As the town hollows out, one Aspen neighborhood thrives

  • Mark Hesselschwerdt at the Smuggler Mobile Home Park, where a doublewide recently sold for $600,000

    Michael Brands

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Part-Time Paradise."

A few years ago, it was a Superfund site. Now the Smuggler Mobile Home Park is a vibrant neighborhood, whose residents have a wide range of incomes — from police officers and ski instructors to doctors and real estate brokers — in the heart of Aspen’s East End. The evolution of Smuggler, a community of local folks who have million-dollar views of Aspen Mountain and homes that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, is a remarkable success story.

It began in the 1940s, as a place where ski bums and families could bunk on the cheap. When rents soared in the late 1970s, from about $90 a month to about $250, and rumors began circulating that the owner of the park was about to sell it, the tenants organized a homeowners’ association. After complicated negotiations, and with the help of local officials and banks, Smuggler become one of the first mobile home parks in a Western resort town to be sold to its residents as "affordable" housing. Residents paid about $25,000 per 2,800 square-foot lot.

Some soon wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. In the 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site because of lead contamination of the soil. "The whole town is sitting on mine tailings," says longtime resident Bev Campbell, a former waitress who now works for the county sheriff’s department.

Smuggler went through some cleanup. After 16 years of studies, lawsuits and human health tests, it was clear that what contamination remained posed no health hazard. In 1999, Smuggler was removed from the Superfund list.

The neighborhood has come a long way since the days of "sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll," says Mark Hesselschwerdt, 54, the current president of the homeowners’ association. It’s gone from being "a very raucous young neighborhood to being a relatively civilized one," he says. Hesselschwerdt replaced his own mobile home with a permanent, handsome, barrel-roofed house, constructed using the environmentally friendly Rastra concrete-form system. But some of the 86 original mobile homes remain, as do many of the owners. They are, says Hesselschwerdt, "the same ski addicts; it’s just they’re wearing different colored hair and a few more wrinkles."

A few of them, however, are selling their places, which are worth a whole lot more than they were 25 years ago. Even though sales are, for the most part, restricted to locals, and there are careful limits on the height and other elements of new construction, some houses are now valued at more than $800,000. One 1974 double-wide sold for $600,000 last year. Its new owners carted off the mobile home and are replacing it with a new house.

"It’s a great location," says Campbell proudly. "There are 250 people, it’s pretty quiet, we’re five minutes from town, and we’re on the bus line."

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