Council vets say they’ve left the city a little better off
Bennett, Engelken and Brenner discuss their time in city government
Steamboat Springs — Picture roads clear cut into the rock 50 feet from the chairlift on Howelsen Hill, 6,000-square-foot luxury homes plopped onto the ridgeline of Emerald Mountain.
If City Council President Kevin Bennett and the rest of the City Council had not acted to purchase the 177-acre Baxter property in 1997, the city could be host to just such a development next to its world-famous ski jumps. The fancy homes might even have shared camera time with soaring Olympians during World Cup telecasts on ESPN.
When the city purchased it, the Baxter property was already in the conceptual stages of a development plan, potentially a few months away from construction. But at the 11th hour, the city made its move. And, like many similar moves that occurred over the next few years, it worked.
To understand Bennett’s eight-year legacy on the City Council, it is as important to note what isn’t here as what is.
“I’d like to make big cut-outs of houses and put them up there so everyone could see what was going to happen,” he said. “When you’re presented with what’s there now, it’s hard for people to realize what’s happened.”
Bennett has been an influential force over the past eight years in securing open space, as the city approximately quadrupled its holdings of parkland in that time. With only about 230 acres of parkland in 1993 (excluding 800 acres on Buffalo Pass), the city now owns the fee title on more than 900 acres and has entered partnerships to secure the protection of thousands more.
The city’s efforts to preserve open space during Bennett’s presidency won it state recognition and even a brush with national acclaim. Steamboat Springs was named a semifinalist in a grants contest administered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for the work the city and a number of public and private organizations to put together the Yampa River Legacy Project.
Bennett is a visionary few can dispute that. Centennial Hall, for one, was built on his vision. And the partnerships the city made during his tenure were virtually unprecedented for this part of the state. Northwest Colorado has received $58 million in grants over the past decade, much of that money coming to the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County. That has helped the city buy large swaths of open space and accomplish goals in telecommunications and transportation without using a lot of city money. Bennett credits the city’s grant writers. They, in turn, speak of the political will that made the projects happen.
“It takes a while to get grant-funded projects done,” said Linda Kakela, the director of intergovernmental services. “Absolutely critical to the whole thing is to have the political will there long enough for projects to mature.”
But perhaps because his imprint has been seen on so many things, some of which the public was not particularly happy to pay for, Bennett has taken more than a few shots over the past eight years. He has been lampooned as “King Bennett,” despised by his next-door neighbor for what she felt was the defamation of her character and the subversion of the constitution and blamed at times for the breakup of local partnerships.
Bennett said he understands why people take him to task. But he thinks it has as much to do with the simple fact that he is constantly in the public eye as it has to do with his actions.
Bennett, an antiques dealer who has owned stores in Steamboat and a part-time property manager, will now focus more on his livelihood, but he is determined to stay involved in the community. One big effort he is pushing ahead full throttle is the Colorado Olympian Project, which is an attempt to improve the ski jumps on Howelsen Hill.
And though he has been criticized for shortsightedness on projects such as the virtually unused Stockbridge Multi-Modal Center, Bennett has an inkling that his work will prove farsighted in the long run.
Bennett simply repeats his mantra: “Good planners make great ancestors.”
Making an impression
Jim Engelken made such a large impression on local residents he may have become the prototype for a certain kind of City Council member in the future. Two council candidates said this election season they would do everything they could to “be like Jim.”
Engelken was respected in part because he did the things he advocated.
“Jim not only walked his talk, he rode his talk,” said current Council President Kathy Connell, referring to Engelken’s propensity to ride his bike to work and to council meetings even as he advocated for more transportation options.
Above all, Engelken was available. Concerned residents could have a word with him at his job at Safeway or in the street. And he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
In the end, he says it all was worth it.
“People refer to this job as a thankless job, but that has not been my experience,” Engelken said Tuesday with tears in his eyes.
Engelken focused heavily on two issues during his six years on the council: transportation and affordable housing. During his tenure, the city replaced its old buses, greatly expanded its bus fleet and upgraded service to new levels.
He acknowledges the city still has a long way to go to provide reliable transit services to everyone in the city and to help provide affordable housing. He is hopeful residents will one day pass a tax or other funding source to fund the purchase of land for affordable housing.
“The problem will get bad enough that they will,” Engelken said. “The question is will it get bad enough that it won’t make a difference.”
Despite the strength of Loui Antonucci’s campaign, Ken Brenner’s failure to win re-election to the council this year surprised many people most of all himself.
“It just shows how fickle local politics can be,” he said.
Brenner literally spent thousands of hours at meetings over the past few years and was so well-versed in city and state politics his fellow council members teased him about it mercilessly. The new council will have to work double time to fill his spots on four local boards.
Brenner was also elected to the executive board of the Colorado Municipal League and attended a number of statewide conferences.
Standing with Engelken on a number of issues, Brenner pushed aggressively to make sure local residents have a say in growth issues. A native of a Routt County ranch, he has worked to protect open space and ranchlands during his three and a half years on council.
Brenner was an advocate for children throughout his tenure, especially as the co-chairman of First Impressions. Now that Emerald City is threatened, he says he is ready to lend a helping hand again.
“I will continue to work on a long-term solution for after-school and weekend programs for kids,” he said.
One idea he is now throwing out is to convert the Steamboat Springs Airport terminal into a new dance hall on the weekends for local youngsters.
Brenner pledges to stay involved.
“I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about how the system works and how to get things done, it seems like a waste to have me sitting on the sidelines,” Brenner said.
But come 2003, will his name be on the ballot?
“It’s way too far away for me to decide right now,” he said. “I’ll see how I like being retired.”
To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203
or e-mail email@example.com
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