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Gail Schwartz takes helm of Habitat for Humanity from Scott Gilbert

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Scott Gilbert will step down as president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork today. He will be replaced by Gail Schwartz as interim president. They joked Monday that the future is so bright, they had to wear shades.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

HOPPING AT HABITAT

When the Basalt Vista project is completed in February 2022, Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork will have built 58 homes for people in need in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River Valleys. Scott Gilbert will have played a role in all but two of the homes during his 15 years on the board of directors and as president.

Basalt Vista is gaining regional attention because of its progressive nature — bringing in several partners and providing net-zero energy homes (see related story). It also established a high bar in community volunteerism, attracting 1,500 volunteers in 15 months.

“The homes are the visible piece” of what Habitat has accomplished, he said.

He was appointed president 14½ years ago. Since then, Habitat has gone from one to 50 employees, including roughly 34 in operations of the ReStore, five or six administrative position and 10 to 12 on job sites.

The ReStore sells gently used furnishings, housewares and some building materials in a 40,000-square-foot space. Its inventory is often replenished by donations from local hotels that refurnish their rooms.

The ReStore has achieved $19 million in sales in the last 12 years and $3 million in last year alone.

The nonprofit organization has an annual budget of about $10 million.

Gilbert said his proudest moment hasn’t been constructing houses or creating the ReStore as a steady source of revenue. “It’s creating an amazing team with a ridiculous can-do attitude,” he said.

After 15 years of dogged effort and a lengthy list of accomplishments with Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork, Scott Gilbert will step down Tuesday as president of the nonprofit organization.

Former state senator and Willits resident Gail Schwartz will be appointed as interim president, Gilbert said Monday. Schwartz is currently chair of the Habitat chapter’s board of directors. She joined the board six months ago at Gilbert’s request and became chair one month ago.

Gilbert said Schwartz has been a valuable resource for him as Habitat navigated the politics of affordable housing in the Roaring Fork Valley and state of Colorado. She has credibility in the valley as “someone who makes things happen, someone with experience in affordable housing. There are very few people who I have as much respect and admiration for as Gail,” Gilbert said.

“I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty demanding guy,” he continued. “My standards are pretty high. I push myself as hard as anybody. To think someone might come in and not have my commitment scared me. I’ll trust my baby to Gail and support her in every way possible. I’m ecstatic.”

“Habitat is not just building one house at a time. It is being part of the solution to this housing crisis, not just in this valley but statewide.” — Gail Schwartz

Gilbert, 66, retired from a career in advertising at age 50, then got heavily involved in Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork, first as a volunteer on the board of directors and soon after as president. He said the job is extremely time consuming, and he was ready to step back. He voluntarily sought the reduction to a part-time role, but wanted to keep the duties he enjoys the most.

The chapter has experienced immense growth under his leadership (see info box). It has drawn regional attention for its Basalt Vista project, a collaborative effort with the Roaring Fork School District, Holy Cross Energy and the governments of Pitkin County and Basalt and the Community Office of Resource Efficiency. When completed in two years, Basalt Vista will provide 27 units of affordable housing and be net zero in energy use.

Gilbert said the chapter graduated from a homebuilder to a developer and convener with the project.

Schwartz labeled Basalt Vista the “beta site for net zero homes.” The project is showing that the Roaring Fork chapter can be a leading innovator in the broader organization’s mission to provide quality housing for people in need.

“OK, now let’s bring it to scale,” she said.

The Habitat board will work on finding a permanent replacement president in the “near future,” according to a statement.

“I’m an interim,” Schwartz said. “We need to define the role and find the person that best fits our needs, (assess) where the talent is within the rest of the staff then we’ll take whatever time it takes.”

She said she would consider applying for the permanent position.

Gilbert will remain as a part-time advisor to the board. He will continue to lead fund-raising, public relations and maintain relationships with key strategic partners.

“He’s my wingman,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz, 70, is prepared for a steep learning curve. It was something she experienced when she became a state senator in 2007. She won re-election to a second four-year term and served until 2015. Schwartz failed to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in a battle for the 3rd Congressional District seat in 2016. She ran as a Democrat.

Schwartz also served as University of Colorado Regent 2001-07 and was the interim director and director of development for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority in its formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

She has also served on numerous nonprofit organizations’ boards in the Roaring Fork Valley, recently completing a six-year term on the Aspen Community Foundation board.

In the private sector, she worked with a firm called Sno-engineering, which worked on feasibility plans and design of ski areas such as Deer Valley and Blackcomb.

“I’ve managed businesses. I’ve managed staff,” Schwartz said. “I understand some of the policy issues. In particular, I have devoted so much of my time to housing.

“Habitat is not just building one house at a time,” she continued. “It is being part of the solution to this housing crisis, not just in this valley but statewide. We can lead the state with a lot of innovation.”

Gilbert said Habitat is fortunate because there are so many cases when an organization changes leadership because something is broken. In this case, the organization is strong and in the middle of a signature project with Basalt Vista.

Schwartz said it will be important for her to be sensitive to the people and culture at Habitat.

“Not only is it convening and building homes, but it’s 50 employees and a Habitat ReStore that helps people have wonderful jobs at a living wage in this valley and also helping homeowners have quality home goods and live in a respectable way,” she said.

Without getting into specific possibilities, Schwartz said there are roughly 10 potential projects that Habitat is exploring. The key is finding land.

“We’re aware of where the possibilities are,” Schwartz said. “There is land in the public sector.”

She said she is eager to sink her teeth into one of the most important community issues.

“This is such a wonderful fit, intellectually, emotionally and continues my desire to serve and make sure we can do better,” Schwartz said. “We always know that we can do better.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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