Our view: Public use means public use
Steamboat Springs City Council has unanimously rejected a proposal by the developers of the Iron Horse Inn to spend funds from a $400,000 escrow account on such things as roof repair, light fixtures and energy-efficient appliances.
We applaud City Council for its decision and look forward to seeing a much better proposal for the escrow funds in the future
Opening yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Steamboat Springs and the Iron Horse Inn, City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to turn back a proposal from Ski Town Commercial — the local development company that purchased the Iron Horse from the city in late October — that would have used funds from a $400,000 escrow account — which was included in the $3.05 million selling price — to complete several projects which essentially amount to deferred maintenance.
Included on Ski Town Commercial’s wish list for the money were roof repairs and the installation of light fixtures and energy-efficient appliances at the city’s former property.
We take no issue with the proposed uses, per se; it is perfectly reasonable to expect a developer to optimize its options when it comes to improving a property it has acquired, and roof repairs, light fixtures and energy-efficient appliances certainly qualify as improvements.
But according to the terms of the agreement by which the property was transferred, any improvements bankrolled by the escrow funds are to be for the public benefit. The operative word here is “public,” and it’s quite a stretch to see how roof repair and appliance installation would benefit anyone other than paying tenants of the Iron Horse.
That being the case, we applaud council members for rejecting the proposal and asking developers to return with a more detailed plan that doesn’t include maintenance items. We believe this was the correct decision for a couple of reasons.
First, and as we have already suggested, public improvements means public improvements, that is to say, improvements that would serve to benefit the public as a whole, and there are a number of fine options that would fill the bill: the construction of a public park, the addition of bike racks, improvements to the Yampa River Core Trail, the installation of a boat launch area on the Yampa River.
These are but a few examples of acceptable uses, and their operative commonality — all are uses that would benefit the public-at-large — suggest many more.
It might be argued, of course, that since Ski Town purchased the Iron Horse with the express intention of maintaining it as a much-needed affordable housing option for the city’s workforce, the proposed improvements would constitute a public benefit. But such an argument, in our estimation, requires a dizzying feat of linguistic gymnastics, coupled with a very loose interpretation of the term “public benefit.”
To borrow the words of former Councilwoman Sonja Macys — who sat on the council at the time the Iron Horse was sold: “In short, it seems that the clear and simple public benefit items are benches, bike racks and outside fireplace, assuming that is open to the public. The riverbank access and Core Trail could also be of good value for the public, and these were the types of benefits that were pitched to the Council who decided to sell the Iron Horse.”
We agree wholeheartedly.
It sounds overly simplistic to say, but the only proper use of funds earmarked for public improvements is to make improvements that stand to benefit the public — the entire public — not just the small segment of it that pays for the privilege when they cut their monthly rent checks.
The bottom line is, City Council honored the spirit of the agreement, and we congratulate its members for scuttling a proposal that failed to do so.
We look forward to seeing a much better plan in the near future.
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Kathy Diemer, owner of Johnny B. Goods Diner in downtown Steamboat Springs, said she and other business owners are “terrified.”