Steamboat city officials exploring ways to increase usage, revenue at Howelsen Hill

City of Steamboat Springs officials are brainstorming ways to bring more people and more revenue to Howelsen Hill.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The effort at the city’s historic ski hill is two-fold, according to Howelsen Hill & Rodeo Manager Brad Setter.

First, city staffers are brainstorming ways to bring more people out to Howelsen Hill Ski Area, North America’s oldest operating ski area. Second, they are looking for ways to increase revenue at the city-owned public resource.

When he goes before Steamboat Springs City Council on March 10, Setter will provide updated budget and usage numbers and get a sense of what projects council wishes to prioritize.

Howelsen Hill has an annual budget of about $1.2 million and brings in about $300,000 in annual revenue. Thus, it operates on an annual loss of about $900,000, Setter said.

As a public resource, it isn’t intended to be profitable, but the city is working on ways to decrease how much it is subsidized, he said.

“It is a city park, not a money-making venture,” Setter said. “It’s there to serve the community.”

Generating more use at Howelsen increases its value as a public asset and also can help generate revenue to support its operations.

The season-long Ski Free Sundays have been a big hit, Setter said.

“People come up to me all the time telling me how much they love coming on Sundays,” Setter said.

According to Setter, well over 600 people turn out each free ski day, up more than 20% from last year. Council has committed to supporting two more years of the program.

Crowds are cyclical, though, Setter noted, and there are definite gaps in usage.

Setter said city staff is working on adding sponsors, which provide money for the Howelsen Hill Endowment Fund — created to fund long-term capital maintenance.

The hill has seen a number of improvements this season, including a renovated Poma lift and infrastructure that has been moved around to improve access and terrain.

One thing at the top of Setter’s list is working to expand and improve food and beverage offerings at Howelsen. He has put out a request for proposals for food trucks and is looking at adding a “satellite bar” somewhere on the hill, potentially something mobile.

Mountain Tap Brewery sets up shop every Sunday with food and drinks and contributes a portion of their revenue to the city. As a sponsor, they also donate beer on the Super Sundays, of which there are four this year.

But it would be great to expand food and drink offerings at the concession stand in the lodge at the base or elsewhere on the hill, Setter said.

There are a lot of constraints in the lodge in terms of expansion, Setter noted, such as space, no ventilation for a kitchen hood and the amount of available electricity.

Improvements planned for next season include creating areas — something like a picnic table, deck or shelter — on other parts of the hill as hang out and gathering spots. This would relieve congestion on the base and allow more options for things like birthday parties or weddings, Setter said. The base area gets particularly busy in the summer, when it is used for various races, concerts and events.

Other ideas being looked at include bringing back some tubing lanes, Setter said. Those could come in a phased approach, with a minimal initial cost. If well received, they could be expanded, he said, with extended landing ground in the ball fields and both mellow green and black diamond tubing runs with more banked turns.

An outdoor ice rink in the rodeo arena is another idea. Looking at preliminary numbers, Setter said, it could require an initial investment of about $1 million but with the potential to be self-sustaining. 

There is already water, electricity and outdoor lighting and the Zamboni could be shared with Howelsen Ice Arena, Setter noted. If that plan were pursued, they would reroute the Nordic race course to avoid any interference with races.

“I grew up skating outside,” said Setter, a Minnesota native. “That’s how we did it.”

The staff also has thrown out the idea of renting the hill for private parties and corporate events. Groups could get the hill and one lift to themselves for four or five hours, Setter suggested, and use Olympian Hall for dining.

One project that already has council’s full commitment is funding a new chairlift, Setter said. The tentative timeline is to sign a contract with the Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group later this year and start construction in the summer of 2021 with the lift fully operational for the 2021-22 ski season.  

Last summer, council and Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. representatives talked about the possibility of the resort taking over Howelsen Hill operations.

Under that potential partnership, the city would retain ownership and continue to receive the revenue generated by lift ticket sales, while the resort would operate activities, rentals, retail, food and beverage. 

“As of today, we don’t have any specific proposal from Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., so we don’t have anything to even consider on the question of them assisting with operations at Howelsen Hill,” Council President Jason Lacy wrote in an email Monday when asked for a status update. “We hope to have a specific proposal soon, but nothing is in hand as of today.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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