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Residents Split as Idyllic Colorado Ski Town Hosts Bud Light Party

Image: A man shovels the walkway in front of his fly fishing shop in Crested Butte, Colo.

A man shovels the walkway in front of his fly fishing shop in Crested Butte, Colo., in 2008. Nathan Bilow / AP file

The old mining hub of Crested Butte, Colorado, is known as the "last great Colorado ski town" for its laid-back residents and picturesque location at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Emmons. But many of those residents now fear their hometown's reputation as a bucolic retreat nestled in the Rocky Mountains is being threatened — by a beer company.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest beer manufacturer in the world, is temporarily turning the town of 1,500 into a fictional haven for 1,000 bused-in — and presumably beer-swilling — revelers who won an online sweepstakes. Called Whatever USA, the made-up location is part of Bud Light's "Are You Up For Whatever?" ad campaign.

"Half a million dollars could go a long way in Crested Butte."

The local newspaper reported that prep work was underway for the planned takeover, scheduled for this weekend. Among the temporary changes: painting downtown's iconic Elk Avenue blue, installing Bud Light-branded fencing and staging, a giant blue gorilla statue and a sign welcoming partygoers to "Whatever."

The town council unanimously approved Anheuser-Busch's permit in a series of public hearings last week. The beer giant, which spent $4 million on a 30-second Bud Light commercial during this year's Super Bowl, told NBC News it paid the requisite permit fee of $5,000 and agreed to an open-ended donation of $500,000 (up from the original $250,000 the company offered).

"We are working with the local community so that residents understand what's going on and what is available to them," Anheuser-Busch spokesman Nick Kelly said.

"The trucks were literally lined up on the outskirts of town waiting to come in. It was a farce that anyone thought this thing was going to be turned down."

Some residents, including former Sen. Tim Wirth, have spoken out against the event. Wirth wrote a letter to the town council, obtained by The Denver Post, saying: "The town government is not elected to turn the town into a weekend beer hall, using public resources and public property."

Ethan Hicks, the owner of a shoe store in town and longtime resident of Crested Butte, said he is disturbed by the secrecy surrounding the town's dealings with Anheuser-Busch. "We were told it was all going to be divulged in town meetings" with the public's input, he said.

"The trucks were literally lined up on the outskirts of town waiting to come in. It was a farce that anyone thought this thing was going to be turned down," Hicks added.

Image: A sign posted outside Ethan Hicks shop in Crested Butte, Colo.
A sign posted outside Ethan Hicks shop in Crested Butte, Colo. The sign reads "As you watch it unfold remember that it all began last April with a few men in a back room deciding it would happen. The process whereby the people get to decide their fate was replaced by a staged, last minute farce. We stand by our original call for all those in Town Gov’t to step down. Get it?" Zoya Taylor / NBC News

But Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep, a lawyer by day whom residents address as "Huck," said he has no regrets about letting one of the world's best-known beer brands set up shop for the weekend.

"We've been talking about this as openly as possible for the last month," he said. "I appreciate that our residents are active and engaged on this and they have been throughout."

Huckstep said he thinks a "substantial majority" of residents are in favor of the event and the windfall it will provide. He said the town, after a series of negotiations with Anheuser-Busch, settled on $500,000 for a donation that can be used to support a legacy project of the town's choosing. One possibility under review focuses on improvements to the popular parks' system.

"Half a million dollars could go a long way in Crested Butte," Huckstep said. "It's an unprecedented amount for an event in our community."

Reaction on social media was less enthused. "Is that what your town's soul is worth?" asked one Twitter user. "Crested Butte just lost a little allure for me," wrote a vacationer on the local newspaper's Facebook page. Another added: "Glad to see that I'm not the only one who thinks that this was a pathetic, ill-advised sellout."

Huckstep said non-residents who are not invitees of Bud Light will be turned away from the party events, but the town itself will remain open. "We even have a few weddings this weekend," he said.

Hicks, the shop owner, struck a wistful note as he remembered why he originally moved from industrial Ohio to quaint Crested Butte and why he hopes the Bud Light deal is not indicative of things to come for his beloved home.

"When the good things you used to enjoy are gone, there isn't any amount of money," he said. "Bud Light doesn't even have enough money to buy them back."