Wilder, which just opened last fall in downtown Gunnison after jumping through an assortment of hoops to get a conditional variance to operate a grocery in the Central Business District. (Despite the presence of a downtown grocery when I was a kid.)

So now we have one hardware store in Gunnison and one in Crested Butte, but we’ll have four natural groceries. Maybe it’s a portent of how things are going to go in this valley that was once beautiful but now appears to be in the throes of becoming Beautiful in the sense of Aspen, Vail and Telluride.

A few issues ago, the editor of the Crested Butte paper lamented this change we can all see coming and don’t have the money to stop. Crested Butte used to be a place, he wrote, where the banker and the builder turned up at the same bar (probably the Brick) and bent elbows together with genuinely no notion that one served the community better than the other — and they were both neighbors with the person waiting their table.

Now they — and by extension, us — are becoming noticeably stratified. Mother Nature has not granted us her beneficence, but the ‘illionaires think they are. Both these things are making for a place much different than it used to be.

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