Sens. Bennet, Hickenlooper tout community projects during Routt County visit

Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, talks with U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, prior to a round table discussion about affordable housing issues on Wednesday, April 20, at the Brown Ranch west of Steamboat Springs. The ranch was purchased by the authority last August, and the group is now addressing the best ways to use the property to provide housing for residents.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado’s senators were in Routt County on Wednesday, April 20, to learn about two of the Yampa Valley’s most important community projects — one that has gotten significant federal funding and another that would benefit from it.

Sen. Michael Bennet paid a visit to the Hayden Center to see the space, which $2.9 million in congressionally directed spending will help finish in the next year and a half, while Sen. John Hickenlooper toured the Yampa Valley Housing Authority’s Brown Ranch property, on which there are hopes to build 2,300 housing units by 2040.

Each project has strong local support, which Bennet said helps when arguing for federal funding. Hickenlooper said the work at Brown Ranch could be replicated across the country to address housing needs.

The Brown Ranch includes more than 500 acres. A steering committee and several focus groups have conducted dozens of community meetings to plan out the property since it was purchased last August with a $24 million donation.

Many residents and local officials hope Brown Ranch will fill a void of about 1,400 housing units Steamboat Springs currently needs to meet demand.

“I think what’s happening in Steamboat has the potential to be a national model,” Hickenlooper said. “Here’s a community that’s tightening their belts and said, ‘We’re going to fix it,’ and they’ve got this piece of land … I can’t wait to help in any way.”

Community members and representatives listen to U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, as he speaks at a round table addressing affordable housing at the Brown Ranch west of Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Hickenlooper’s visit was billed as a conversation about the affordability of Steamboat, with people representing employers telling the senator housing is a significant part of why they can’t fill their open positions.

Kelly Gallegos, chief nursing officer with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said the medical center is operating down 50% in some departments, and it has been difficult to hire for positions even where candidates expect to make a significant wage.

J.C. Norling, vice president and dean of Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, said they are seeing their highest level of faculty turnover ever this year, in part because they can’t afford housing.

“You can’t even get a toehold now,” Norling said.

Hickenlooper said he is particularly interested in watching how the Brown Ranch develops, especially because of the extensive community engagement that’s gone into it.

Economic Development Director John Bristol listens as U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, speaks at a round table addressing affordable housing Wednesday, April 20, at the Brown Ranch west of Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

While most communities aren’t able to get a contribution like the housing authority did, he said pretty much any community could “scrap together some land” to help address the issue in a similar way.

“Everybody’s got to have some skin in the game, and we heard that just about everybody out there want’s to be a part of it,” Hickenlooper said.

The housing authority has made two congressionally directed spending requests to Hickenlooper and Bennet — one for an $800,000 waterline and another for electrical upgrades at Brown Ranch worth about $30 million. Neither were discussed specifically Wednesday.

“I can see this getting federal funding because this is a problem that is not just happening in Colorado, but it’s happening in California, it’s happening in Maryland and Virginia — all across the country,” Hickenlooper said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, speaks with Routt County Commissioner Tim Redmond during a tour of the Hayden Center on Wednesday, April 20. Bennet was able to get about $2.9 million in federal spending from Congress to help pay for renovating the former Hayden High School into a community center.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Similar to Brown Ranch, officials in Hayden talked about the Hayden Center as a key to building community in the town transitioning away from coal and trying to shed the reputation of a bedroom community.

The Hayden Center came from the former Hayden High School, which locals wanted to preserve. Voters approved a mill levy to provide funding for the center in perpetuity, and former Hayden Mayor Tim Redmond described it as “the living room of the community.”

Redmond, who is now a county commissioner, said town officials needed to take chances to make the project happen but knew it had the town’s support.

Town Manager Mathew Mendisco said the final phases of construction on the community center will start this winter, but the Hayden Center has already proven to be a valuable asset for the town that’s increasing the level of community.

“I think it used to be, ‘Well, we live in Hayden, but our lives are going to stay in Steamboat,'” Mendisco said. “Now people are moving to Hayden, and their lives are in Hayden.”

Amy Williams, chair of the board for Totally Tots child care inside the Hayden Center, talks to U.S Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, about the costs of child care locally and how key it was for her organization to be able to expand at the Hayden Center.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Bennet said seeing the federal funding at work was rewarding, but he emphasized that it started with a local project and local government.

“There are a lot of times when people think about government and — often for good reason — are really frustrated with what a bad job it does with certain things,” Bennet said. “This is a good illustration of all different levels of government and a community coming together to build something that is going to last for generations.”

Projects in rural areas like Hayden and Craig — which also received spending from congress this year — help show people that government is there to work for them, Bennet said.

“We’re all in this together,” Bennet said. “The whole country has come together to support the Hayden Center, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, takes a seat in the Hayden Center’s auditorium, which he helped get $2.9 million for in the budget bill passed in March. Bennet was in Northwest Colorado on Wednesday, April 20, looking at some of the projects that received direct spending from Congress.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

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