How can we help people stay here in paradise?
Only about a third of Glenwood Springs’ police officers live in town, and Chief Terry Wilson knows that affects their affinity for the community they are paid to keep safe.
“When you have the bulk of your personnel living 15, 18, 20 miles away, I think there’s just a little difference in the connection,” Wilson said. “They’re rooted in the place that their house is rooted.”
Teachers throughout the Roaring Fork School District struggle to get by. Some stay in principals’ basements, many share homes with other teachers and work at menial retail or food service jobs.
Nurses paid north of $50,000 a year can’t afford to live in the town where they work, which means long commutes, more fatigue and more stress.
That barista at Starbucks? The server at your favorite restaurant? The guy who guides raft trips on the side through the summer? All might have master’s degrees and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
We all know that it’s pricey to live in the Roaring Fork Valley, in the shadow of the 1 percent in Aspen. It’s not just Aspen of course — wealth is spread through the valley, which drives up housing prices. Geographic constraints, construction costs and political aversion to growth and development — every proposal is a fight because of our desire to protect the character and beauty of the place — keep supply down.
As Wilson says, “We pay for the views out our windows.” And when we are loving the outdoors on skis or a bike, in a raft, casting for fish or hiking an alpine trail, it’s hard to say it’s not worth it.
But is this any way to build a community?
Today, the Post Independent begins a series called “The Price of Paradise.” It’s both a traditional newspaper series, with stories running today through Friday, and a modern multimedia project with a 20-minute documentary published at Postindependent.com — including music from local songwriter Jim Hawkins.
Through the documentary and series, you will meet several of your neighbors from a variety of walks of life who share their joys — and their struggles of making ends meet.
The Boston Globe earlier this year, as part of its “Divided America” project, chose Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley to illustrate income inequality in America, juxtaposing Aspen’s billionaires with immigrants who provide services for them. The Globe noted that “more than half of the city’s 11,000 workers are so priced out of Aspen, and the surrounding area, that they must drive more than an hour to work here.”
Or, as the black humor of the region goes, people here either have three houses or three jobs. Let me add that many of the latter also commute three hours a day, promoting fatigue and killing family time.
These are truths not only about the sharp contrast between the richest of the rich and those we traditionally view as the working poor. They are a reality for many well-educated professionals, particularly those in helping jobs — cops, teachers, nurses — who increasingly find they cannot afford to stay here.
The billionaires with which this nation is so preoccupied will be fine, of course. But to have healthy communities, we need police officers who are invested in their towns, teachers who know families, leaders and volunteers with institutional and community knowledge — and residents who are engaged because they consider this home. To have full lives, people must have time to spend with their families, in their children’s schools, on community events and enjoying the great surroundings. Multiple jobs and ridiculous schedules destroy quality of life even in a place with so much fun and peace to offer.
Our area is growing, and as much as some of us would like it not to, it’s not going to stop.
Our series shows the critical need for employers and governments to develop a regional strategy for affordable housing and job growth. It shows the need to support RFTA and to appreciate our neighbors — young, old, immigrant and native.
“The Price of Paradise” is focused on the hard work people do to make a living and contribute to our communities. If it does nothing else, we hope the project builds empathy among us. The folks you encounter day to day are working at least as hard as you are. Those tooling along Highway 82 in shiny Audis would do well to remember that the fellow in the beat-up pickup truck driving a few feet from them probably is in the midst of a really long day.
Discussion of income inequality in America — a serious conversation about a serious issue — generally is conducted in the language of division. Our local solutions will come, though, only if we believe we are all in it together.
Parachute to Aspen, rich, poor and in the middle, we are, whether we recognize it or not.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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