Editor’s column: Carbondale can preserve its authenticity
Post Independent reporter John Stroud recalls the first winter he lived in Carbondale, 1987-88, sitting in what then was the Steakhouse, where Town restaurant is now, with the late musician Howard Berkman.
It was dumping snow, no plows were out and downtown was largely deserted. It was, John recalls, an extremely cool mountain moment.
PI features and entertainment editor Will Grandbois, born after Stroud moved to town, recalls growing up in a sleepy village that didn’t offer much to do. He considers the mid- to late-90s Carbondale’s “sweet spot,” when it was adding some amenities but still intimate.
How things have changed — and what a great challenge town leaders face to preserve Carbondale’s charm while enabling reasonable growth, improving housing options and stabilizing finances.
It’s tough to do as the local economy continues its transition from a gritty mining and cow town to a hip recreation and art center attracting empty nesters and upvalley refugees.
Mayor Stacey Bernot, a fifth-generation Carbondalian, says that she’s not sure her children could afford to stay if they want to and notes that few of the people with whom she grew up are still in town.
“We’re an endangered species,” she says of what she calls the “tolerant redneck” residents tied to Carbondale’s heritage.
I’m one of the flatland interlopers drawn to the mountains who are, arguably, ruining Colorado and its gems like Carbondale. In my defense, I cite my humble roots that put me spiritually closer to families scratching by in trailer parks than those in the rambling River Valley Ranch homes with unobstructed Sopris views.
My wife and I, after eight years of enjoying life in downtown Detroit and Cincinnati, almost pinch ourselves to be sure this fabulously cool little town where we landed is a real experience.
What I love about Carbondale second most, right after its easy access to splendid outdoor recreation, is what I would term its quirky authenticity.
I enjoy turning onto a dirt street during a run, seeing a diversity of families playing in the parks, watching the Colorado dog-and-Subaru culture and bumping into folks who appear to have just come out of the woods. Those experiences offset encounters with the polished wealth more common in Aspen but frequently obvious in Carbondale, too.
I’m also spoiled and I’m glad the wealthy are there as benefactors, arts patrons and economic fuel to support the new Western aspects of town. The public art is fabulous, and it’s great to be able to choose from the several terrific restaurants, to walk down Main Street for espresso or to get my few remaining hairs cut at a nice shop that pampers me.
Carbondale just has a great feel, and locals and valley residents far outnumber tourists on the streets.
I’ve been in town only two years, so it’s possible my observations are nothing new — but it also may be that I’m not a frog that’s been sitting in the increasingly hot water, barely noticing that it’s coming to a boil. Whichever, I’m concerned that an elitism is endangering the unique character that separates Carbondale from Aspen or even Basalt.
I was taken aback when supporters of Carbondale’s recently defeated carbon tax couldn’t tell me how much their property taxes had gone up this year — which tells me they can easily afford the 40 to 70 percent increases that hit town — and argued that the estimated $8-per-month utility fee amounted to “just a couple of lattes.”
Stroud points out that some families count themselves lucky to brew a pot of Folgers and to have milk for the kids.
Such families, invariably hard workers, many of them immigrants, are a critical part of the fabric of Carbondale, as are folks like Bernot’s family with deep roots in town.
The carbon tax advocates and their kindred spirits would say they support a community diverse in financial means, age and ethnicity. I think they mean well, but their perspective is skewed by a more privileged life experience.
Town Council needs to tap into the working-class view. That means proactive outreach — including to Latino families — and a willingness to listen to the dissident voice.
Carbondale can be a laboratory for ways to address the attainable housing crunch that is central to this discussion. Obviously, if housing inventory can increase and include lower-end rentals, that helps retain the diverse population key to protecting the town’s character — and characters, some of whom are entrepreneurial and/or can be future leaders in town and the valley.
Unlike Glenwood Springs, Carbondale has land that can be used for housing, and is the perfect spot to choose creative options, such as a tiny house village, co-housing or Habitat projects like one planned near Basalt High School, among other possibilities.
In a small town, demographics can change one house at a time. One family leaves town, then another and another, all replaced by better-heeled newcomers. The solution must be to chip away, one project at a time.
Bernot notes a lack of understanding that policies are linked. Voting down bigger retail developments, resisting every proposed rental project and then passing a stringent green building code all play a role in making it harder for folks of average income to stay in town.
“We’re not a gated community,” Bernot says. “We’re all linked. Decisions are linked. People are linked.”
Carbondale can make a stand that everyone in town is in this together and can help find solutions together.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.