Steamboat Pilot & Today’s top stories of 2022
Before the calendar rolls over into a new year, the Steamboat Pilot & Today newsroom wanted to take a look back on 2022 and some of the most impactful, widely read stories of the year in Routt County.
1. Rainbow Gathering descends on Routt
On June 14, the Rainbow Family of Living Light announced its 50th anniversary gathering would be in Routt County. The group, which claims to be the largest non-organization of non-members in the world, held its first gathering near Granby in 1972 and last appeared in Colorado in 2006 near Clark.
In 2022, about 10,000 Rainbow Family members congregated through July in Adams Park in Routt National Forest north of Hayden. The gathering was not permitted and therefore unauthorized, drawing sharp criticism from Routt County residents and beyond.
While area officials had been preparing ahead of time and assured naysayers the gathering was ‘not Armageddon,’ the gathering still sparked environmental concerns both ahead of, during and after the gathering.
While the official gathering extended from July 1-7, Rainbow Family members were in the area for weeks, accruing 450 enforcement actions from law enforcement. The gathering peaked with about 10,000 attendees on July 4 with a celebration of interdependence.
Rainbow members who stayed to clean up the area “did all the things (the Forest Service) asked them to do,” while cleaning up the astonishing amount of trash and items left behind.
In the days following the last attendees leaving in mid-August, an Iowa man was reported missing after not returning home. Remains were found in early September and tests confirmed the remains indeed belonged to Jacob Cyr of Iowa.
2. City passes new short-term rental regulations
A handful of newly elected Steamboat Springs City Council members who ran for office vowing to rein in short-term rentals made good on their promise in 2022 by passing new regulations in May dictating where short-term rentals are allowed to operate in the city and how they’re managed.
City Council also unanimously approved an overlay zoning map in June that caps the number of allowed short-term rentals in certain neighborhoods and forbids them in others. The city also has set the framework for a new hotline and a complaint process designed to reduce complaints surrounding violations such as excessive noise, illegal parking and unkempt trash.
The biggest move, however, might have come when council decided 6-1 this summer to ask voters to impose up to a 9% tax on short-term rental stays. Money generated by the new tax would go to workforce housing projects, and supporters of the measure argued that short-term rentals are essentially commercial operations that have a competitive advantage over hotels and other lodging properties because short-term rentals are subject to lower residential tax rates.
While many locals supported the effort, not everyone was on board. After City Council decided to put the measure on the ballot, opposition groups immediately organized, first trying to recall three City Council members — Heather Sloop, Joella West and Dakotah McGinlay — while also seeking to obtain a judge’s order to force the city to hold a special election to ask voters to decide if the issue should appear on the November ballot.
After the recall effort was abandoned and a judge ruled against a special election, the opposition’s focus shifted to defeating the new tax at the ballot box. But that didn’t happen, as more than 62% of Steamboat voters favored the proposal despite claims that it would have long-lasting ripple effects throughout the local economy, just as many people fear an economic downturn is taking hold across the U.S.
With the measure’s passage, council decided on a 9% tax, increasing the effective tax rate on short-term rentals to 20.4%
3. Full Steam Ahead chugs forward
Steamboat Resort is in its 60th year of operation and in the middle of a $200 million dollar capital improvement project known as Full Steam Ahead.
In 2022, there was rarely a day in which something didn’t change at the resort. Work progressed through the end of the 2022 season on Steamboat Square. The summer was full of helicopters whirring as they cleared trees and placed towers for the incoming Wild Blue Gondola and Pioneer Ridge lift.
Meanwhile, work continued on the slopes and in the square, preparing for a new learning center, building a new ice rink, erecting a food hall and revamping the stage.
All that work came to life at Steamboat’s biggest opening day in nearly a decade, complete with the debut of Skeeter’s Rink on Nov. 23. On Christmas Eve, the Wild Blue Gondola opened to take guests to the new Greenhorn Ranch Learning Center.
Another new addition is a child care center, which will add 30 slots to the Yampa Valley’s child care offerings, alleviating a little pressure on the stressed system in Steamboat.
4. Wolf reintroduction plans revealed
Back in 2020, Coloradans voted in favor of reintroducing wolves. While the animals aren’t going to be released until 2024, the drama surrounding wolves this year was thick and twofold: While officials planned the reintroduction of wolves, the canines were already making their presence known in Northwest Colorado.
Two wolves that had naturally migrated into Colorado from Wyoming had a litter of six and were killing cattle and dogs at a North Park ranch. CPW collared one of the pups in February, however, all three collars that were on members of the pack are no longer functioning. Adding to the stress and mystery surrounding the pack, it’s suspected that three female pups from the pack were killed in Wyoming.
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The imposed hazing regulations allowed the ranch owner to take some action against the wolves. However, in early February, wolves were put back on the Endangered Species List, meaning not only was CPW no longer the arbitrator of reintroduction, but hazing regulations would need to be reviewed.
In August, the state considered designating the wolves reintroduced as experimental, which would allow livestock producers more flexibility in their hazing tactics.
Throughout the late summer, working groups drafted alternate wolf reintroduction plans, but the official one was released in mid-December by CPW, and the potential release area includes South Routt.
Not but a week later, a South Routt rancher reported suspected wolf tracks. CPW couldn’t confirm the tracks based on appearance, but sent off some hair to be tested. One month earlier, 40 cattle were found dead in Meeker, but no evidence of wolves was found.
5. Continued employee shortage plagues local businesses
Routt County began 2022 facing a severe shortage of workers, and due to the ongoing crisis, many local businesses have had to find creative ways to cope with the shortage, including cutting hours, reducing services, raising workers’ pay or finding other strategies to entice potential employees.
At the end of 2021, there were instances of single workers having to handle responsibilities that used to take a full team to complete, including taking orders, answering phones, cleaning and interacting with long lines of customers all in the same shift.
It seemed as if no one was immune either, as the school district, local governments and state agencies such as the Colorado Department of Transpiration all reported staffing shortages in one area or another.
The Steamboat Springs Board of Education also approved a new, two-year contract giving school staff two years worth of raises up front on June 13, despite the deal resulting in an unbalanced budget for next year. Hayden Town Council approved a 4% raise for town staff on May 19, giving employees a pay bump in the hopes of keeping pace with neighboring governments and record inflation.
While many of those moves helped ease the strain, the workforce shortages has been largely blamed on a lack of available housing, and the employment picture continues to be a conundrum for employers across the Yampa Valley.
6. Plan for Brown Ranch takes shape
In summer 2021, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority bought the 536-acre Brown Ranch using a $23 million donation that came from an anonymous donor. The end of 2021 saw Brown Ranch as an idea, and the plans really came together in 2022.
In May, details started to emerge that the project could include 2,300 units of a variety of housing types, potentially easing the Yampa Valley housing crisis. However, it was also determined that the development would require as much as $10 million a year from the community over the next 20 years.
Enter the short-term rental tax, which would help regulate an industry causing Steamboat Springs grief, while collecting funds for affordable housing. The tax passed in the November election and was set at 9%.
Doubts circulated that plans for development would come into fruition, yet they were eased when Routt County committed $1 million to an infrastructure design plan.
Following 16 months of drafting a plan, the YVHA approved the Brown Ranch Community Development Plan in December. Construction is projected to start in 2026 with the development’s first units becoming available the same year. The next phase of development plans to wrap up mid 2029. Other phases will take around 20 years to complete.
Concerns still exist over whether the housing will remain affordable and what kind of impact it will have on traffic, but annexing the property into the city limits is the next step and already in the works.
7. Hayden prepares for an uncertain future
It will likely be two years until the sites are built out, but Hayden’s yet-to-be-constructed industrial park already has four of its first 11 building sites under contract. Overall, the first phase of the project carves out 11 lots, and the second could have as many as 14.
That’s great news for the town because the four tenants already planned for the development could add as many as 55 jobs in Hayden, which is preparing for an uncertain future after the closure of coal-fired Hayden Station.
In fact, town officials estimate that when fully built out, the industrial park project could make up a significant amount of the property tax base the community stands to lose when the coal-fired plant powers down by the end decade.
The industrial park project started out as part of an entry into a national competition for pandemic stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan Act but wasn’t selected for funding. Focus then shifted to pursue funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which announced $5.2 million in federal grants for the project in August.
The town is close to submitting an official planning application with hopes of moving dirt this summer. Work would continue through the winter where possible, with the infrastructure work being complete by summer 2024.
But that wasn’t the only big move in Hayden this year. In addition to progress on the industrial park, Hayden rezoned 23 acres to make way for 180-unit affordable housing project and welcomed the addition of new businesses like the Creek View Grill, Bar-U-Eat, Auto Hangars, Wired and Inspired and more.
8. Turmoil in the Steamboat Springs School District
The spring of 2022 saw a series of events unfold within the Steamboat Springs School District that brought tensions to the surface and new leadership to the district.
In April, Superintendent Brad Meeks announced he would retire after 11 years with the district. Around the same time, Steamboat Springs High School Principal Rick Elertson announced the decision to cease offering linked classes, a decision that not only prompted sharp criticism from staff, but alumni and current students.
Those tensions were put on paper when 90% of teachers surveyed at SSHS said they lacked faith in the principal. The district committed to bringing in a third-party facilitator to help ease tensions, which worked with staff through the summer.
That work seemed to have helped, as a post-facilitation survey in September showed 84% of staff said the school was a good place to work, up from 48% in the spring. However, a December survey showed teachers were still unhappy, with just 63% saying SSHS was a good place to work. Later in the month, the school board and SSHS Principal Elertson agreed to part ways.
Meanwhile, in the spring and summer, the district was getting attention from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights as schools were allegedly not meeting the needs of special needs students due to paraprofessional staffing shortages. The district entered an agreement in April that requires a plan to get to adequate staffing levels.
In August, parents formed a committee to advocate for special needs students. In June, teachers were given raises, and in July, the board of education selected former Strawberry Park Elementary School principal Celine Wicks as the new superintendent.
9. Groundswell saves Whitehaven Mobile Home Park
More than 70 residents of Steamboat Springs dodged displacement following threats of a pending sale of their mobile home community. The residents of the Whitehaven Mobile Home Park on the west side of the city received a notice of sale in August detailing a potential $3 million dollar sale of the property containing 27 homes.
Only given 90 days to match the price, residents began to scramble and sought help in the community. The community responded by starting a fund in September. Using some of that money and favorable loans, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority ultimately bought the property for $3.125 million. YVHA closed on the deal just four months after the original notice of sale, all while maintaining a promise to residents to not raise rent.
10. Steamboat locals elected to Colorado House, Senate
During the November’s election, Routt County voted blue with more votes in a midterm than ever before. The headliner was a contentious race between two longtime Routt County residents, Democrat Meghan Lukens and Republican Savannah Wolfson, who went head to head for a seat in Colorado’s House of Representatives for District 26. Lukens came out on top, claiming 53% of the vote.
Another notable win for the Democrats, the seat for Routt County commissioner for District 3 resulted in Democrat Sonja Macy defeating her Republican opponent Kathi Meyer by claiming 58% of the vote. Also, longtime Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins will be passing the torch to Undersheriff Doug Scherar, who copped 65% of the vote this election.
Steamboat product Dylan Roberts also won the Senate District 8 seat over Republican Matt Solomon.
Other additional changes coming up as the result of the election include the introduction of a 9% short term rental property tax and the removal of the revenue cap on the South Routt Library. Both passed with over 50% of the votes, in addition to the extension of the Purchasing of Development Right mill levy.
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