Council approves funding for improvements at Bear River Park, including trailered boat access

Bear River Park’s most recent plan from June 22, 2016, is shown in this rendering. The park improvement plan is divided into four phases, and Steamboat Springs City Council recently approved spending $2.35 million on the construction of phase two.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy image

Development of Bear River Park has been on Steamboat Springs’ radar for a long time, but a shift in the city’s priorities toward serving often neglected areas of the city may have spurred long-deferred plans at the park.

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, City Council members unanimously approved dedicating most of the city’s accommodations tax surplus — estimated to be around $2.4 million by the end of the year — toward the second phase of improvements at Bear River Park.

Phase two of Bear River Park also includes an extension to the Yampa River Core Trail that would connect to the existing trail and form a loop within the park.

The formal dedication of the accommodations tax funds will be included in a supplemental budget appropriation that has not been scheduled but is expected to appear before council around the beginning of 2023.

Council’s decision could be great news for boaters, as the second phase includes trailered boat access to the Yampa River, which has been envisioned at Bear River Park for about 17 years. It would be the first publicly available trailer boat access for the Yampa River’s stretch through the city.

“Trailered boat access has been a gap,” said Kent Vertrees of Friends of the Yampa. “It’s exciting to see City Council take the steps toward filling this gap.”

Parks and Recreation Director Angela Cosby said design for the project will span 2023, and city officials expect construction for phase one of the planned improvements at Bear River Park to begin in 2024.

After $50,000 was dedicated to solar-powered lights at Howelsen Hill, City Council approved $2.35 million for the construction of phase two, which is estimated to cost $2.7 million. Additionally, city staff and members of the boating community are optimistic the rest of the funding will come together in time.

“I think that’ll be a bridge that can be crossed,” said Ben Beall, president of Friends of the Yampa. “And Friends of the Yampa will be right there with the city of Steamboat.”

Bealle said he hopes to work with the city by applying for grants and fundraising.

Cosby also hopes the city can lower construction costs by building pieces of the first two phases concurrently, saying that some features from phase two could be done before everything in phase one is completed. 

“It will depend on contractor availability,” Cosby said. “But due to the nature of the work of phase two — the core trail extension loop and the trailered river access — that work goes very well with the utilities, earthwork and secondary access in phase one.”

Phase one of Bear River Park will lay a lot of the groundwork — such as connecting utilities and building a secondary access road — for Bear River Park’s four-phase conceptual plan. Funding for phase one hasn’t been formally apportioned, but funding has been identified by city staff, and the first phase is included in the city’s six-year capital improvement plan.

Cosby said she would expect significant savings if all the earthwork, concrete work and asphalt work can be done at the same time.

“In order to do the trailered river access and core trail extension loop, we just need to have secondary access,” Cosby said. “We don’t need to have utilities brought to the site or an updated restroom.”

The swell of interest in funding Bear River Park improvements is likely not a sudden impulse, but a result of a heightened desire among city staff and council members to support projects that serve the outer sections of town.

The city recently updated its internal process for ranking unfunded capital projects to give higher priority to projects that expand “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and Bear River Park’s location on the west side of town, which the city staff identified as being traditionally underserved, meant the project got a boost in priority. 

Expanding the Yampa River Core Trail west was also listed as a high priority for the city for similar reasons, but city staff remain optimistic the project will be eligible for significant grant funding.

A couple weeks prior to Tuesday’s meeting, City Council had discussed different ways to spend the accommodations tax reserves and ultimately directed staff to recommend capital improvement projects that match the criteria of the 1986 accommodation tax ballot language, which states that projects funded by the tax’s revenue must increase Steamboat’s viability as a premiere destination and “function to preserve, promote and enhance the community identity.”

“When it came up two weeks ago, I said I was really torn between Bear River and the expansion of Howelsen Hill,” City Council President Robin Crossan said.

She later said it was after someone had brought up “equity,” that she committed to Bear River Park.

“We have to look at our entire community, and Bear River Park will help us in that respect, and the fact that we’re finally pulling it off the shelf,” Crossan said.

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