Aspen City Council members on Tuesday expressed their disappointment in the developers who were behind the yet-to-be-built Gorsuch Haus hotel on land they flipped to a Russian billionaire and made a $66 million profit in less than a year’s time.
Norway Island LLC — a partnership including Jim DeFrancia of Lowe’s Development, Jeff Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson — last week sold their 1-acre slope-side parcel at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side to a Miami-based development firm for $76.25 million.
The local group bought the property this past July from Aspen Skiing Co. for $10 million, after campaigning hard in the spring of 2019 to convince voters to approve a roughly 320,000-square-foot commercial development, including their hotel, at the base of Aspen Mountain’s Lift 1A.
Elected officials conveyed during council comments in Tuesday’s regular meeting that they felt it was disingenuous that Gorsuch relied on his family name and their Aspen history to get the Lift One Corridor project approved, which only won by a margin of 26 votes.
“I’d just like to share my personal disappointment in the way the Gorsuch Haus thing turned out,” said Councilman John Doyle, who as a citizen prior to being elected to council campaigned against the project.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who was on the majority of council in January of 2019 when he voted to refer to voters that March two ordinances governing the redevelopment, along with a $4.36 million taxpayer subsidy, also expressed his disappointment on Tuesday.
“I also felt a sense of betrayal by what went down with the transfer of ownership with the Gorsuch Haus,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything that this council can do other than to express our feelings on that transfer. I have no idea where the money comes from and there’s no power we have, the City Council, to do anything about it.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards called the situation “sad.”
“I don’t know if the price is at all commensurate with the potential pro forma of that hotel should it ever be built but it’s a nice safe place to park money,” she said. “I am very disappointed by the people who told our community this was about locals, locals doing local things.
“Now, I would remind myself and all of us that there are community benefits and there are reasons why the community did choose to vote for the redevelopment of that area and there are no changes that come with the purchase price in terms of the land use approval so we’ll be taking a bigger careful view to that.”
Gorsuch did not return a phone message Wednesday seeking comment. In an interview Monday with The Aspen Times, Gorsuch said: “I never said I had $200 million to build a hotel. There is, to me, a responsibility (to build the project), and I feel we made good on that.” He later added, “I was the voice and face of the project. We didn’t betray the public trust.”
Mayor Torre said he had an idea for the Gorsuch investors who just cashed in that “perhaps returning some of the community’s $4.36 million of taxpayer money that was put up as part of the development proposal would be a great nod to the community that they’ve been heard.”
The $4.36 million, which is in an escrow account that council voted to put toward the project, will go to public facing amenities like a ski museum, a public park and improvements to Dean Street, where the terminus of a new telemix ski lift will be located.
The Lift One Lodge ordinance notes in section 32 that the funds will be released to Lift One Lodge, the other lodging component of the project, when the chairlift is in working condition.
“The language specifically states that the funds are not being offered for the commercial components but to help fund certain elements that will benefit the public (aka the public facing elements like Lift 1),” said Jen Phelan, the city’s project manager and coordinator of the Lift One Corridor project.
Gorsuch Haus, Lift One Lodge, Aspen Historical Society and Skico all have been participants in the project. The latter three currently remain on board.
Aspen City Holdings LLC was identified on the special warranty deed signifying the sale as the buyer of the land that the Gorsuch Haus hotel is planned for.
The deed shows the LLC’s mailing address to the attention of Miami-based OKO Group, a real estate development firm founded and headed by billionaire Vladislav Doronin.