Steamboat Pilot & Today’s top 10 stories of 2021
The following recap of the most impacting, biggest headlines and stories of 2021 was compiled by the Steamboat Pilot & Today newsroom.
1. The pandemic
Many of us hoped 2021 would be different — that COVID-19 would be behind us and that we could proceed back to what we used to call normal, but the deadly virus and its variants continued to affect almost every aspect of daily life.
In Routt County, the beginning of 2021 brought with it shipments of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and with them came great hope. The last year had been spent racing to find a breakthrough, and many people thought it would be an end to the quarantines, masking and social distancing guidelines that became so common throughout 2020.
The number of vaccines initially distributed early into the rollout were far less than desired, but those shipments soon picked up, and Routt County now has one of the higher vaccination rates in the state and U.S. As a result, the county hasn’t seen large numbers of hospitalizations with its most recent spikes in infections.
However, much like last January, when Routt County hit highs for new cases, the numbers are skyrocketing again across the valley, likely due to the omicron variant. In the past two weeks alone, the county’s caseload rose from a few dozen to over 150 new cases.
The Centers for Disease Control have once again updated their recommended guidelines, and it’s unclear what 2022 might produce for the ongoing pandemic that’s about to reach into its third year. From the ski resort to local businesses, hospitals, schools and beyond, few stories this year came with the recurrence or gravity of the ongoing pandemic.
2. The environment
Wildfires flared up all over Routt County this summer, as a severe drought persisted and the Yampa Valley’s rivers came to a dribble.
Routt County’s first major wildfire of the year began June 20 in South Routt County. The fire burned over 4,000 acres and was determined to have been caused by lightning.
In effort to prevent a threat to people and properties, the U.S. Forest Service closed several roads and trails in the area. Residents along Routt County Road 16, between mile marker 12 and Colorado Highway 134, were under mandatory evacuation, in addition to a voluntary evacuation for the areas of Green Ridge and South Stagecoach.
One of the biggest environmental scares came from the Morgan Creek Fire, which was reported July 9 on the Routt National Forest, 15 miles north of Steamboat Springs. The fire started south of the Hinman Campground, spread over the subsequent days into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and burned over 7,500 acres by the time it was done. Later in July, the Elk Run Fire flared up west of Steamboat, providing another wildfire scare.
Lightning was determined to be the cause of both July blazes, but following the 2020 wildfire season, which produced the largest two fires in Colorado history, residents and fire officials across the mountain region were on high alert.
After such a dry summer, the county’s snow totals continued to trail previous years as the Yampa Valley went into the fall and then winter. The limited amount of snow even led Steamboat Resort to the delay its opening until Nov. 27, the first time the resort pushed back skiing due to low snow in several years.
For this year’s big community read, One Book Steamboat, the chosen piece is the cli-fi novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. The selected book will hold the community’s interest for months in 2022, and it highlights why the environment was one of the biggest stories of 2021.
3. New short-term rental rules
Short-term rentals were in the crosshairs as the county’s housing crisis only grew worse throughout 2021.
Steamboat Springs City Council first took up the topic in June, as council members identified two primary issues with short-term rentals — their impact on housing stock and the noise, trash and neighborhood problems many in the city believe they bring.
To address these issues, council issued a six-month moratorium on applying for a vacation home rental permit. In response, several property management companies in the city pushed back.
After weeks of meetings, council compromised with short-term rental advocates and nixed several streets from the moratorium. With the exception of certain streets surrounding Steamboat Resort, the moratorium has been extended several times and is currently set to expire June 30.
The new council elected in November has asked for stricter rules around short-term rentals. Steamboat Springs Planning Commission is currently outlining overlay zones where short-term rentals could be restricted or prohibited and will eventually present those findings to council.
Council has not yet delved deep into the idea, but several members have expressed a desire for exploring caps on how many nightly rentals can exist in an area. This is an issue facing mountain towns across the Western Slope, including Steamboat.
Additionally, as Steamboat scrambled to regulate what many say became a problem years ago, officials in Oak Creek voted to allow only 15 short-term rentals for the entire town.
4. Wild horses roundup
The largest wild horse roundup in Colorado’s history removed hundreds of feral horses from the Sand Wash Basin and pitted federal land-use management officials against preservation advocates while making headlines across the U.S.
The fall roundup ended early with input from Gov. Jared Polis. However, over a series of weeks, hundreds of horses were removed, most of them taken to Cañon City to be auctioned off.
Officials with the Bureau of Land Management argued the herd was far too large for the region to sustain, but that did little to ease criticism.
5. Brown Ranch acquisition
Years after a deal between Steamboat 700 and the city of Steamboat Springs to build 536 acres of affordable housing fell through, an anonymous donor gave the Yampa Valley Housing Authority a gift to purchase the property.
The property, now called the Brown Ranch, will eventually provide all types of attainable housing — both for rent and purchase — for Routt County residents. The housing authority has asked the city of Steamboat to annex the property.
Whether the annexation goes through will be up to future councils. If council chooses to refer the question to voters, future residents will have the ultimate say over whether the area gets added to the city. Regardless, the acquisition is seen as a great opportunity to chip away at the county’s housing crisis.
6. Economic growth
Economic growth continued at a high pace, and many travelers continued to pour into Routt County, all despite a continued labor shortage.
Skyrocketing housing costs, fear of catching COVID-19 and dealing with angry customers through a pandemic all contributed to a shortage of workers in Routt County, in both the public and private sectors.
A lack of staff caused Steamboat Springs Transit to shift their bus routes. Restaurants closed early, Steamboat’s medians went unkept and businesses raised their salary and benefits to attract workers.
Still, with just over a month remaining in 2021, Routt County officials were projecting the county would collect about $5 million more than anticipated through various sales and use taxes. That increased revenue also helped the county increase spending.
But that wasn’t the only rosy economic indicator to drop jaws last year.
Steamboat Springs’ sales tax collections continued their upward trajectory as well, as the city’s tax collections were 7.7% higher this October than they were a year ago. In fact, the city’s collections for the first 10 months of 2021 exceeded what had been budgeted for the year, and almost every month in 2021 has collected more money than the same month the previous year.
Add to that local lodging rates nearing capacity at peak times of the year, along with growth in the real estate market and more passengers than ever arriving at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, and it makes for an interesting economic climate to say the least. With so many pieces of the local economy on track for banner years in 2021, 2022 looks like it could be even busier.
7. Mental health awareness
As COVID-19 brought grief, tragedy and uncertainty, Steamboat Pilot & Today did an in-depth series, “Out of the Shadows,” on mental health issues plaguing Routt County and paired with community partners.
Some of the issues included higher rates of suicide than the national average, a stigma around discussing mental health, Steamboat’s party culture leading to addiction and those with mental health issues being pushed to the criminal justice system, which does not always have adequate resources to help them.
The newspaper’s editorial team also wrote spotlight profiles on many people who spoke out about their mental health issues. The community took big steps to make mental health a top priority in many ways over the last year, and we think that push was one of the biggest stories of 2021.
8. Hiring of new police chief/retirement of old chief
The changing of the guard with the city’s top law enforcement official paved the way for the city’s first female chief of police.
After eight years with the city, former Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen announced his retirement in May. Christensen left with a legacy of cleaning up a department criticized for having a toxic work environment, hiring more female police officers than the department has ever seen and building a positive relationship with the community.
Months after Christensen’s departure, City Manager Gary Suiter hired Sherry Burlingame, Steamboat’s first female top cop.
Burlingame is currently the assistant police chief in Tempe, Arizona. At a meet-and-greet with the five finalists, Burlingame said she would focus on improving mental health resources for those in crisis, which she did in Arizona. She starts work Jan. 17
9. 2021 election results
Headlining an election with deep implications across the board, all of Steamboat Springs’ new council members ran against very well-known candidates, many of whom raised more money than their successful opponents and had previously served on city council.
The four new members include three women and the youngest council member in the city’s history. Ed Briones, Gail Garey, Dakotah McGinlay and Joella West were all elected.
In their month of meeting, the new council has identified affordable housing, short-term rental regulation and climate change as their top priorities.
10. New development at Steamboat Resort
Steamboat Resort’s upgrades were an exclamation point on a busy year of development across the Yampa Valley.
Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. announced several changes over the next thee years, as part of a project called Full Steam Ahead. The resort plans to acquire 650 new skiable acres in the Fish Creek Canyon area and become the second-largest ski resort in Colorado.
Also, the new Wild Blue Gondola will fit 10 people, address base area congestion and feed skiers and riders through a newly created midstation adjacent to Bashor bowl with the final destination the top of Sunshine Peak.
While a larger gondola and more advanced terrain are in the plans, the resort is also looking to build a new area for beginners. Those taking lessons and wanting to practice on easier terrain will have access to Greenhorn Ranch in winter 2022/23.
Most of the project will not be complete until summer 2023, but by winter, 2021, the resort demolished the gondola and snowsports buildings, relocated the gondola base terminal, installed an escalator and redid much of the base area.
Giving a glimpse into what readers were looking for when they came to our website, these were the most searched terms and phrases at SteamboatPilot.com throughout 2021.
Best of the Boat, Obituaries, Construction, Weather, Real Estate, The Record, Photo Galleries, Real Estate Transactions, Fire, 20 Under 40, City Council, Gondola, Bear, COVID, Muddy Slide Fire, Hayden, Crossword, Jobs, Body Found, Lacrosse, School Board, Housing, Election, Morgan Creek Fire, Short-Term Rental, Sleepy Bear, Triple Crown, Yule Log, Accident, Halloween, City Council Candidates, Winter Carnival and Oak Creek.
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