With as many as a dozen projects being put forth by the city of Aspen that could affect thousands of people, the municipal government is searching for feedback from the public before launching its planned initiatives.
From neighborhood meetings and barbecues to pop-up events and online surveys, focus groups and City Council presentations, city officials and staff are trying to reach as many people as possible.
But how much is too much?
That is what the newly created communications team in City Hall is trying to figure out as it rolls out new engagement platforms and ways to reach the public.
“People feel like they are getting too much,” said Tracy Trulove, the city’s communications director. “There are so many things that we want engagement from people on.”
Trulove and her team are trying something new this week by combining multiple projects in two open houses called the “Feedback Forum.”
On Wednesday at the Limelight Hotel during the lunch hour and after-traditional-work hours, the city will present information on four projects that will have an impact on Aspen’s future built environment.
The event also will have an information table with various city departments that have projects going on, including planned affordable housing developments and the future of child care.
“We are trying to cross pollinate the people who are coming for something and take advantage of that captive audience,” said Trulove, who was hired in May and started in July. “Our goal is to combine our organizational resources and conserve the public’s time by hosting a shared event that concentrates our engagement efforts.”
The project that will likely take center stage is the future design of Galena Plaza, the scope of which has been extended by Aspen City Council based on the concerns of a handful of citizens who are critical of the government’s 37,500-square-foot office building going up next to it.
When PR Studio, the firm contracted by the city to conduct outreach, held neighborhood meetings earlier this fall, few members of the public showed up.
But based on feedback from those who did attend the meetings — which included mostly city staff and library representatives, as well as a couple dozen citizens chiming in online — three design concepts have been drafted for Galena Plaza.
They will be unveiled during Wednesday’s open houses, and people in attendance can engage in keypad polling with opinions on what they see.
“This is an opportunity to review the alternatives and whether you like the direction they’re headed in,” Trulove said. “The team is really interested in hearing from people.”
Small cell infrastructure that the federal government has OK’d to be installed in cities across the country to support 5G technology has gotten little interest from the public thus far.
While the local government cannot disallow a provider from installing 5G infrastructure, it can regulate design standards so it’s not blight on the aesthetics of town.
And that’s what the city wants feedback on.
Because it did not get a lot of traction with the public during outreach meetings, small cell is included in Wednesday’s forum.
City officials are hoping that the planned $1.2 million in improvements to the Paepcke transit hub along Main and Garmisch streets, or information on whether Aspen wants electric scooters and bikes to be part of the urban landscape, will bring people to Wednesday’s forum, and then weigh in on the Galena Plaza or small cell infrastructure.
“We hope the forum approach gets a different level of involvement,” Trulove said.
Collaboration, not outreach
Mayor Torre acknowledged that just having neighborhood meetings isn’t enough.
When running for office earlier this year, he campaigned on more effective outreach and communication by the city, saying that the municipal government had failed in communicating with the public in the past couple of years.
“I campaigned more on our communication, and outreach is not necessarily good communication,” Torre said last week, adding that he heard from constituents about their displeasure with how the city government was informing them of what it was doing.
“We are having a large reaction to the lack of effective outreach and communication,” he said.
He, along with Councilman Skippy Mesirow, who also campaigned on more effective engagement with the public, said next year’s focus will be on defining a vision for communicating.
“We don’t know what it looks like yet but it’s changing our focus from policy to collaboration,” Torre said.
Mesirow said in a recent meeting when council was being updated on three city-led affordable housing projects, that he didn’t want “outreach for outreach’s sake.”
Last week he expanded on that thought.
“It’s not telling, educating or dictative,” he said. “To me, it’s a collaborative process and we create solutions together.”
How to achieve that is what Trulove and her team are assessing now, before going to council with a communications plan next year.
“What level of the decision-making process do we want the public to participate in?” Trulove asked. “Who are our citizens? What tools do we use to target them?”
She said there are many ways to communicate with the public; outreach is simply telling people information. Then there’s consulting with them and asking them questions.
“If you are collaborating with the public, you are putting it on them,” Trulove said. “We need people to reach back.”
When the project team for Water Place II housing reached out to the neighbors in the Twin Ridge and Meadowood subdivisions about the city potentially building as many as 48 units, they intentionally didn’t have plans to show them.
They wanted neighbors’ feedback first, before creating any architectural drawings or a density plan.
But based on comments from some neighbors at a council meeting last month, they were more concerned with any development near them and criticized the team for not having any plans to look at.
Mesirow thanked the longtime Aspen residents for participating early in the process and giving their feedback to council in a constructive manner rather than at the last minute when the project is ready for approval.
Trulove and elected officials acknowledged the phenomena of eleventh-hour critics showing up once a project has been approved.
“There’s always going to be people who show up at the last minute. … We work with what we can,” Torre said.
Looking in rather than out
Trulove said she’s looking at an overall strategy, which includes examining how outside consultants are used.
She said she’s bringing a lot of the efforts internally, and department heads throughout city government are starting to rely on her team to help get the word out on their initiatives.
“I want a good crossover,” she said.
Currently, the city is contracted with several different firms that are responsible for public outreach on a number of projects.
PR Studio is being paid just over $13,500 for its work on dockless mobility; nearly $16,000 on the Paepcke transit hub and almost $10,000 for Galena Plaza.
For its three affordable housing projects — known under the title “Framing the Future” and includes up to a combined 300 units at Water Place II, the Harbert Lumber and mini storage site and Burlingame Ranch — there are a few teams assembled, according to Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing project manager.
City Council in June signed off on contracts with design teams, which all have incorporated local public relations experts.
Community outreach and PR accounts for tens of thousands of dollars in city expenditures for the initial phases of the three affordable housing projects.
A framework for the future
Trulove said the outreach efforts for Framing the Future are ones to be modeled after, as they are using different techniques to get public feedback.
Everson said affordable housing is such a hot-button issue that it garners the attention of many people in the community.
“It’s such an important topic in town that we don’t have a lack of participation,” he said, adding that he and the design teams will be available during Wednesday’s forum.
Another outreach effort concerning affordable housing is expected to get underway in early 2020.
With as many as 6,000 people or more living in roughly 3,000 units in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority inventory, major changes are being considered to the rules of the 40-year-old program.
Mesirow, who sits on a subcommittee of the APCHA board specifically focused on outreach related to housing program guideline changes, explained to his fellow council members last month that he and others are looking at how to format public meetings and events around the topic.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards cautioned Mesirow to not oversaturate people with information and make them go to multiple meetings.
Trulove, who has been asked to help frame the scope of the housing guidelines communications plan, said she wants to move away from the shotgun approach to public outreach.
She also said she appreciates that new city leadership has recognized the government in the past hasn’t communicated with the community effectively.
“People might blow us up for trying new things but we want to get quality out of this,” Trulove said. “We are spending a lot of time internally figuring this out.”