The Aspen-Pitkin County airport sits at a pivotal and seminal point in its existence.
A new, modern terminal seems likely to be built in the coming decade, though its exact outline remains hazy and just beyond the horizon. A reconfigured airfield plan finally took shape in December after nearly four years of community debate, but the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to comment on it, which could mean a years-long process is just beginning.
In short, it’s a daunting time to take over as airport director.
“I’m not intimidated,” Dan Bartholomew said Friday from his new office in a portable building tucked next to the arrivals terminal. “I’m excited about it actually. I’m looking forward to digging in and finding solutions and making everybody as happy as they can be.”
Bartholomew, 52, has served as airport director for about six weeks and comes to Aspen from Portland, Ore., where he ran an airport consulting business. Before that, he worked as the vice president of planning, engineering and environment at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, as well as a stint at the Fort Lauderdale airport.
Bartholomew takes over from John Kinney, who resigned about a year ago after tiring of the seemingly endless planning that surrounds every aspect of the Aspen airport, officially known as Sardy Field.
But for Bartholomew — who worked as a planner for the city of Aurora from 2001-2008 and is also an engineer — the planning process isn’t frustrating. He said he likes sitting down and solving difficult problems.
“My background is a good fit for where (the airport) is now and where it’s going,” he said.
He said he faced issues similar to Aspen’s when he worked in Reno, where the centrally located airport attracted significant community involvement during a master-planning effort.
“We were sensitive to the community’s needs and we did a phased approach to make sure things were done right,” Bartholomew said. “You have to be diplomatic in your decision-making.”
Rich Englehart, assistant Pitkin County manager and the acting airport director after Kinney left, said he thinks of Bartholomew as “kind of a modest guy” who brings that low-key approach to his management style. In addition, Englehart said he thinks Bartholomew’s engineering and planning skills will come in handy during the next decade of pivotal airport-related decisions.
“We’re very pleased with our selection,” Englehart said Friday. “He’s open, he’s thoughtful. And with his background in planning and his experience and where we’re heading in the future, his insight will be very beneficial to us.”
Every airport is different, Bartholomew said.
“If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport,” he said. “All airports are unique, but this airport takes unique to another level.”
For one thing, Aspen’s airport is surrounded by residential areas, hemmed in by mountains and Highway 82 and planes take off and land in the same direction. It’s also the third-busiest airport in Colorado, mainly due to the volume of private and corporate jet traffic. And all of that says nothing of the massive community interest in the airport, whether for economic reasons, environmental and noise concerns or the dark specter of 737s landing in our midst.
County officials just notified the FAA in December that the airfield plan the agency approved in July 2018 was not, after all, what the community consensus plan turned out to be. That new plan could trigger another years-long federal environmental assessment, or it might not. No one knows at this point.
Also, Pitkin County commissioners haven’t exactly approved widening the runway by an FAA-mandated 50 feet — again the specter of 737s darkens this decision — and instead hedged their bets and said a new layout plan won’t be approved unless cleaner, quieter planes are guaranteed to service the new facility. If the runway isn’t widened, the county would give up millions in federal assistance that would go toward paying for the new terminal and airfield.
And, to top it all off, commissioners just approved the bylaws for an airport civilian oversight board — the Airport Advisory Committee — who will be looking over the new director’s shoulder every step of the way.
But Bartholomew said he’s not concerned.
“I’ve had a chance to dip my toe in all facets of airports,” he said. “It gives me a different perspective. It’s just a difficult problem or issue to solve.”
Bartholomew grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin in his hometown and has worked in an around airports since college. He said he took the job in Aurora, which was not airport-related, because he wanted to live in Colorado.
“I love Colorado,” he said. “It’s just one of those place where I knew I wanted to be.”
While he doesn’t know how to ski – yet – Bartholomew said he likes to hike and is an avid “rock hound” or rock collector.
“It’s an addiction to say the least,” he said of his rocks.
Bartholomew and his wife, Michelle, live in the Basalt area. He also has two stepdaughters who live in Denver and Portland, and four grandchildren.
“We’re looking to be here long-term,” he said. “We have not looked at it any other way.”