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What Queenstown can learn from Aspen's mistakes

The gondola above Aspen. Photo/Getty Images

The way the resort of Aspen has changed from hippie ski town to billionaires’ retreat has lessons for those trying to manage Queenstown’s transition.

Fifty years ago, American gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson used the royalties from his bestselling book about the Hell’s Angels to buy a ranch outside Aspen, a sleepy ski town in Colorado. But then he decided to shake things up a little, to bring “freak power” to the Rockies.

He teamed up with dope-smoking 29-year-old local lawyer Joe Edwards; the latter ran for mayor, while Thompson’s bid was to become sheriff of surrounding Pitkin County. Their platform included changing the name to “Fat City” in an effort to deter “greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalising on the name ‘Aspen’”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Recently, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner recalled how he’d invited Thompson, who’d never written for the magazine, to San Francisco to discuss “The Battle for Aspen”, as it was called. “He stood six-three, shaved bald, dark glasses, smoking, carrying two six-packs of beer, [unloading a] leather satchel full of travel necessities onto my desk – flashlights, a siren, boxes of cigarettes, flares – and didn’t leave for three hours. By the end, I was suddenly deep into his campaign.”

The pair lost the election by a slim margin, but the tussle for this tiny town continues to this day. However, now it’s the “greedheads” who are holding back the change that might ruin it. As Thompson did, the resident billionaires appreciate the ecosystem that keeps this place one of the most beautiful, but now one of the most expensive, places to live in the US. And they have the means to keep it that way.

When I visited Aspen in the summer, it was hopping, unlike most ski towns when there is no snow. At 2440m above sea level, the town’s air is dry and clear and apparently filled with a secret soul-satisfying tonic; almost everybody is smiling, attractive and superfit-looking. Although much of the US was sweltering, Aspen was having a perfect summer of balmy days, occasional showers to invigorate the wild flowers and cool nights to make the sleeping easy. Summer isn’t long, but it’s settled and picture-postcard perfect.

Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, who bought property in Aspen. Photo/Getty Images

In off-peak times, there are 6000 residents, but midsummer and Christmas/New Year are now equally crammed, with about 26,000 people when the town is full to capacity. Great ski runs, reliable snow and glamorous clientele and amenities make winter a major draw (visitors include Donald Trump’s children and grandchildren, and celebrities Mariah Carey, Dakota Johnson, Elle Macpherson, Heidi Klum and her ex-husband, Seal).

In summer, there are dozens of festivals, events, concerts and talk series. I was attending Spotlight Health, part of the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, one of America’s most-prestigious non-partisan talking shops.

But even in the US, Aspen is special. According to Forbes magazine, no fewer than 50 billionaires own property and spend part of the year there. For Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch owner of Chelsea Football Club who’s worth US$9 billion ($13 billion), that doesn’t amount to more than a little winter skiing, but many others are much more entrenched.

A street in the former Colorado silver-mining town dwarfed by Aspen Mountain. Photo/Getty Images

Two of the Trump-supporting Koch brothers (each worth US$48 billion) have several homes there, Estée Lauder heir Leonard Lauder has four homes and WalMart heiress Ann Walton met her husband, real estate developer Stan Kroenke – and owner of Arsenal Football Club – on a ski trip to Aspen, where they, too, own four properties. He’s worth US$7.5 billion; she’s worth US$5.9 billion.

The high net worth of the populace is evident downtown. The small township has a handful of streets featuring restaurants and shops, but the names are stratospheric: Dior, Prada, Van Cleef & Arpels. Moderately paid locals told me they rely on online shopping for cheap purchases.

But it would be wrong to think Aspen is simply a rich people’s playground. True, the super-wealthy are there, but through a variety of initiatives, a balance is sought that is rare in the US. Or anywhere. The town’s aim is to be the place that gets the essence of mind, body and spirit working well, then show the rest of the world how to incorporate well-being into their lives.

Jackie Kennedy taking to the Aspen snow in 1964. Photo/Getty Images

Obesity level has doubled

This is not a crazy whim, because the US is in the grip of a health crisis. In 2016, more people under 50 died from opiate and heroin overdoses than any other cause – a total of 59,000. Obesity is another major problem. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and in almost every state the obesity level has at least doubled in the past 25 years. Colorado has the good fortune to score the lowest, 20.2%.

We’re more used to seeing trends from New York and California, not the flyover states where we imagine Trump supporters squeezing their Super-Size-Me paunches behind the wheel of a pick-up truck. Which is what makes Aspen a great place to kickstart the well-being message: among the super-rich holiday homers’ Teslas and Mercedes, there are pick-up trucks aplenty. It is essentially a rural community.

Founded on silver mining in the 19th century, which crashed in 1895, the town was reborn when Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, discovered a veritable ghost town of Victorian architecture, quaint cottages and gracious two- and three-storey houses. These days, the renovated residences in what’s called the West End are beautifully kept. But the real des-reses are on the slope, looking across the town towards Mt Aspen; the top price paid so far is said to be $100 million.

I attended an outdoor yoga class taught by Gina Murdock, the chatelaine of one such mansion. After a series of casual Aspen jobs – cocktail waitress, reporter, massage therapist, ski instructor – this warm, empathetic woman of 40 eventually met and married Jerry Murdock, a co-founder of Insight Venture Partners and an early investor in Twitter.

Chatelaine Gina Murdock. Photo/Seth Beckton

“Marrying Jerry took me from one socio-economic status to another. Now I’m up on the hill, in the most beautiful house, with people who work for me. But I know what it’s like to live in your car, work two jobs. There’s a lot of pressure on the people this town relies on, and I wanted to be involved in trying to get the balance right, because without them this town couldn’t function.”

There are 18 wellbeing programmes across the city, taking in the ski companies, city council, schools, prison and hospitals. “We want to shift the mindset and the culture. Yes, it’s people in offices, but it’s also the bridge and road guys eating Cheetos and drinking Coke; we’ve gone into the field with them.”

Workers are offered a range of classes, including yoga, conscious breathing, meditation and nutrition. Murdock is determined this won’t be a Lady Bountiful exercise. All progress is tracked over six months, and Murdock is using the Gallup Well-being Index, “the world’s largest data set on well-being”, which defines it as “encompassing more than just physical health or economic indicators: purpose, social, financial, community and physical”.

As the non-profit Gallup’s site notes, well-being is good for business, too: “Practices such as conscious breathing, meditation, mindful movement and healthy eating have been shown to have profound and positive effects on productivity, retention, workers’ compensation claims and other healthcare costs.”

“All my needs are met now,” she tells me, over an egg-white omelette breakfast. “I don’t have to worry about anything, but I know others do. They drive in an hour, hour and a half to Aspen – they can’t afford to live here. I used to do that at night to give a $100 massage, then drive back again. I used to feel resentful of the rich people, of course I did.”

Aspen storefronts and ski slope. Photo/Getty Images

High suicide rate

Despite the beauty of this “Rocky Mountain high” (singer-songwriter John Denver lived in Aspen, and his songs were an ear worm throughout my stay), it can take its toll. The town’s suicide rate is three times the national average. “It’s urgent that we do something about people’s well-being. And then, once we have it right, it can spread across the world.”

It’s an interesting idea: rather than cut yourself off from the less-advantaged, people such as Murdock want to try to level the playing field, even a little. In a town of this size, with huge wealth disparity, society could be feudal, but there’s a passion to prevent that happening, with some of the regulations going back to the 70s.

For example, the county’s real-estate transfer tax means anyone who builds an expensive new house contributes to the funding of subsidised housing for those on comparatively low incomes. The houses are sold by lottery, and buyers are prevented from reselling them above the level of inflation.

One local, in his sixties, told me this programme is being expanded: “When middle-class people – the doctors, dentists, judges – can’t afford to live in the town, they’ve got to do something about it. It’s in their interests.”

He spends his summers as a tour guide – his three-hour four-wheel-drive trip up to 3000m, where the wildflowers start to give way to rocky slopes, was a highpoint of my stay – and his winters teaching skiing. He lives outside Aspen, but catches the free bus in and rides the free bikes around town. It works for him: “I only drive for my job; I don’t even own a car any more.”

Like everyone I met who lived in Aspen or Snowmass, its near-neighbour with even bigger snowfields, he wasn’t from the area. From New York, Detroit, Ohio, southern California, they had come to visit friends or family, then couldn’t bear to leave. For those with families, it’s safe, the sporting and recreational opportunities are excellent and the schools are so good that even the billionaires’ kids attend them, although it would be wrong to say the combination is always seamless. One woman quipped that a billionaire mama might have left the Maserati at home for a play-date drop-off. “It’s not like she didn’t have a load of other cars to pick from.”

The Queenstown Mall: a popular landmark in the idyllic twin-season mountain resort. Photo/Getty Images

Rubbing shoulders with millionaires

The wealth gap is enormous. Aspen was always proud of being a place where ski bums and waitresses rubbed shoulders with millionaires and rock stars (Ringo Starr lived here for a while; Don Henley of the Eagles, actress Goldie Hawn and musician John Oates – of Hall & Oates fame – have houses here). But things have changed, as Aspen City councilman Adam Frisch has been reported as saying. “In the 1970s, that upper, upper, upper echelon were making 10 times more than the $40,000-a-year teacher. Now that same group are 100 times wealthier than the painter, than the teacher, than the ski bum, than they were in the 80s. The homes are bigger, the jets are bigger.”

With the billions come some of the one-percenters’ obsessions, such as longevity and optimal health. Most of the men are elsewhere doing business, but the women can be seen, clad almost exclusively in athleisure, pounding up hiking trails, whizzing by on bikes or nibbling on a seed plate. McDonald’s didn’t last in this town, and one of the hot chefs is Austrian Martin Oswald, who believes nutritarianism is the only feasible way to eat, to prevent cancer, heart disease and virtually any modern ailment.

By the time I left, I, too, believed Aspen is pretty close to an alpine heaven. There’s not even any rubbish, I commented to one skateboarding dude as we waited for a bus. “$2000 fine, ma’am – that’s why.” Had I wanted to, I could have got legally high, too. Colorado has decriminalised marijuana, which is sold in a few shops around town, although this being Aspen, they look more like Cartier than your old-style “head” shop.

One suspects Hunter S Thompson would not have been a fan of modern-day Aspen. We drove past his old ranch, where his widow still lives, in the area called Woody Creek, 15 minutes’ drive from Aspen. It’s a ramshackle settlement that hasn’t lost its hippie vibe, despite the passing decades. The billionaires are happy to leave it alone; they’re carving out their own slice of paradise in just the way they want.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.