As Colorado confirmed its first coronavirus cases in March 2020, Pitkin County’s ski resorts were just entering the busiest — and most lucrative — part of the winter season. Then it all came to a crashing halt.
The tens of billions of dollars of pandemic aid that have flowed into the state have gone disproportionately to mountain resort communities, the first to experience the full brunt of the pandemic’s economic devastation two years ago. That’s when all ski resorts, amid concern about the virus’ spread, closed down in mid-March, ultimately under state order.
A Denver Post analysis of direct aid to individuals, businesses, nonprofits and local governments in all 64 Colorado counties found that none saw more money per capita than Pitkin County, home to the quintessential ski town of Aspen.
During the spring of 2020, thousands of workers and hundreds of tourism-dependent businesses were reeling. Ski instructors, hotel clerks and waiters suddenly struggled to make their rent. Many lined up for mass food bank distributions.
“Almost overnight, our unemployment rate went from under 4% to over 25%,” recalled Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, who worked with county commissioners to create immediate assistance programs by drawing on their county reserves. They gave out $1.5 million in less than three months to help residents keep up with housing and food costs.
Mawa McQueen remembers how despondent everything seemed.
“It looked like ‘I’m going to die,’ that’s what it looked like,” said McQueen, whose Mawa’s Kitchen restaurant and catering business had built a loyal base of customers over 14 years. She also owns a crepe stand at the base of the nearby Snowmass ski resort.
Even when the shutdown ended and restaurants reopened to in-person dining with capacity restrictions, McQueen’s tiny 20-seat space meant she’d have to rely longer on takeout business — an even tougher prospect given that her restaurant was just outside city limits in the Airport Business Center. That off-the-beaten-path location is across Colorado 82 from the airport, where, during much of the pandemic, private jets were lined up in higher numbers than usual.
More than $339 million in federal pandemic assistance tracked to Pitkin County recipients by The Post amounted to less than 1% of the state’s total. But it came out to $19,545 per resident — more than twice the average per-capita breakdown statewide. The greatest drivers were programs aimed at keeping businesses alive and workers paid, with 47% of Pitkin County’s money going to recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program, which covered payroll and other fixed costs. The government forgave most of those PPP loans.
Another 11% of the money went to businesses through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, which must be repaid over 30 years. Pitkin County also ranked high for its participation in programs assisting restaurants and shuttered entertainment venues.
Combined, Pitkin County had the highest share of federal assistance directed at small businesses in Colorado, at 62% of its total. As a group, mountain resort counties received half their federal dollars in business loans and grants, The Post’s analysis found, compared to just 38% for metro counties and only a third for rural, non-resort areas.
Because businesses in resort counties serve tourists and vacation homeowners, not just locals, there are more of them than in non-resort areas of a comparable population. And more businesses meant more assistance.
Another factor: Wealthy residents and tourism spending also make resort areas attractive to banks. That strong banking presence paid dividends in a big way during the pandemic because business assistance programs required applying through a lender. And Pitkin, like other resort counties, had a stronger presence of foundations and nonprofits to assist businesses.
Money, in short, attracted more money.
McQueen, a chef born on Africa’s Ivory Coast and raised in Paris, said she felt at a relative disadvantage to better-connected Aspen entrepreneurs. But she got by, ultimately receiving money from the PPP and EIDL programs that bridged some gaps. She said they helped her keep 22 workers employed and, later, expand her restaurant into a neighboring vacant space.
After she had early trouble qualifying for PPP and was shut out of a city aid program for businesses, she said she received help from a Boulder restauranteur, Dave Query, who reached out after hearing about her challenges. He donated restaurant equipment and offered a hand in other ways, she said.
But McQueen said she depended most of all on her own grit. That meant getting creative and trying out new ideas, such as starting a granola business, called Mawa’s GrainFreeNola, that’s still operating today.
“Honestly, I’m here but for the grace of God — that’s all I have to say. Looking back, I had no clue,” she said. “At the time, everything was bad. I felt horrible for all the other people who had to close their restaurants.
“You need to understand: There’s no glory in operating a restaurant. You do it because it’s what you love to do. Trust me, this is the only thing I know how to do, and I do it well.”
Drawing on tight connections and philanthropy
Now things are looking brighter, and tourist visits are mostly back to normal levels. Leaders from local government, nonprofit groups and the business community said Pitkin County persevered through the pandemic’s difficult first year thanks in part to the federal aid.
But the county also drew heavily on its own resources, including a base of wealthy donors — who contributed more than $5 million to a community rescue fund — and tight connections in the business community. The latter provided businesses with help applying for PPP money and fostered support through a gift-card program, while business leaders worked closely with public health officials.
“We all managed to find a way to trust each other and look at the bigger picture — which was that it wasn’t us against each other,” said Debbie Braun, president and CEO of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “It was us against COVID.”
Not all was harmonious, of course, particularly when it came to working out public health restrictions that deeply affected restaurants and the lodging sector. Pitkin County at times had the state’s most stringent restaurant capacity limits. In late 2020 and early 2021, as the county’s case rate led the state, it required visitors to sign an affidavit attesting that they’d received a negative COVID-19 test result prior to their trip. The program allowed for higher hotel occupancy rates, but some believe it turned off potential visitors.
Aspen wasn’t the only mountain community to receive an outsized share of aid.
The Post’s analysis found other tourism-dependent mountain counties ranked high in aid per capita: San Miguel (home to Telluride) came in second, San Juan (Silverton) was fourth, Summit (Breckenridge, Frisco and Silverthorne) was fifth and Eagle (Vail and Avon) was sixth. Those counties drew between $13,137 and $17,286 per resident.
The city and county of Denver ranked third, drawing $16,776 per resident. It was the only non-mountain county in the top five.
A mountain-community dynamic that inflates the mountain counties’ per-capita totals is that the calculations are based on their full-time populations, or 17,363 in Pitkin County. They also have thousands of part-time residents and second-homeowners, along with heavy visitor traffic.
But those factors are part of what make those counties’ business communities so robust — and vulnerable, as they found out in 2020.
“An incredibly difficult place to live”
In Aspen’s case, roughly 60% of workers live outside the county. Each day, a stream of ski resort employees and other workers jam Colorado 82 up the Roaring Fork Valley as they commute from Glenwood Springs and beyond.
But Aspen isn’t just for the rich. Plenty of longtime workers try to hack it there, too.
“It’s an incredible place to live — and an incredibly difficult place to live,” says Katherine Sand, executive director of Aspen Family Connections, a nonprofit group that serves families through the school system. It pivoted during the pandemic to help marshal food distributions that served thousands of people throughout the valley, among other programs.
The impact “was startling, because it was immediate,” Sand said. “What we noticed is that everybody counts on (spring break crowds), and when that month disappears overnight, they had nothing — they had nothing to fall back on. We’re not necessarily low-paid people. We’re talking about successful ski instructors and people who work in well-paying jobs. It was across-the-board. People really had no Plan B.”
The pandemic worsened Pitkin County’s housing crunch, several local leaders said, as second-homeowners retreated to Aspen and other people relocated there from around the country. Some traveled in those private planes.
Aspen Skiing Co., a private company that operates the area’s four ski resorts and is one of the largest local employers, did not seek PPP or other federal pandemic aid as it absorbed the economic shock, spokesman Jeff Hanle said.
After the 2020 ski season abruptly ended, he said, the company continued paying its seasonal workers for about a month, until resorts normally would have closed, and didn’t charge rent to residents in worker housing.
Peacock, the county manager, said the early county relief programs were part of nearly $6 million in reimbursements it was able to get from local government aid programs in pandemic relief bills passed by Congress. The county and the city of Aspen also used their distributions to put together local aid programs for businesses that supplemented the federal aid.
Some of that was part of a $9.7 million public/private effort coordinated by the Aspen Community Foundation, including some programs coordinated with neighboring valley communities.
The ski-resort company pitched in, detailing its suddenly idled events staff to help coordinate logistics for food banks’ pick-up sites.
“It was an amazing community effort around food distribution,” said Valerie Carlin, who oversees the community foundation’s programs.
Homelessness is among the problems the county has tried to address, Peacock said, including more money for shelter programs. For more than a year, through last fall, Pitkin County set up a safe outdoor space at a park-and-ride north of Aspen, where 30 or more people at a time took up residence in recreational vehicles and heated tents.
Federal money buttressed the arts, businesses
The federal money helped with the triage. PPP awards kept thousands of workers employed, while unemployment compensation and stimulus checks went directly into residents’ pockets.
Pitkin County ranked in Colorado’s top 10 for how much it received per resident in those categories, and it topped the list for PPP awards and the SBA loan program. It also was in the top 10 for per-capita shares of programs that provided emergency rental assistance, kept shuttered venues afloat and provided grants to restaurants for revitalization, along with transportation funds awarded to the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.
Among $161 million doled out to more than 1,000 recipients of PPP awards, larger amounts went to the kinds of businesses that depend on tourism — including property management and vacation rental companies, event producers, hotels, restaurants and retail outlets.
The Aspen Valley Hospital District, which operates the 25-bed hospital, topped the PPP list. But its board ended up repaying its $8.2 million loan out of concern that aid it received from other federal pandemic programs for health care providers, along with philanthropic dollars, made it ineligible for PPP forgiveness.
The second-highest PPP total went to an entity connected to the ownership of the tony St. Regis Aspen Resort. It took in $5.3 million in two installments, based on payroll needs for 239 employees.
Stephane De Baets, the founder and president of Elevated Returns, the international investment firm that is the hotel’s controlling owner, declined to discuss the impact of the assistance to the St. Regis, which is operated by Marriott.
“One thing I can tell you is that every single dollar of aid went into the payment of all the employees,” said De Baets, an Aspen resident.
For Wendy Mitchell, who operates three businesses — a cheese company as well as a restaurant and a basement bar in downtown Aspen — nearly $500,000 she received in a forgiven PPP loan in 2020 provided stabilization at a time she was forced to improvise repeatedly. Her Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop was helped most by outdoor seating, even in the winter; Hooch, the cocktail bar, was a tougher nut to crack.
“It was definitely taxing,” Mitchell said, “but we just were flexible and tried to make everything work. And we were pretty successful in not having to let people go.”
Things have stabilized — almost. These days, she said, her biggest concerns are the impact of rising inflation, which may require raising her prices, and Aspen’s housing shortage. The latter has made it difficult to hire for an open sous-chef position, she said.
Two blocks away, dinner and dancing were a tough mix to pull off amid the most severe pandemic restrictions, so 7908 Aspen, a late-night supper club named after the city’s elevation, faced nearly two years of challenges. The Post’s data shows the business received nearly $720,000 in PPP money and nearly $2 million from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a program aimed at replenishing lost revenue.
In recent months, things have finally gotten back to normal, with the return of DJs playing dance music for revelers late into the evening, said Frank Iglesias, 7908’s director of guest relations.
“This new normal for us is looking busier than we’ve ever been before,” he said.
Housing pressures affect arts groups, too
Arts organizations and performance venues also had a tough time in the last two years.
A half-dozen theaters and other spaces in Pitkin County won assistance from the shuttered venues program, according to The Post’s data analysis. The most, $5.3 million, went to the Belly Up Aspen, a storied concert club that shut down its normally busy stage for more than a year. Owner Michael Goldberg declined to discuss the venue’s finances with The Post, but it resumed hosting shows last summer.
The Aspen Music Festival and School, which typically brings in 1,000 musicians for eight weeks each summer for instructional programs and daily concerts, had to scramble to make the huge undertaking entirely virtual in 2020.
The festival resumed in person last summer, but with less than half the normal participants and fewer concerts because of pandemic restrictions. The organization has received $723,500 in PPP money and $2.1 million in shuttered venues assistance.
“Those were crucial to our coming through financially,” said Alan Fletcher, its president and CEO. “And our donors completely stayed with us … even though we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do. So we came through really pretty well financially.”
But like other local leaders, he’s worried about how housing pressures will affect his organization’s vitality. They’ve already crashed the return to normal he’d envisioned this year; a shortage of available short-term housing for faculty, students and other visitors has forced a nearly 15% reduction in the number of students who will participate.
The housing shortage is a problem that looks likely to outlast the pandemic. Peacock, the county manager, said elected officials are discussing using $3.4 million that remains from the county’s share of money from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act to invest in both child-care facilities and housing. They also plan to band together with the valley’s towns and neighboring counties to seek some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in ARPA money that state lawmakers have proposed spending on housing in coming years.
A spokeswoman for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which operates buses throughout the valley, says it plans to provide about 70 housing units for employees this year to stem a worker shortage as it works on a longer-term initiative.
“The school districts can’t get people,” Fletcher said. “Hospitals can’t get people. Skiing Co. even can’t get people. So we’re all facing a real staffing crisis, which is based on housing. I don’t have any answer for what we’re going to do, but all of us are looking at putting every resource we have into developing affordable housing.”
Staff writer Aldo Svaldi contributed to this story.