Crested Butte’s brouhaha about beer and brands

The lamp poles and bicycle racks for three blocks of crested Butte are blue, not green. townspeople are black and blue after a bruising fight about the propriety of  the arrangement. Photos/Allen Best

The lamp poles and bicycle racks for three blocks of crested Butte are blue, not green. townspeople are black and blue after a bruising fight about the propriety of the arrangement. Photos/Allen Best

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.Elk Avenue horizontal curves

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.”

Elk Avenue, Crested ButteShaun 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.Elk Ave colbal

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.”Crested Butte Bliss

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.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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6 Responses to Crested Butte’s brouhaha about beer and brands

  1. sanjuro says:

    As a long time resident of New Orleans and attendee of many NorCal small town events, there is a natural evolution of a successful city-wide party, where there is respect for local residents and an attempt to fit in the spirit and culture of the area. Visitors are welcomed to join in the local fun.

    This event, organized by an international corporation, is the opposite of a local event in every way.

    • Melissa says:

      I agree with you. Having lived in NOLA for a number of years, I think of how streamlined the logistics of hosting Mardi Gras has become. Also, New Orleans has a rich culture that can be found everywhere, with the exception of Bourbon Street during Gras. What worries me is how a small town like CB will handle the waste, garbage and possible vandalism from this event. I love Crested Butte for its charm, farmer’s market (which caters to local and sustainable produce and meats) skiing, outdoor activities, etc. The fact that it is a corporate brand versus an event that features local brews is upsetting as well. I think CB “sold-out” to big corporate.

  2. Even if one decides to forgive the secrecy,the bastardization of small town democracy, and the very gray area of people whose job it is to protect the interests of all town residents, receiving money from Anheuser Busch (which MUST be some kind of legal conflict of interest) this is still a cluster.

    Crested Butte is a town up for all kinds of Whatever, when created with integrity. Right now, as the Whatever event is about to begin, most local residents are without access. Though access was promised to all Crested Butte locals and also Gunnison County residents, the local access wristbands ran out at 5 PM last night. No mention had been made about limits and people are rightly fuming. There will be no more wristbands made available except for workers whose names are on a list.

    Many who were against the event had begun to relax a bit and keep an open mind since it was in our face regardless. Now promises have been broken. More locals cannot get in, than can. Wristbands are being scalped on Craiglist. I am beyond curious to see what happens tonight and tomorrow, as citizens of CB tend to creatively take matter into their own hands when trust is broken.


  3. pamela says:

    wow. what a disaster.. $500,000.00 to trash the town? i mean, who was negotiating
    this? A-B makes that amount in a few hours… to have so much crap thrown around, and thrown away… crested butte blew it. where does the $ go? perhaps next time, the nest whatever town will just say, no thanks.

  4. Sweetie says:

    1,000 people and their wallets are going to trash CB?

    What a self delusional (and self righteous) bunch Coloradans can be.

    Your “lifestyle” choices and fear of the outside world should not be threatened every time a tourist comes to town of someone wants to pump a few bucks in to your economy.

    Pabst and New Belgium are big corporations, New Belgium is the 8th largest brewer in America, they have not been a “craft” brewer for years.

    • Talk about self delusional says:

      It’s not 1,000 tourists and their wallets headed to CB to enjoy the small town vibe, local shops, and beautiful outdoors. It’s 1,000 drunks headed to “Whatever, USA” to enjoy expertly marketed and manufactured gimmicks, and to get wasted off free bud light.

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