Aspen snow polo trots back to Rio Grande

Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Aspen City Council on Tuesday voted to make Rio Grande Park the venue for December’s World Snow Polo Championships after several residents raised issue with a previous decision by elected officials to use Wagner Park.

It was an about-face from council’s direction during an Oct. 26 work session when city parks and special events staff suggested that having the three-day event at Wagner Park would bring some outdoor vitality to downtown as the COVID-19 crisis continues to bear down on the resort community.

In 2013, City Council agreed to move snow polo to Rio Grande from Wagner after concerns were raised about damage to the turf in a park that is heavily used.

That effort was led by Aspen resident Andy Israel, who again surfaced once it was reported by The Aspen Times that the event was moving back to Wagner.

He established a nonprofit called Protect Wagner Park, hired a lawyer to represent the entity and asked members of his Facebook page to write emails to City Council urging it to move snow polo back to Rio Grande.

He focused his arguments this time around the idea that Wagner Park should remain open for public use.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said based on the number of emails he received from longtime locals concerned about privatizing Wagner Park with events, he was inclined to move the event back to Rio Grande.

“I want to be sensitive to the needs of our electorate and citizenry,” he said during council’s regular meeting Tuesday.

Marc Ganzi, who owns Aspen Valley Polo Club with his wife, Melissa, said they had no preference to either location.

“We want to present Aspen the best way we can,” he told council, adding that social media is key for the event and last year it generated 413 million impressions for Aspen and snow polo.

Ganzi said his team also is working on having the event broadcast on TV and livestreamed, which will be an important component this year.

Greg Kiner, AVPC director of production, said Wednesday via email that they are disappointed that the event can’t be held in Wagner this year.

“We completely understand and respect the council’s decision and appreciate their unanimous support for the event itself,” he wrote. “We take pride in the fact that we have followed proper procedures and have protected the surface of the parks since we took control of the event, over seven years ago now, and fully intend to do the same this time around.

“We respect Mr. Israel and his parties’ right to protest, but we do find it odd that the same attention/protest wasn’t brought to other events at Wagner Park, such as Ruggerfest or Motherlode.”

Israel has said in the past that the park is closed too often for restoration and setup and breakdown of those events, but has never protested against them.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards was the outlier of the five-member board and supported the event going to Wagner Park for just this year, because of its downtown location and Aspen Mountain serving as the backdrop.

At Rio Grande, the backdrop is the city’s 37,500-square-foot office building that is under construction.

“We’ve been talking so much about how do we give our guests something to look at, something out of the ordinary and what we’re going to tell them now is why don’t you go down to the construction site, which is pretty ugly looking right now. … I don’t think it will view well of Aspen,” she said. “I think it would be enjoyable and I think it would be very visible and a chance to really spread around the very wide perimeter of Wagner Park and to watch this.”

AVPC, through its tournaments, raises money for the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation, which is the fundraising arm for the hospital.

A couple of hospital representatives spoke in support of the snow polo event at Tuesday’s meeting, and Ganzi said the charity dollars and sponsorships won’t be hindered by the event being at either location.

Mayor Torre said there wasn’t enough discussion or information around moving the event when staff put it forward in October.

“This should have been a request made by snow polo directly to us,” he said. “I’ve looked into this over the last couple of weeks, and the more information I’ve gotten, as well as been informed with what’s going on with COVID and what our plans need to be, so to snow polo, apologies, I just don’t think this is the appropriate year (for Wagner).”

Concerns about turf damage at either park were alleviated years ago when the event organizers were required to have 12 inches of compacted snow, which often has meant snowmaking and grooming.

There have been no problems with damage to the grass at Rio Grande for the past five years, which is largely due to the event organizer and the city parks department working together to minimize impacts.

And in terms of COVID-19 concerns and capacity limits, the scope of the event has been scaled way back, Ganzi said, adding that the polo club has been successful in having tournaments all summer at their venue outside of Carbondale.

Kiner said safety protocols are being taken and the event will follow Pitkin County public health orders and safety guidelines.

“We have reduced an event that normally draws more than 1,000 people over two days to just 48 attendees,” he wrote. “These attendees will now be spread out in seven smaller tents to ensure proper social distancing protocols are met.

“Additionally, all ancillary events will be virtual and players and attendees will be tested several times for COVID-19 and be required to wear face masks.”

He said the most important aspect of the snow polo event is raising money for AVH in the midst of a pandemic.

“There’s nothing better than helping others while bringing a bit of joy to the city of Aspen with a safe and fun annual outdoor event,” he wrote.

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