Hickenlooper visits Steamboat businesses to talk COVID-19, recreation and upcoming election
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Former Gov. John Hickenlooper visited Steamboat Springs on Friday to tour several outdoor businesses and see how they are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
After serving two terms in the governor’s mansion, Hickenlooper is vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Cory Gardner in the upcoming election.
Hickenlooper currently is on a statewide “Tailgate Tour,” during which he plans to visit all 65 state House districts, according to the Pueblo Chieftain. His campaign is not publicizing the visits until after the fact due as a way to mitigate crowds amid health concerns over the novel coronavirus.
On Friday, Hickenlooper walked to three businesses in downtown Steamboat: Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare, Steamboat Flyfisher and Big Agnes. As he spoke with a small gathering of people outside the bike shop, he referred to his excursion to Northwest Colorado as a way to re-root himself in more rural parts of the state.
“This has always been a place that is a symbol for the rest of the state of how outdoor recreation really enhances a rural economy,” Hickenlooper said.
Inside Ski & Bike Kare, he spoke with co-owners Harry Martin and Mike Parra, who have actually seen a rise in sales in part due to the global pandemic.
As Martin said, business is up about 18% compared to last year. While he saw a big hit to revenues at the onset of the pandemic in March, the summer months came with flurries of people looking for equipment to enjoy the outdoors, one of the few remaining options for activity.
“The bike business has been incredible,” Martin told Hickenlooper. “The whole industry basically sold in two months what they would have normally sold in a year.”
Martin is counting on that spike in sales to carry him through what he expects to be a challenging winter season. He anticipates his business to see a 35% reduction in winter revenues compared to last year, assuming Steamboat Resort cannot operate at full capacity.
Down the street, Hickenlooper stopped at Steamboat Flyfisher to talk with owner Johnny Spillane about the state of the Yampa River and how the pandemic impacted guiding trips.
Spillane described a similar experience as the owners of Ski & Bike Kare, navigating the summer months relatively well because fishing is one of the few things people can still do.
“It’s not something we are trying to brag about because a lot of other places are not (doing as well),” Spillane said.
At the same time, he described supply chain issues that make it hard to get certain products and a shortage of water, which, particularly recently, has limited fishing opportunities and put stress on ecosystems.
“The lack of water is really challenging for us,” Spillane said.
Elsewhere in the region, hot and dry conditions are putting stress on trout species, making them more susceptible to predation and disease and leading to recreation restrictions outside of Routt County. Voluntary fishing closures are in effect from 2 p.m. until midnight on the White River in Rio Blanco County and on the Colorado River in Garfield County.
Last week, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District began releasing water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve the health of the local river, but Spillane said he has not yet noticed significant improvements in flows.
When it comes to the local outdoor industry, Hickenlooper has faced a certain degree of criticism for his role in encouraging Smartwool to move its headquarters from Steamboat to Denver. As John Bristol, economic development director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber, said in a column for The Denver Post in 2019, losing Smartwool was a blow to a rural community like Routt County.
The clothing company paid high wages and was instrumental in diversifying the local economy at a time when the state is transitioning away from coal and coal-fired power plants.
“Losing Smartwool to Denver is going to hurt,” Bristol wrote in his column.
At the same time, he applauded Hickenlooper for helping to bring VF Corp., the parent company of Smartwool, to Colorado.
“It is important economic development work as high-paying jobs will come, and our state’s standing in global business will rise,” Bristol said in his column.
His point for the column, as Bristol said in an email on Saturday, is that Colorado leaders need to consistently support rural economies and rural jobs.
During his Steamboat visit, Hickenlooper discussed two other main platforms of his campaign, namely his support for universal health care coverage — something he said has become increasingly important amid the pandemic — and climate action.
As he posited, more rural communities like Steamboat will be the ones facing the brunt of climate change, from greater drought to lower snowpack.
“I am going to make the argument that no one knows what the future is going to be, but we have to recognize that if you don’t accommodate potential changes that could damage our climate, could damage our economy, the costs will be enormous,” Hickenlooper said.
He advocated for funding to support job retention for the workers who rely on the coal industry that he wants to replace with renewable energies, like wind and solar. The switch to renewables, Hickenlooper argues, will create more jobs and lower utility costs.
Asked how he would combat the COVID-19 pandemic as a U.S. senator, Hickenlooper said he would take a science-based approach to uphold health guidelines, such as requiring face masks in public spaces, and increase testing capacity.
“I believe you have to utilize facts. That puts me way ahead of the White House,” Hickenlooper said.
While he acknowledged the argument of those who say the health guidelines encroach on their individual freedoms, he said during a public health crisis ,citizens must make certain decisions for the greater good.
As Hickenlooper concluded, “We will never beat COVID unless we are all willing to look after each other.”
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.