A prominent Colorado family duped Aspen voters three years ago into approving a hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain’s Lift 1A, according to the person responsible for vandalism over the weekend, then turned around and made tens of millions of dollars last week when they sold the approval to a Russian-born billionaire.
That was the justification used Monday by an Aspen affordable housing developer in vandalizing the Gorsuch Ski Cafe at the base of Aspen Mountain’s gondola late Saturday night in protest of the $76.25 million sale.
“They won a lot of votes, including mine, in an effort to convince the town that they were going to be the operators of the hotel,” Peter Fornell told The Aspen Times on Monday afternoon. “For them to turn it into another real estate developer-grab made me so profoundly upset I had to say something. I just immediately saw red.”
Jeff Gorsuch, owner of businesses in Aspen and Vail and the public face of the 2019 campaign to build the Gorsuch Haus hotel at the bottom of Lift 1A, on Monday called Fornell’s actions “threatening, dangerous and unwarranted.” Further, he said that during the hard-fought Gorsuch Haus approval process three years ago, he never promised to actually build the hotel.
Instead, the promise was to revitalize the community on the west side of Aspen Mountain through establishment of an 81-room hotel, construct a ski history museum and hopefully “build a bridge” that led to the return of World Cup skiing to Aspen. And that is what will ultimately happen with the recent sale, he said.
“I never said I had $200 million to build a hotel,” Gorsuch said Monday. “There is, to me, a responsibility (to build the project), and I feel we made good on that.”
The vandalism — Fornell said he intentionally used easy-to-remove water-based red paint — appeared between 9:30 pm and midnight Saturday and read, “Liars Go Back to Vail” across three windows and “Liars” on another, according to pictures obtained by The Aspen Times and Aspen police. The paint was removed Sunday.
Aspen voters approved the 81-room hotel, 320,000 square feet of commercial space and a separate fractional ownership lodge by a margin of 26 votes in March 2019. Gorsuch and two partners then acquired the land for the Gorsuch Haus from the Aspen Skiing Co. in July for $10 million.
However, a company identified in property records as Aspen City Holdings LLC paid $76.25 million for the property last week, according to public records. Aspen City Holdings shares a mailing address with a Miami-based development firm called OKO Group, which is led by Russian-born billionaire Vladislav Doronin.
Fornell said he read a Saturday Aspen Times article detailing the sale and was immediately irate.
But after spray-painting the Gorsuch cafe windows, he said he regretted his choice of protest. On Sunday, he said he called Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, confessed to the crime and asked what DiSalvo thought was the correct course of action to take.
“He said the best way to make it right was to take responsibility for it,” Fornell said, adding that he told an Aspen Police Department sergeant Monday morning he committed the vandalism. “I’m a little disappointed in myself for my actions. I’m a bigger man than that.”
DiSalvo confirmed the Sunday call on Monday.
Fornell was cited for defacing public property, which is a municipal offense that will be handled in Aspen Municipal Court, said APD Sgt. Ritchie Zah.
Fornell said the Gorsuch-led campaign in 2018 and 2019 to convince local voters to approve the Lift 1A hotel included sending out advertisements for it with Gorsuch family pictures on them. Fornell said he personally lobbied friends to support the controversial project — some of whom reacted angrily to his stance — because locals were going to run it, which he thought would be better than out-of-town developers.
“They sent mailers to every address in town saying that this would be their legacy to the community,” Fornell said. “It was all about how the community could take great pride that this is their legacy to the community.”
The $76 million sale — approximately seven months after Gorsuch and his partners bought the property from Skico — to a Russian billionaire proved that campaign was a bald-faced lie, Fornell said.
“I’d like to make sure everybody in Aspen realizes that after claiming they were leaving a legacy to the town, they sold out to a developer, like every other developer,” he said. “They sold out to the highest bidder.”
Fornell is also a developer, though his only developments during 40 years in Aspen have been limited to did-restricted, affordable housing projects only.
Gorsuch on Monday denied Fornell’s allegations that he lied to Aspen voters during the campaign to approve the Gorsuch Haus.
“I was the voice and face of the project,” he said. “We didn’t betray the public trust.”
He said he was “enormously proud” of the project that was approved, and that it didn’t matter that the approval passed by only 26 votes. He said he was “small partner in the process” and that he and his partners, Jim DeFrancia of Lowe’s Development and Bryan Peterson, sold the parcel and the development rights because they wanted to see it built.
The project remains the same as it was when it was approved by voters, Gorsuch said, though he said he didn’t know the details of the new developer’s hotel plans. Gorsuch also said he didn’t know if the hotel would be an Aman hotel similar to one Doronin is set to build in Manhattan.
In fact, all three Gorsuch Haus developers emphasized local connections during the approval process and said the public could trust them to serve the Aspen community interests. Last week, DeFrancia told The Times the $76 million sale should not disappoint or concern anyone and that the original plan voters approved was the project that would be built.
As for his urging the Gorsuch family to leave Aspen and return to Vail, Fornell said that’s where he thinks the Gorsuch family’s legacy originated.
“Gorsuch is a Vail name,” he said. “Gorsuch started there.”
Gorsuch, however, said that isn’t true and that Fornell’s vandalism accusations are slanderous and tinged with “irony.”
“The first Gorsuch arrived in Aspen in 1887,” he said in a news release later emailed to The Aspen Times. “We have strived to be good stewards of this valley, this town and these mountains for 135 years. That doesn’t make us special, but it reveals how special Aspen is to us.”
His family has had a business in Aspen for 50 years, and his parents moved to Vail in 1966 “to help build a great ski town and mountain,” he said.
“We are not interlopers motivated by greed,” Gorsuch said. “We are mountain people. We respect the country. We respect the community. We love (Aspen’s) history, its core and values, its character and its people.”