Blazing trails: Steamboat starts using lodging tax to give residents, visitors more places to explore
June 29, 2014
Steamboat Springs — When Pete Wither first rode his six-speed, shock-less Fuji mountain bike up on Rabbit Ears Pass and Emerald Mountain in the early 1980s, it was easy for him to get lost.
He also didn't run into any traffic.
"Every time we went for a bike ride back then, it was an exploration," Wither recently recalled in his downtown Steamboat real estate office. "We were riding a lot of animal trails, and we didn't know where they went. We didn't know where they were going to go out."
Fast forward 34 years, and trail blazers like Wither are embarking on an ambitious new push to give hikers, cyclists and horseback riders new places to explore in and around Steamboat.
And now, they have something they didn't dream of having when exploring animal trails was still a thing — millions of dollars' worth of lodging tax dollars to build new trails thanks to the passage of Referendum 2A in November 2013.
"This is going to be a significant change and a new chapter in Steamboat activities," Wither said.
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One of the first people here to own a mountain bike, Wither clearly is excited about this new chapter of trail building.
He also couldn't pass up the chance to be a central part of it.
Last year, he and six other community members were selected by the Steamboat Springs City Council to serve on the first committee that will help oversee tax funding on trails.
For many hours this winter and spring, Wither sat in a room with more than a dozen other community members and government officials to start to map out how to build trails and best spend the estimated $5.1 million that is expected to be generated from a 1 percent tax on lodging throughout the next decade.
Checks already have been cashed, and dirt is starting to move.
"Back in 1980, there were maybe 10 people in town who had a mountain bike," Wither said. "Now, we have thousands. We need a trail system to support that, and that's what this committee is going to do."
Near the tip-top of Emerald Mountain last week, Sam Scully was busy raking a long path of soft dirt that had just been cleared to make way for a new multi-use trail called Morning Gloria.
A few hundred feet ahead of him, a brand-new singletrack trail-building machine roared like a powerful lawnmower as it clawed away at roots and stumps and branches in an aspen grove.
And a mile ahead of the dozer in a dense forest, a crew of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps volunteers were revving up their chain saws to help clear the other end of the trail.
"It's going to be a trail of many flavors," Gretchen Sehler said about the 4.2-mile trail she was helping to build. "This is going to connect a lot of our trails and make a better loop system."
Here, among the aspen groves that tower above downtown Steamboat and offer sweeping views of the Flat Tops, a new trail-building movement is well underway.
It is the place where residents and visitors first will start to see the impact of the lodging tax dollars they voted last year to spend.
Of the $300,000 in lodging tax money the city just allocated to trail projects this year, $119,000 will be spent on Emerald.
Acting on the committee's recommendation, the Steamboat City Council recently approved $35,000 for the new Wild Rose Trail on Emerald, $47,500 for a directional trail on Emerald and $35,867 to improve a popular trailhead and parking area on the west side of Emerald near Cow Creek.
The work on Morning Gloria also received the backing of $59,000 of the lodging tax dollars that were left over last year.
These Emerald projects represent just a small portion of the 46 projects that can be funded by the lodging tax dollars through 2024.
They are the first of many more to come.
And they rose to the top after many hours of debate in an old conference room littered with thick stacks of paper.
Miles of possibilities
After all of the cheers and excitement over the passage of Referendum 2A subsided in the fall of 2013, there was a lot of paperwork to sort through.
The big binder of trail projects that could receive lodging tax funding was so thick and expansive, not even a hiking and biking enthusiast like Wither was familiar with all of them.
"They had really encompassed everything I had ever thought of, plus some," Wither said.
The projects include more than 130 miles of trail and span from the summit of Rabbit Ears Pass to the Mad Creek area.
In January, the lodging tax committee was seated to start ranking the projects, and it wasn't a simple task.
To do it, the group worked with city staff to develop a ranking system that graded each trail on its feasibility, shovel readiness, impact on wildlife and ability to promote tourism, among other criteria.
Because the purpose of the lodging tax dollars is to bring people to Steamboat, committee members often used that criteria as a sort of trump card during deliberations.
"We're trying to fill beds basically," Wither said. "We try to put our own desires aside and focus on that."
Still, the long list of projects created plenty of debate.
One committee member, for example, suggested that a safer pedestrian crossing near the start of the Spring Creek Trail would be a worthy project this summer.
Committee Chairman Scott Marr, the owner of the Holiday Inn of Steamboat Springs, was very skeptical.
He didn't see the pedestrian crossing as something that would bring more tourists to town.
Committee member Harry Martin, owner of Steamboat Ski & Bike Care, was able to change some minds, though.
He said he sends visiting families to the Spring Creek area all the time as an easier ride.
A better connection, he said, would benefit tourists and also create a new sort of branch off of the Yampa River Core Trail to a scenic stroll in the mountains.
And so, a consensus moved the project way up on the list.
Some other more high-profile projects also created plenty of talk.
Community members and some City Council members long have advocated for an extension of the hyper-popular Yampa River Core Trail to the south.
But with the cost of getting it to the Legacy Ranch now estimated to be more than $4 million, the project did not rise to the top of the committee's list.
Many members thought that spending most of the lodging tax dollars on one project would not generate the biggest bang for their buck.
The focus on other "in-town" projects and trails on Emerald came largely because they were the most feasible and shovel-ready projects in the book.
Although many committee members agreed that the long list of trails proposed in places such as Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass have the greatest potential to draw people here, they recognize they will take years to even plan.
They'll be part of a second chapter of how the lodging tax dollars are spent.
When Routt County Riders Vice President Eric Meyer stood up in front of a large map of Routt National Forest earlier this year and pointed to the proposed path of the Walton Rim Trail, lodging tax committee members barely could hide their excitement.
"This is going to be a world-class trail," Wither said about the 20-mile trail that would connect the West Summit of Rabbit Ears Pass to a trail that is named after him at Steamboat Ski Area. "This is going to put Steamboat on the map and bring people here."
But in the grand scheme of lodging tax spending, this ambitious and scenic trail still is years away.
On the list of prioritized trails produced by the committee, Walton Rim's high price tag and lengthy planning process landed it as No. 15.
Ranked before it are a number of trails, including a connection from lodging properties on U.S. Highway 40 to the Walton Creek Trail and the building out of unauthorized trails on Buffalo Pass.
If the lodging tax committee has its way, though, these trails in the national forest land around Steamboat are poised to be the next hub of trail-building activity.
The committee helped ensure that can happen when it recommended that the city spend $50,000 of the lodging tax to kick-start a master planning process for trails on U.S. Forest Service land.
"There are a number of unauthorized trails up there right now that, with a little bit of work, can become world-class trails," Wither said.
The committee wasn't willing to wait that long, though, to start making an impact with the lodging tax.
They agreed the list of five projects that are underway this summer was a well-rounded list that would start to build some momentum.
Steamboat Springs isn't the first city to embark on this epic quest to lure tourists in with new trails.
Not a lodging tax trail committee meeting goes by here without members listing these communities as places Steamboat needs to compete with, and fast.
These communities also have leveraged resources to build trail systems that lure people from around the world and across the country.
The competition has appeared to weigh heavily on the minds of the committee members as they grade each potential project in the vast binder of possibilities.
Will this trail move the needle?
Will that one book a trip to Steamboat?
Although the competition among mountain resorts is hot and getting hotter, Wither thinks the Yampa Valley still has an edge.
"Steamboat is lucky because we're at a lower altitude than most other ski areas in Colorado," Wither said. "We're at 7,000 feet. A lot of others are 9,000. (Our elevation) is more desirable for people. The mountains around here also are more rounded than they are in other places, and it's easier to build trails."
Still, committee members understand that Steamboat's transformation won't happen overnight.
Trail projects have the backing of the lodging tax for the next 10 years, and the committee has just finished Year 1 of spending recommendations.
But Wither, who has watched Steamboat's trail system evolve from a series of rugged animal trails to a vast series of maintained loops, knows what can happen with time.
"It's really exciting for Steamboat's future, and it's going to take some time," Wither said.