What if Fat Tire or PBR had rented out Crested Butte’s main street?
Community takes off gloves to debate Whatever
by Allen Best
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Would Crested Butte have gotten into such an dither about this weekend’s big party if New Belgium, the brewer of Fat Tire beer, or Pabst Blue Ribbon had been the brewer staking out Elk Avenue?
Crested Butte, of course, was one of the seminal spots for mountain biking in the 1970s, and Fat Tire is among the most successful of the craft beers.
And Pabst? It seems to be the beer of choice among penny-pinching locals in Gunnison/Crested Butte for whom money is an object.
Bud Light? It weaves into the middle, and of course, mountain towns have almost no middle class.
Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of Bud Light, approached Crested Butte last spring about using several blocks of Elk Avenue, the town’s iconic main street, to become the venue for Whatever, the company’s on-line advertising promotion. The identity of the party site was not identified but 108,000 people applied to fly to wherever. Given the publicity in the last two weeks, undoubtedly the element of surprise has disappeared.
The 500 contest winners and one guest each are being flown today on chartered jets, including a 757, which has not been previously landed at the airport in Gunnison. For two nights, there will be a party and music in downtown Crested Butte and the nearby ice-skating rink.
By 10 a.m. on Sunday it will be all over and all the revelers will be gone and the lampposts will be on their way to being green once again.
For this, Crested Butte gets $500,000 (double the original offer), and plenty of business on the first weekend after Labor Day, normally a quiet time. Representatives as of mid-week were already in the process of painting the town—or at least the three blocks of Elk Avenue, the lamp posts, bicycle racks and even the street—blue, jibing with the Bud Lite theme: Lamp posts, bicycle racks and even the streets.
What an argument Crested Butte has had, though.
“I’ve always maintained that despite its happy-happy mountain village patina, Crested Butte is one of the most bare-knuckled towns in the Rockies. It is part of the charm of this place,” wrote Mark Reaman, editor of the Crested Butte News, as his town squared off.
The plan was seen “by some as selling out the town, while others view it as getting a bump in the pocketbook,” he continued. “Not since Snodgrass (the proposed ski area expansion) have I seen something blow up like this debate. And this might be the new angst standard.”
In a unanimous decision on Aug. 28, four days after the first public review and a week before the winners were scheduled to start arriving, the council approved the plan. The members were in session eight hours, and even the second, more lightly attended meeting drew 200 people.
One backlash was against the perception of a secretive process. In fact, the possibility of a special event had been mentioned at a council meeting and reported by the newspaper, but without specificity. Representatives of the event organizer had begun meeting with merchants in the three-block segment. No effort was made to conceal what was going on, but neither was there an effort to make sure everybody knew. The stated reason: to prevent a lot of party-crashers.
That wasn’t the public perception. “I do not understand how this got this far down the road in absolute secrecy,” said former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, who lives at least part-time in Crested Butte.
There was also a perception that the town was willing to sell itself far too cheaply.
Harsh words were said, as was illustrated in the comments of Jim Schmidt, a member of the council for 24 years. He acknowledged a “failure” to communicate with the community, but he also pushed back at critics.
“This event is not shameful and despicable. What’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., and the Gaza (Strip) is shameful and despicable. I am also offended by accusations of impropriety by the council. That has not happened at all.”
Shaun Matusewicz, another council member, said much of the opposition seemed to be based in fear. “I don’t operate from a place of fear. I operate from a place of facts,” he said. He noted that he had previously worked special events in New York City, and he had one application to shut down Central Park that was all of seven pages long. The application to Crested Butte was hundreds of pages. Budweiser will have 90 of its own security people.
In other words, it looks like Budweiser’s folks have done their homework about how to paint the town blue with out leaving it black and blue.
Aaron Huckstep, the mayor, also chided opponents for their conservatism. “The notion is that we have to overcome all possible objections to this isn’t the Crested Butte I know and love,” he said. “If that were the case there would never have been a klunker tour over Pearl Pass or a Chainless (bicycle) Race.”
He, and other council members, also alluded to reports of people from Budweiser being treated disrespectfully, contrary to the generally friendly atmosphere of the town.
“We treat guests with respect here. And as for us, let’s remember that we are not just a walkable community, but we are a talkable community. You can speak to your neighbors and your representatives if you have questions or concerns.”
Reaman, the editor, probably spoke for many when he said that if the council elections were held tomorrow, nobody would be reelected.
But process alone did not explain this brawl. Reaman talked about worries about sullying of the Crested Butte “brand.” Denver Post reporter Nancy Lofholm may have hit on it early on with a comment that Bud Lite is a factory-produced beer in a town with craft-beer sensibilities.
Huckstep, in an interview with MTN, acknowledges that Bud Lite isn’t exactly mainstream in this happily out-of-the-way resort.
Consider the Brick Oven, Pizzeria and Pub, located next to the post office. It has 30 beers on tap, mostly craft beers produced in Colorado. It has in the past served Bud, but not now. The best seller is from Avery, a beer out of Boulder. It also has Pabst Blue Ribbon for the devotees, called pibbers.
Dan Loftus, a co-owner, said he will no more drink Bud Light he will eat anchovies. He will, however, happily serve Budweiser this weekend.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time we are just selling craft beers and great pizzas, and that’s what we do. But if somebody wants to rent the place and drink champagne—no problem,” he says. This, he explains, is no different.
Would the event have gone over better if it had been sponsored by Pabst or, of that matter, Avery? He thinks so. “I think it would have been more warmly received. People have this big company mentality, sort of a two strikes against it.”
Schmidt, a resident of Crested Butte since the late 1970s, is a rarity there, a Budweiser drinker. “For many, many years it was my beer of choice,” he says. “I always said that if I had spent as much money buying Budweiser stock as I spent buying Budweiser, I’d own the company now.”
He sees inconsistency in the opposition. Many of the events held in Crested Butte are sponsored by beer companies. They take over the town in different ways. Sierra Nevada, for example, was a sponsor of last year’s USA Pro Challenge bicycle race. Oskar Blues and New Belgium have also been sponsors.
Did the factions of Crested Butte align along the same cleavages as the Snodgrass expansion? In that case, those favoring more business tended to support the expansion, and those with less stake in a growing economy opposed it.
In general, divisions this time were the same—but not universally so, says Schmidt. He sees exceptions in both directions. But he tells MTN that the business community would have been furious with the town council had it rejected the proposal.
Huckstep thinks the pushback comes from “fear over loss of community.” Crested Butte has had a big year, mostly in summer, with sales tax revenues 10 percent over last year. “The local backcountry is becoming much busier—some would say crowded,” he adds. “The East River and Slate River drainages are packed with campers, and we are seeing more all-terrain vehicle and off-highway use. And Elk Avenue has been busy.
“People are concerned (and I think rightfully) that we do not want to lose the charm of Crested Butte. This type of event brings attention to a place that some believe has enough attention already. And the fear is that the attention will only exacerbate the issues we already face.”
Taking a more global view was George Sibley, who edited Crested Butte’s paper in the 1960s and today lives in Gunnison, a half-hour away.
“I wouldn’t travel a block, let alone 30 miles, for a free Bud Light. But I’m still bothered by it, not so much for the way it is unfolding in our valley as for what it says about where our world is going. Going to the point: why do corporations have all the money in America, if not the world, while towns, cities, counties, states are starved? Why does a beer corporation have millions to blow on this kind of stupid foolishness, while true communities —wherever—cannot afford to house the people they need to remain a community?”
That same corporate buying of the local brands exists in Colorado’s elections, Sibley charges.
In his recap, Reaman colorfully pointed out that ‘the people coming here this weekend will not be having a Crested Butte experience. The Town Council and majority of the community made a choice to hand over Elk Avenue and let Bud Light throw on the pancake makeup and heavy lipstick.”
But he also noted deeper issues as Crested Butte flirts with success such as other mountain towns have experienced as resorts. “The bottom line is that the CB council certainly owes the community a real discussion when (the event) is over.”
This article is from the Sept. 5, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. For a subscription to the e-mail based e-magazine, please send a $15 check to Mountain Town News, 5705 Yukon St., Arvada CO 80002. Include your e-mail address.