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Carbondale redevelopment leaves several businesses scrambling

Carbondale’s Sopris Shopping Center, located at the corner of Colorado Highway 133 and Colorado Avenue, is slated for a complete redevelopment.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Several Carbondale businesses are scrambling to relocate and others are just plain calling it quits following plans for one of the town’s oldest strip malls to be redeveloped.

The proposed new Carbondale Center Place was given preliminary approval Jan. 14 by the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission, and is slated to go before the Board of Trustees for final consideration on Feb. 9.

It would replace the existing 57-year-old Sopris Shopping Center at the corner of Colorado Highway 133 and Colorado Avenue with a mix of 10,000 square feet of ground-level commercial space, 76 residential units and a new 68,000 square-foot self-storage facility where the existing Sopris Self Storage is now located, immediately east of the plaza.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new Carbondale Center Place, which goes before the town’s Board of Trustees on Feb. 9.
Neo Studio Architects

Until earlier this month, nine businesses remained in the shopping center, with a handful of empty storefronts.

Final notices went out Jan. 7 that businesses would need to vacate by the end of February, or earlier. However, businesses were put on initial notice in January 2020 that the longtime owner of the property, Dr. Ron Stein of California, was planning to tear down and rebuild on the site.

“I know that (the tenants) are unhappy, and understand that they wish they could have more time,” said Jessica Kidd, who manages the storage units and helps with shopping center management. “But, they were given notice a year ago that this was happening.”


Since the Jan. 7 notice, one long-standing restaurant, Los Cabos Mexican Grill, has closed for good. Another, El Pollo Rico, indicated to the Sopris Sun newspaper last week that it does not plan to reopen, and will instead focus efforts on the owners’ newest venture, Frida Authentic Mexican Food in Glenwood Springs.


One of only two laundromats in Carbondale that has operated for decades at the location, Sopris Laundry, has also since closed.

Others, including the popular Ragged Mountain Sports used sporting equipment consignment shop, the new JC’s Breakfast and Lunch, Ming’s Cafe, the HighQ marijuana shop and Sopris Crossfit, all face the same dilemma. A representative at CV Phones said last week that they have secured a new space near Alpine Bank in Carbondale.

Others have indicated they must secure a place to relocate by the end of next month, or they’ll need to close for a period of time until they do.

Renee Grossman owns HighQ. She offered during last week’s P&Z meeting that a mere 60-day extension, before the property is scheduled to be razed this spring, is a reasonable request.

“Right now, we have a shortage of commercial space in Carbondale, and then a lot that’s coming on line,” she said. “Several of these businesses are minority or women-owned businesses. If we could just have 60 days to move and not have to lay off any staff … We’re not trying to delay the project. We just want to have some continuity for our business.”

Ming’s Cafe owner Michael Zhang said he, too, could use more time to prepare for a planned move into the new commercial space adjacent to the new City Market store across Highway 133.

Ragged Mountain owner Aisha Weinhold said another issue for businesses is that much of what’s available and coming on line in the way of commercial space is about double the rent per square foot.

She is working to secure a new location, but could also use that extra 60-day extension, if possible.

“We’ve been here for 10 years, and I’ve owned the business for six years,” Weinhold said. “It’s important to me that we find a place that’s not going to be torn down in the next year.”

That ruled out some other older commercial plazas that could also be redeveloped in the near future, she said.

The redevelopment project itself earned a unanimous recommendation for approval from the P&Z Commission, and the consensus in preliminary discussions at the town board level is that it would be an improvement to the highway frontage.

P&Z Chairman Michael Durant acknowledged the tenant concerns, but said the town cannot get involved in private lease contracts and negotiations.

“The Commission is very sympathetic with the tenants, but there’s not a lot the town can do about that,” he said.

jstroud@postindependent.com

Motion: Escobar suit against Aspen bar “pure fiction”

A state public health order has kept the Escobar Aspen nightclub closed since at least June, while a lawsuit its attorney described as “pure fiction” has been hanging over it since it was filed in September.

That’s when a company called Escobar Inc. sued Aspen businessman Ryan Chadwick and three companies under his control — the Aspen bar, Escobar Vodka and Escobar Aspen — in Denver federal court.

The $5 million suit — intended to force Chadwick into ceasing and desisting from using the Escobar monikers — was served on the defendants in December. Escobar Inc.’s suit maintains it holds intellectual property rights to the name and also purports the company to be founded by Roberto Escobar, brother of the late Colombian drug lord.

Earlier this month, defense attorneys introduced a motion to dismiss casting the lawsuit in a questionable light and contending Escobar Inc. rents a UPS mailbox but calls it company headquarters.

Among its contentions are that Escobar Inc. has no legal standing to claims for right of publicity — an intellectual property right prohibiting the misappropriation of a person’s likeness, name or photograph, for commercial gain.

Two of Escobar Inc.’s claims are for right of publicity, a law California recognizes but Colorado does not.

Yet the defense’s motion argued Escobar Inc. has no legal standing in the Golden State and its right of publicity claims “fail under both California and Colorado law.”

The motion cited the Escobar website’s Colombia address and the company’s not being registered to do business in California. As well, the company’s mailing address on its court complaint actually matches the address of a UPS store in Beverly Hills, California, the motion said.

“Here, it can be readily determined both that plaintiff’s purported place of business in California is merely a rented post office box. Further plaintiff’s own website indicates its place of business is in Colombia. Finally, the California Secretary of State shows that plaintiff is not registered to do business in California,” said the motion.

Chadwick said Escobar Vodka remains in circulation and for sale, and the bar will open once health orders are lifted.

In the meantime, a scheduling conference in the case is set for Feb. 11 before Magistrate Judge Scott T. Varholak.

Presiding Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, in a court order Jan. 6, noted “this court may direct the parties to engage in an early neutral evaluation, a settlement conference, or another alternative dispute resolution proceeding“ in the event one of those propositions is brought to him by either the plaintiff, the defendants, or the magistrate judge.

The motion to dismiss said Escobar Inc.’s suit does not warrant the court’s time.

“Many of the claims are entirely unclear, others are patently preempted, and all of them appear to be based in pure fiction,” the motion said.

Attorney Craig J. Mariam of Boise, Idaho, is representing the defendants in the case.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Ursa makes good on $5.8M tax debt to Garfield County

Former Garfield County natural gas operator Ursa Resources, which filed for bankruptcy last year, has paid the county $5.8 million in back property taxes for 2019 that had been in question given the company’s financial problems.

Garfield County Treasurer Carrie Couey said in a Monday press release that her office and the county attorney’s office worked throughout the fall to obtain the funds owed mostly to several local taxing districts, and to the county.

“Garfield County has continued to look out for the interests of its citizens,” Couey said in the release. “We are pleased that the efforts have come to fruition.”

Ursa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 2, 2020, listing some $282.7 million in secured debt, and several million dollars in unsecured debt throughout its Piceance Basin operations in northwestern Colorado.

Taxing districts in Garfield County that were owed back taxes included the Garfield County Library District, the Garfield 16 School District, the Grand River Hospital District and the Grand Valley Fire District. Another $718,000 was owed to entities in Rio Blanco County.

Ursa was acquired by Terra Energy Partners in November of last year, after a bankruptcy court judge approved the sale.

“The payment may ease concerns expressed by western Garfield County taxing authorities running on already lean budgets,” the county press release states.

With the sale of the company, the 2020 taxes payable in 2021 are to be assumed by Terra Energy Partners, as outlined in the sale agreement made between Ursa and Terra, Couey said in the release.

Ursa had been a major oil and gas operator in Garfield County, including controversial wells within the unincorporated Battlement Mesa community that are now owned by Terra.

Drilling plans approved by the county in late 2015 were opposed by two citizen groups, primarily due to the proximity of well pads to homes, schools and other buildings and related impacts. New wells there and in other populated areas will now come under the state’s new 2,000-foot setback rule, one of several new regulations that were approved last year by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as part of its implementation of SB 181.

At the time of its bankruptcy filing, Ursa owned 41,000 acres of oil and gas properties in western Colorado, and had 579 producing gas wells, according to the company’s bankruptcy court filings.

The company’s chief restructuring officer, Jami Chronister, indicated in the bankruptcy filing that any taxes owed would be given priority for payment to avoid property liens being passed onto the buyer.

jstroud@postindependent.com

Business Briefs January 18, 2021

New hire at Visit Glenwood Springs

Visit Glenwood Springs, the tourism department of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, has hired Heidi Pankow as tourism promotion project manager.

Pankow has more than 30 years of tourism marketing experience, most recently responsible for marketing and public relations at the Ouray Tourism Office.


She has worked on regional and state tourism collaborations and initiatives, including the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop, and as a mentor and contractor for the Colorado Rural Academy for Tourism (CRAFT). She is an alumnus of the Colorado Tourism Leadership Journey class of 2019. She is currently the Western Colorado representative on the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway Commission.

As a Colorado resident for more than 20 years, Pankow has a passion for the state’s unique and authentic experiences. She will be working with the Visit Glenwood Springs team in marketing, public relations, social media and digital asset management, and consumer and media outreach roles.

“Glenwood Springs has always been a favorite destination of mine. I’m thrilled to join the team and will work diligently to promote tourism in a responsible manner to benefit the community and visitors alike,” Pankow said.

Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion, said of Pankow, “I have worked with Heidi for a number of years in her various state and regional tourism roles. She will be a great asset to Glenwood Springs and will bring fresh insight to our tourism marketing efforts.”

Pankow started her new position Jan. 4 and can be reached for marketing and media inquiries at heidi@visitglenwood.com or 970-261-1110.

City of Glenwood Springs taking applications for state business relief funds

The city of Glenwood Springs is administering the Small Business Relief Program funds made available as part of Colorado Senate Bill 20B-001.

The city will consider applications from eligible small businesses for relief based on need and proven loss of revenue.

The legislation, passed in December, provided for

$57 million in direct aid, grants and fee waivers to struggling small businesses due to COVID-19. Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) Small Business Relief Program was allocated $35.15 million for grants to eligible local governments to disburse to qualifed small businesses.

Additional information is available on the state’s website at https://oedit.colorado.gov/covid19.

Eligible businesses include any corporation, LLC, partnership or sole proprietorship (nonprofits are not eligible) that fits into the following types of businesses:

• restaurants

• bars (includes winery, brewery, distillery, etc.)

• caterers

• movie theaters

• gyms and recreation centers

And businesses that have voluntarily closed that confirm that they intend to continue ongoing operations for at least six months are eligible.

Eligible businesses need to:

• have been founded prior to March 26, 2020

• have revenues under

$2.5 million

• be a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or sole proprietorship in good standing with all licenses

• have at least one employee, unless they are a sole proprietorship

• have a reduced revenue of at least 20% due to capacity restrictions from public health orders

• be in compliance with all state public health orders.

“The legislation creating the program sets forth tiered relief payment caps, based on the business’ receipts (sales or revenue) from 2019, with a maximum payout of $7,000,” according to a city news release. “Relief payments are based on need and financial losses, as determined by state requirements.”

The application period is open through Friday, Feb. 5, for eligible small businesses to apply. The application and eligibility criteria are available on the city of Glenwood Springs website at https://cogs.us/597/Small-Business-Relief-Program.

Businesses with questions should contact Jenn Ooton at 970-384-6404, or Matt Nunez at 970-384-6424.

 

Downtown Rifle’s Whistle Pig Coffee Stop & Cafe up for sale

Samm Young, owner of Whistle Pig Coffee Shop, inside the downtown Rifle cafe.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Out-of-town hunters descend in droves upon Rifle every year to navigate the rugged, Western Slope terrain as they try to bag their share of trophy elk.

In the meantime, some stop at Whistle Pig Coffee Stop & Cafe, a quaint downtown hot spot on Third Street that serves gourmet coffee, breakfast and lunch fare.

“We have a family from Georgia that comes in every hunting season, and we connected with them the first year,” owner Samm Young said. “Every year they come back to us. They follow us on Facebook and comment on all our stuff.”

After more than five years of catering to both locals and hunter-orange visitors, however, Young has decided to put the Whistle Pig up for sale. The reason: Young’s having a baby with her boyfriend, David Garcia.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy journey,” Young said.

The Whistle Pig has called downtown Rifle home since officially opening its doors in July 2015. And, how it came to be involved a bit of serendipity.

Young had just moved in 2014 to Rifle from Loveland and couldn’t find a job to save her life. She said she put out applications everywhere but results kept coming up short.

Meanwhile, one fortuitous night Young was having dinner with her brother in Rifle when the two started joking over the concept of her owning a cafe.

“A good place always has a mascot,” she’d tell her brother. “You have to have a mascot — mascots just make things more fun.”

Little did Young know the wisecracks would eventually translate into a downtown Rifle staple. Out of work but full of inspiration, Young nabbed herself a vacant storefront on Third Street using a small-business loan.

Before bringing her business plan to fruition, however, Young had to apply a little elbow grease to the storefront’s interior, which had sat vacant for the past two years, she said.

“The building was very much in need of some love,” Young said. “We spent three-and-a-half, four months cleaning and renovating it. Long story short, I had a list from the fire department and the health department on stuff that had to be done before it could be opened.”

But Young kept at it, and the building had begun taking the form of what she had imagined on the drawing board.

“I wanted a place for people to be able to meet, hang out and have a cup of coffee with their friends. I really wanted the coffee shop feel, but I also wanted it to be a little cafe,” she said. “I grew up going to some small cafes. I love being able to sit there hang out and chat and get to know the owners and really get to be able to be part of the community.”

The downtown cafe really became a reflection of the community itself.

The term “Whistle Pig” comes from the yellow bellied marmot, a husky type of ground squirrel that roams the Rocky Mountains, including Garfield County. The “Maxfield,” the joint’s most popular sandwich, is named after Rifle town founder Abram W. Maxfield.

Maxfield’s legend is delectably summed up via turkey, avocado, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo sandwiched in a ciabatta roll.

Beyond the fare, the Whistle Pig has always acted as a local information center, equipped with maps and guides available for patrons. Young said she also gives people suggestions on what cool local spots to visit.

“Rifle Falls is one of my favorite places around here, so anybody looking for anything to do, we always try to send them up there to see Rifle Falls, because it’s such a crazy, awesome area,” Young said.

Just like neighboring downtown storefronts, the Whistle Pig had to endure a battle with COVID-19. From March 17 to June 3, 2020, the downtown cafe had to temporarily shutter.

“Last year was kind of sad because we didn’t get to see the normal people that normally come through,” Young said. “But, otherwise, every other year has been amazing. So many people come through our doors, it’s incredible.”

Young said, however, the help of the federal government’s 2020 Paycheck Protection Program helped her small business stay afloat. Meanwhile, so did community support.

“Since we opened back up June 3, we have been steadily busier than I anticipated — not normal sales but not bad sales,” Young said. “So we’re really lucky that people have supported us throughout this time, because it’s a weird time.”

Though businesses continue to open and close as they attempt to conform to ever-changing COVID-19 dial metrics implemented by the state, Whistle Pig continues to sell an average 30-40 sandwiches every lunch hour, said Young.

The business is still strong and viable enough that, after Young posted on Facebook that she was selling Whistle Pig for $45,000, she’s already ended up with 12 prospective buyers.

“We built a really awesome business and I’m really hopeful that somebody will take it on,” Young said. “We want it to stay Whistle Pig, we want it to continue, I want to help the owners as much as I can, but it’s time for me to move on.”

With that, Young was asked what she’s going to miss about running her haven of freshly-brewed coffee and gourmet cuisine.

“I will very much miss my employees. I will miss being able to talk to the community all the time,” she said. “I’ve made many friendships and relationships through being there, but I’m very excited to be able to just go and enjoy it soon.”

rerku@postindependent.com

Judge denies Aspen restaurant group’s request to stop Red-level restrictions

People enjoy the outdoor dining space at White House Tavern on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A judge denied an Aspen-area restaurant group’s eleventh-hour attempt to suspend a public health order that takes effect Sunday prohibiting indoor dining in Aspen, Snowmass Village and the rest of Pitkin County.

Ninth Judicial District Judge Anne Norrdin’s ruling late Friday afternoon was a setback for the newly formed Pitkin County Restaurant Alliance, a nonprofit that filed a complaint and motion Thursday to stop the order’s implementation through a court-ordered temporary restraining order.

Restaurants have until 10 p.m. Saturday to serve their last meals indoors — that is until case counts go down and the board of heath downgrades orders to Orange levels or below.

“We’re disappointed,” alliance attorney Chris Bryan said. “This means all restaurants in Pitkin County are going to have to come to a grinding halt.”

The alliance argued Monday’s decision by the board of health to close indoor dining would cripple the local restaurant industry and put more than 1,500 people out of work. As well, the alliance said the board made its decision without conclusive evidence that closing restaurants to indoor dining would help stem the spread of COVID-19 cases locally.

Norrdin’s ruling noted courts are typically reluctant to usurp government orders without hearing from the defendants, who in this case are Pitkin County, the board of health and interim public health director Jordan Sabella.

“The court declines to act … without first hearing from the Defendants, to intervene in the manner sought in an area fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties and where Pitkin County officials appear to be shaping their response to changing facts on the ground,” the ruling said.

Indoor dining was the major change made Monday in the newest public health order, as most Pitkin County businesses and services — with the exception of restaurants — have been operating under Red-level restrictions since Dec. 21.

Outdoor dining, takeout and delivery at restaurants still will be available, though there will be an 8 p.m. last call and tables can only have people from the same household.

Norrdin’s decision does not put an end to the alliance’s legal challenge to the county’s newest health order. The defendants still must formally answer its lawsuit that seeks to lift the Red order through a permanent injunction. The suit also seeks judicial review of the health board’s order and a declaratory judgment that the county cannot enforce the order.

“The Court understands and recognizes the difficulty and hardship created by the pandemic, which has threatened and taken lives and livelihoods,” the judge’s decision said. “However, the Court does not find the sought ex parte intervention in public health decision-making without hearing from representatives of public health officials to be an appropriate use of its authority under the circumstances.”

Bryan issued a statement on behalf of the alliance, which said: “The alliance thanks Judge Norrdin for her expedited attention to this important matter. Although the alliance is disappointed the court denied its request for a temporary restraining order delaying implementation of the new public health order until a formal hearing could be scheduled, the alliance appreciates Judge Norrdin’s order requiring the defendants to respond timely to its pleadings and further requiring a preliminary injunction hearing to be set so the Alliance’s claims may be heard. The Alliance remains confident the new public health order will be invalidated due to its numerous underlying faults and looks forward to its day in court.”

On Tuesday, the day after the board of health’s decision to go Red, the Pitkin County Alliance filed articles of incorporation for a nonprofit corporation with the Colorado secretary of state. Bryan said the group consists of “over two dozen” restaurants. The alliance’s complaint does not identify its member restaurants because “we don’t want anybody to be retaliated against,“ Bryan said.

Among the restaurants not in the group include Jimmy’s An American Bar and Grill, whose co-owner has been one of the most vocal operators opposed to health orders going into the Red phase.

That co-owner, Jimmy Yeager, issued a statement Friday about its decision not to litigate.

“We, Jimmy’s Restaurant, made the decision to not officially join the efforts of the restaurant alliance in asking for a judicial review despite our fervent moral support for the action and our profound disappointment in the decision by the Board of Health. In the past 10 months we have worked hard to assist the county in their decisions by providing perspective and the ‘how to’ for restaurants to provide a safe dining experience. We have earned a seat at the table and a place in the conversation. Should we have been a plaintiff, it would have jeopardized our ability to continue in this role. We will be moving forward and requesting time at the next meeting to have a robust conversation about their decision and what needs to happen next. We have acted only in good faith and expect to be treated with the same mutual respect.”

County Manager Jon Peacock said Friday the alliance is well within its rights to ask for a public policy to go through judicial review.

“I can tell you this is certainly not personal from the county and the public health perspective,” he said. “And I hope the folks on the other side of the lawsuit don’t feel that way either.”

The county also has said it plans to participate in the state’s 5 Star program, which would allow participating businesses to move down a code level. The program cannot take effect until the county’s incidence rate declines for 14 days and lands below 700, the positivity rate is below 10% and less than 90% of hospital beds are in use. The county’s incidence rate, the state’s largest, has been in the 3,000 range for the past two weeks.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Aspen Skiing Co. tweaks protocols, responsive to outbreaks among workers, county says

Aspen Skiing Co. is taking three major steps to boost its efforts to try to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and comply with stricter regulations adopted Monday by Pitkin County.

Skico is seeking ways to keep its on-mountain restaurants operational after the county decided to prohibit indoor dining, at least temporarily, starting Sunday. Visitors will only be allowed to enter restaurants to order and pick up food, use the restrooms and briefly warm up, said Skico vice president of communications Jeff Hanle. There will be no indoor seating and masks are mandatory at all times indoors.

Skico will utilize its restaurants’ patios and outdoor, open-sided tents to the greatest extent possible, depending on weather conditions, Hanle said. Tables are limited to single household use only and groups cannot be larger than eight people.

Indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants such as the Sundeck will be prohibited starting Sunday as part of Pitkin County’s tougher restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Rose Laudicina/The Aspen Times

Skico also is arranging the necessary staffing to comply with the county’s direction to increase enforcement of mask requirements and social distancing in lift lines, ski base areas and other points of congregation.

The company also is contemplating how to honor the county’s directive to more closely regulate riding of chairlifts among unrelated parties.

The company updated the COVID-19 operation procedures section of its website Tuesday and seeks other ways to convey to visitors what will be expected of them when they visit the ski areas and the upper Roaring Fork Valley, according to Hanle.

In many ways, Skico has been under particularly heavy scrutiny this winter as Pitkin County’s largest private sector employer and because of the visible nature of its business.

Rarely has a week gone by this winter without claims circulating in the upper valley about outbreaks among lift operators, ski patrollers and Skico restaurants workers. Most of the claims are grossly exaggerated.

For example, The Aspen Times received a letter last week from the mother of a young man working as a ski lift operator at Snowmass contending 40 workers in the department were ill. The letter claimed Skico was not taking enough steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from an infected liftie to his roommates, who live in Skico housing.

Hanle said there were 18 members of the Snowmass lift department out of work as of Friday — six who tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 who are isolated due to contact tracing. Skico provides oversight of employees in company housing, and who test positive for COVID, via daily contacts from contracted medical professionals. All employees living in company housing signed commitments as part of their leases that say they will abide to COVID-related guidelines.

“However, we do not monitor their daily activity inside their apartments,” the company statement said.

If an employee reaches out and indicates a roommate is not following quarantine or isolation protocols, Skico will “engage” with the offending employee and work with the reporting employee to find alternative housing, according to Skico’s statement.

One infection involved a lift attendant who lives with three roommates in Skico’s Club Commons complex in Snowmass Village. Each of the employees has their own bedroom in the four-bedroom unit.

“The employee was instructed to self-isolate in his room and not enter the apartment common areas while other employees were present,” Skico said.

The company said the current percentage of employees out of work due to infection or close contact with someone with COVID in its housing complexes is lower than the percentage of employees out of work due to COVID overall.

“Additionally, the infection rate among all ASC employees is less than half of the rate for the county as a whole,” Skico said in its statement.

Joshua Vance, an epidemiologist with Pitkin County, said there is no current investigation of an outbreak among lift attendants at Snowmass. Every COVID-19 case is investigated by the county to determine any possible transmission among employees of a workplace.

“If transmission among employees is not found to occur at the worksite, then we do not classify that as an outbreak at that worksite,” Vance said.

Last month, 17 employees of Skico’s Sundeck Restaurant on Aspen Mountain and Aspen Mountain Club tested positive for COVID-19. Vance said Skico worked “very closely” with the county on the outbreak and “they were very responsive and agreeable to our support.”

Skico said in its statement that it followed containment procedures that it instituted last summer before opening its mountain facilities. After two employees at the Sundeck sought tests on their own and received positive results, Pitkin County Public Health initiated widespread testing at the Sundeck and Aspen Mountain Club. That confirmed the additional cases, and the Sundeck remained open.

“The contact tracing that was conducted by the county determined that transmission did not appear to be happening in the workplace,” Skico said in its statement. “We specifically discussed our operations with the county as part of their tracing, and they did not recommend or require us to change any of our approved operating methods.”

Skico also is experiencing illnesses at its Little Nell Hotel. An employee, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely about the situation, contended 30% of the staff is currently ill. Hanle said 5% of employees at the hotel are ill.

“We take the health and welfare of our employees very seriously and have taken extensive measures to protect them,” Skico said in a statement in response to a request from The Aspen Times to discuss various alleged outbreaks among company employees. “We submitted full operation plans for all of our facilities to the county and the state, including a workforce housing plan, and all were approved.”

Skico employees are required to complete a health check-in each day before they come to work. A health team hired on contract works with the company “proactively and reactively should there be infections,” the company’s statement said.

“We have strict protocols in place and work closely with our employees if they have been exposed or test positive,” the company said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Pandemic’s labor pains taking toll on ski and mountain towns

Leaders from mountain and ski towns on the Western Slope told Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday the Trump administration’s extended ban on visas for immigrant employees through the end of March will only exacerbate the pandemic-spurred worker shortage.

“I want to put an exclamation point on getting (rid of) the executive order that prohibits international workers using work visas,” said Melanie Mills, executive director of Colorado Ski Country, which is the marketing arm for a contingent of ski-area operators in the state, including Sunlight Mountain Resort and Aspen Skiing Co. “We need to get that withdrawn as soon as possible in the new administration.”

Mills was part of a group of panelists who updated the Democrat senator on how they are managing the pandemic and the challenges dogging them under the state’s Orange and Red public-health phases.

The group met virtually a day after President Donald Trump issued a proclamation Thursday extending the visa restrictions on those including J-1 and H-2B workers; the ban was first installed in April and expanded in June. Resorts have typically hired foreign temporary workers to beef up staff during the winter and summer seasons, but between the pandemic and travel and immigration bans, hiring is getting increasingly difficult for ski areas and other employers.

“The pandemic has been a huge challenge for Summit County,” said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who is leaving office this month because of term limits and will become executive director of Counties & Commissioners Acting Together. “We went from a county that had one the lowest unemployment rates in the entire nation to the county that has the second highest unemployment rate in all of Colorado because of this pandemic.”

In Pitkin County, 10.2% of its workforce was unemployed in November, making its jobless rates one of the state’s highest that month, according to the Colorado Department of Labor.

As well, an increase in full-time residents moving to the area has siphoned away workers from the ski industry, said Skico CEO Mike Kaplan. Aspen alone had $2.6 billion home sales in 2020 and Pitkin County had total sales volume of nearly $3.2 billion last year.

“We’re short on staff, and when you have these second homes more occupied, they are hiring more people, property managers, and that really is a double-whammy,“ he said. ”That’s a big hit.“

Likewise, the pandemic’s stressors have greatly impacted the Latino workforce, said Jasmin Ramirez, program coordinator for Voces Unidas, a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit that assists Latinos living in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.

Many of them have to work because they have no other choice, she said.

“The front-line workers are part of the students’ families in my district,” said Ramirez, also an elected board member of the Roaring Fork School District, noting “they are afraid to work but need to work, especially when aid is so lacking in our community.”

Many of the workers have a one-way commute of an hour to the ski towns in which they work, she said. Some of their jobs are in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and residences, she said.

Yet Latinos in the area aren’t getting updated information on COVID-19, including details on vaccinations, like the rest of the population is receiving, she said.

“Many governments still do not have a plan for how they are going to get the vaccine out to essential workers and how they will notify workers that are essential,” she said. “Our Latino community should depend on government to effectively reach us, especially during the pandemic.”

Employee morale and stress is mounting because of the pandemic, panelists said. Not helping is that certain groups aren’t considered front-line workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, said Steamboat Springs restaurant owner Scott Engelman, also board chair of Colorado Restaurant Association.

“Why the restaurant industry has been excluded from this is mind-boggling to me,” he said.

David Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs, said pandemic fatigue is spreading among his staff.

“The big challenge is being told by certain components of our guests that we’re not taking the pandemic seriously,” Pitcher said. “Having my staff scrutinized every month, it’s taken a toll on morale and it’s caused some employees to throw in the sponge.”

Because some workers also are opting to go on unemployment and not work, it’s becoming harder to hire for positions, he said.

Wolf Creek employees, he said, “try to lead by example but it’s a dichotomy that’s really hard for everybody. … We get challenged for not taking it seriously and yet we do. And I believe our outdoor recreation is important to a lot of families. A lot of people are having a good time and getting some release from the stress, but it’s certainly challenging.”

The second round of stimulus checks and Payroll Protection Program are appreciated, the panelists said, but they only go so far.

“Our beacon of hope stretches out to December 2021,” Engelman said. “Obviously we got a PPP second round, which was fantastic but also short-bridged. Maybe into quarter two or the beginning of quarter three, we will need more cash support at the federal level.”

Indoor dining capacity of 25% to 50% is not built to last, he said.

“It’s not really viable here in Routt County, other counties throughout the mountain communities and throughout the state, for that matter,” he said.

Bennet said he is looking forward to the new administration under President Joe Biden. His inauguration day is Jan. 20.

“This year has been … between the attacks on our democracy, the pandemic, the devastation of the wildfire season over the last 10 months … it has hit our communities and mountain communities in a way we never could have imagined,” Bennet said.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Bankers’ Hours: Community banks integral to small business resurgence

No area of our economy has suffered more from the effects of the pandemic than small businesses of every variety. It’s been devastating on owners and employees, and the shock waves have circled back to cripple the entire national economic infrastructure.

Small business is the country’s largest employer, by far. When it’s sick, we’re all infected by a very nasty economic virus. Getting it healthy again is everybody’s business and, specifically, that of banking and government.

The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan effort is a case in point. Sure, there were those who shouldn’t have gotten a loan, some who should’ve and didn’t, others who got too much, and then, as always, there were the usual suspects who seized the chance to perpetrate fraud. But, overall, it worked, thanks to the nation’s smaller banks that pitched in and got the money out in their communities. Remember, this was a “General Quarters, man all battle stations” effort that was ramped up in just a few days.

An example of what made the program a lifeline for a lot of little enterprises is a community bank in Colorado, just $294 million in asset size, which booked 300 PPP loans, with a total dollar amount of more than $14 million. As the program wound down in April of last year, the bank’s loan department worked past midnight to make sure all applicants were served. As the CEO said to me, “The little guys hit this one out of the park.”

This was an outstanding effort, but the fact is that institutions under $10 billion in size made more loans than the TBTF’s (Too Big to Fail). This is because small business lending is an integral part of the community bank business model. On the other hand, with the behemoth banks, it’s just a business line.

It’s an example of what should, and could, happen over the next 24 months. Yes, financing small business is banking’s business, but supervised financial institutions can’t do it alone. The PPP loans are guaranteed by the Small Business Administration, so there’s no asset risk for the lending bank; bad assets are the only thing that will break a bank. A robust, practical, small business loan guarantee program needs to be in place to rescue the country’s entrepreneurial enterprise infrastructure.

The Second National Bank of Downriver, Montana (both fictional), cares deeply about the survival of the Mom and Pop enterprises in its trade area, and, of course, about their deposits when they’re healthy. But caring, and caring enough to fund, say, an operating capital loan, doesn’t carry any weight with federal and state bank examiners. Their mission is to protect the FDIC deposit insurance fund. They don’t care what color a banker’s hat is, black or white, as long as the logo on it is not “Insolvent.”

Make too many Nice Guy loans that are tabbed “Special Mention” — or “Doubtful” by the suits from the Office of Examination — and you may not be a banker when next year this time rolls around.

Maybe the SBA doesn’t have to be involved, except as an example and guide. In the late 1960s, private mortgage insurance, replicating FHA (Federal Housing Administration) protocols, hit the streets. As long as the concept has used practical mortgage lending guidelines, it’s been successful and profitable. What about a private corporation — say, the SBAGF (Small Business America Guaranty Fund) —capitalized by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and friends and families.

Small business might be very good business for big business.

Pat Dalrymple is a western Colorado native and has spent more than 50 years in mortgage lending and banking in the Roaring Fork Valley. He’ll be happy to answer your questions or hear your comments. His e-mail is pdalrymple59@gmail.com.

Continued financial troubles, new leadership for Glenwood Springs rock quarry owner RMI

Rocky Mountain Industrials, Inc. owns and operates the limestone quarry along Transfer Trail north of Glenwood Springs.
John Stroud/Post Independent

A new year brings another round of corporate leadership changes for the mining company that proposes to greatly expand a controversial limestone quarry near Glenwood Springs.

According to Rocky Mountain Industrials, Inc.’s Monday filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Gregory Dangler is out as the company’s chief executive officer, having retired effective Jan. 1.

His replacement is Brian Fallin, who until recently has been vice president of sales for the company.

Dangler continues on as executive board director and remains an employee of the company, according to the report.

The filing notes that John Anderson has also resigned as president of RMI.

“The role of president will not be replaced at this time,” the company said in the latest SEC filing.

In addition, Andrew Peltz has stepped down from his position as board director, but continues as a shareholder. Adrian Fairbourn takes Peltz’s place on the board.

What is supposed to be a quarterly report of the company’s financial status and executive changes addresses the recent personnel moves, but only deals with financial information through Dec. 31, 2019.

As was the case last year, RMI is almost a year behind in its SEC filings. The company had a major executive change at the beginning of 2020, as well, when Chad Brownstein resigned his position as CEO, replaced by Dangler.

RMI currently operates the former Mid-Continent limestone quarry off Transfer Trail, about a mile north of Glenwood Springs. It seeks approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to expand the existing quarry site from 15.7 acres to 447 acres, which is subject to an ongoing Environmental Impact Statement.

The quarry expansion is opposed by the Glenwood Springs Citizens Alliance, as well as the city of Glenwood Springs and other area municipalities. Garfield County, which has some permit oversight of the operation, is currently locked in a legal battle with RMI over recent permit enforcement actions by the county.

Meanwhile, the company continues to operate on unstable financial footing, according to the most recent SEC filing.

Since the company’s inception in October 2014, it has incurred net losses totaling more than $44.2 million, as of the end of 2019.

“We anticipate incurring additional losses before realizing any revenues, and will depend on additional financing in order to meet our continuing obligations and ultimately to attain profitability,” the company notes in its Jan. 4 filing. “Our ability to obtain additional financing, whether through the issuance of additional equity or through the assumption of debt, is uncertain.”

As of the end of 2019, the company had assets of just under $1.2 million, with total liabilities of more than $5.5 million.

“We will be seeking additional capital to execute our business plan and reach positive cash flow from operations,” RMI finance representatives also state in the filing, noting the company has base monthly expenses of about $200,000.

“We do not generate adequate cash flows to support our existing operations,” the company discloses. “Moreover, the historical and existing capital structure is not adequate to fund our planned growth. We anticipate generating losses at least through the 2020 fiscal year.”

RMI also explains the lag in keeping up with its SEC filings, saying the financial situation has prevented the company from having sufficient accounting personnel to complete the financial reporting.

jstroud@postindependent.com