The STARS align: Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports plans new organization hub |

The STARS align: Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports plans new organization hub

The new STARS Ranch would be located on a parcel of land between the Legacy Ranch and D Bar K storage just south of the Steamboat Springs border.
John F. Russell

By the numbers:

3,253 lessons during 2015-16 year

20,119 hours of lessons 2015-16

570 individuals served 2015-16, 112 from Routt County

9 years in operation

$60,000 annual budget in 2007

$850,000 annual budget today

Get involved:

Donate: Learn more about how to donate to the STARS Ranch project or the organization at

Serve: STARS is expanding its board of directors from 10 members to 15, and is looking for people interested in serving on the board.

For more information on STARS and the STARS Ranch project, contact Julie Taulman at julie@steamboatst...

— Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports received final approval in May to move forward with a 15,000-square-foot organization lodge and office headquarters on the outside of Steamboat Springs’ southern border along U.S. Highway 40.

Organization officials say along with providing ample accommodations for STARS activity clients and offices for a growing staff, the STARS Ranch will have far-reaching impacts, including boosting local tourism and the economy.

STARS leaders already have embarked on a $5.5 million fundraising campaign to make the ranch a reality and to provide a much-needed place for STARS.

Realizing the need

Last summer, an organization that arranges travel opportunities for people who are deaf and blind aimed to visit Steamboat Springs, but struggled to find group lodging during the busy tourist season.

When it did identify a hotel with space, the lodging staff chose not to provide accommodations to the group.

This rendering by Mountain Architecture Design Group shows the planned new headquarters for Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports — STARS. Courtesy

Last summer, an organization that arranges travel opportunities for people who are deaf and blind aimed to visit Steamboat Springs, but struggled to find group lodging during the busy tourist season.

When it did identify a hotel with space, the lodging staff chose not to provide accommodations to the group.

“They were scared,” said Julie Taulman, executive director of STARS, a Steamboat nonprofit that facilitates adaptive recreational activities for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. “Our amount of accessible lodging in this community is limited.”

Taulman said when groups visit Steamboat for STARS programs, the nonprofit’s staff help piece together rooms through various lodging partners across town.

Clients often end up spread out and aren’t given the chance to spend downtime together outside of STARS activities, she said.

Taulman said the approved 32-bed lodge at the new STARS Ranch would provide a cohesive space for clients to interact with one another after a day on the slopes or in a summer camp. The ranch could also provide lodging or meeting space for organizations with missions similar to STARS; and will have capacity to accommodate 60 to 75 people for events.

Beyond lodging, the STARS Ranch will provide needed administrative space for STARS, whose current offices are hidden on the basement floor of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort.

It would also provide central meeting spaces for STARS summer programs, which currently don’t have a place of their own, such as winter programs, which use an office opposite the gondola at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.

Summer programs have expanded significantly in recent years, and overall, STARS has seen growth in the number of clients at a rate of about 20 to 25 percent each year.

“We’re running out of space to serve our clients,” Taulman said.

Another program needing a home is therapeutic horseback riding, which the organization took over from Humble Ranch in late 2014.

Currently, STARS leases a ranch to operate the summer horse activities, but having an arena and corral on the STARS Ranch would mean a long-term home for the program.

As members of STARS’ 10-person board worked throughout the past three years to envision the organization’s future, it became clear that STARS needed not only a place for client lodging and more offices, but also a hub to connect all the STARS programs and solidify the organization as a part of Steamboat Springs for decades to come.

“We feel a compelling need to maintain the stability of this organization,” said Pam Ruehle, STARS board president.

Imaging the ranch

After identifying the need, organization leaders began studying other adaptive recreation facilities across the country and gathering feedback from summer and winter STARS clients on the vision for the STARS Ranch.

Taulman and board members were able to learn from Park City, Utah’s National Ability Center, which provides recreational opportunities for people of varying abilities on a much larger scale than STARS. The center serves several thousand people each year, compared to just under 600 served by STARS last year.

“That’s been a great resource for us,” Ruehle said.

STARS also learned from Vail’s Roundup Ranch, which offers adaptive activities but caters to sick children and their families, providing on-site medical care, and from Breckenridge’s Outdoor Education Center, which runs two adaptive ski programs at Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas and a wilderness program and lodge.

Taulman said the STARS Ranch would provide a range of amenities and activities unlike any other program in the state.

“There is not another facility like this in the state of Colorado,” Taulman said. “It will, in essence, put Steamboat on the map.”

Taulman and Ruehle said they envision the ranch as understated and simple — a gathering place for people with disabilities to sit around the fire, enjoy a cup of coffee and regroup after a busy day of activities.

Lodging would not be luxurious and generally, only for the recreation participants, not for families, who would still use lodging within the Steamboat community.

Some summer activities would take place on site, including the therapeutic horseback riding, archery and a ropes course, but most would continue to take place at locations across Routt County.

The ranch would have a kitchen but not be set up as a restaurant, and clients could help make sack lunches before leaving for a summer program.

The lodge would be busy year-round with STARS staff, who would move their administrative offices on-site. Taulman said she expects staff numbers to double once the ranch is operational, from seven full-time employees now to 15 or 16 in the future.

The organization also employs about a dozen part-time employees seasonally, a few interns and has more than 200 regular volunteers.

The ranch would be a welcome space for local people with disabilities, something Steamboat resident Chris Arnis is looking forward to.

Arnis was left paralyzed after a skiing accident in March 2015 at Steamboat Ski Area and said he was first visited by STARS while undergoing rehabilitation in Denver last year.

“You find yourself in a community of people that you would never have been a part of until you’re injured,” Arnis said.

Arnis skied with STARS twice last season and is looking forward to interacting with other people with disabilities from injuries through STARS. He also plans to take advantage of a planned exercise room at the ranch.

“Our locals, this will be their home away from home,” Taulman said.

Taulman said she also envisions the ranch as a potential job training ground for people with disabilities, who could learn landscaping, kitchen tasks, housekeeping, animal care and other skills.

A greater reach

Keith and Ann Dronen started bringing their daughter, Anastacia, to Steamboat Springs when she was a toddler to participate in the ski area’s adaptive ski program.

That program became STARS in 2007, and Anastacia, who has autism, continued to actively participate in winter activities as she grew older.

“She’s progressively become a very good skier,” Keith Dronen said.

When STARS began summer programming, the Dronens returned to Steamboat with Anastacia to participate in adventure camps, horseback riding, kayaking and biking.

“It’s been a really nice community for her to meet other kids and families with disabilities,” Ann Dronen said.

Four years ago, the Dronens, who are from Chicago, decided to invest in a condominium home in Steamboat to simplify their trips to Colorado.

“A large part of that was due to the fact that we were so impressed by the STARS program,” Keith Dronen said.

Since purchasing the condo, the Dronens have begun visiting Steamboat more often, making the trip about 10 times per year, versus only twice per year in the past.

The Dronens are one of many families who have decided to purchase a second home in Steamboat specifically because of the strong adaptive program STARS offers, Taulman said, and their decision to purchase real estate in the community illustrates part of the significant economic and tourism impacts a program like STARS has.

Taulman knows of four out-of-town families active in the STARS program who purchased real estate in the area last year, and she pointed out that, when family members of STARS clients visit, they often recreate in Steamboat themselves, in addition to shopping in stores and eating in restaurants.

“We are a tourism community, and this is a line of tourism that is just being tapped into,” Taulman said.

Keith Dronen, who is one of the newest members of the STARS board of directors, said the STARS impact goes beyond STARS families.

He’s recommended Steamboat to friends unaffiliated with the organization who have decided to visit and then purchase real estate in the area.

“There’s a snowball effect,” Dronen said.

Looking ahead

As STARS embarks on a $5.5 million capital campaign to fund its new ranch, organization leaders are finding comfort in the strong support for the organization, locally and from afar, and more than $1.5 million already had been committed to the project as of June.

“It’s people within our community that believe in our mission and people from across the country investing in our community,” Taulman said.

The organization is currently in a silent fundraising phase, meeting with large donors now before applying for grants with major Colorado funders, who typically look for established support before awarding money.

The project won’t utilize tax dollars or any public money, Taulman said, though she believes the finished ranch will be a boon to all residents and a testament to a community that embraces people with disabilities.

“That’s the piece we’re most proud of,” Taulman said. “I think this is going to be a prideful thing for our community.”

The organization hopes to have the bulk of the fundraising completed this fall and expects architectural renderings to be finalized in January.

If all goes well, HLCC Construction will break ground on the facility by the spring, though, if fundraising falls short, the organization may phase the project.

Taulman believes the STARS Ranch, when completed, will be a significant step forward for Steamboat Springs in terms of inclusivity, being a community that welcomes all people, regardless of ability.

“I appreciate that the community is embracing people with disabilities,” she said.

Though Taulman expects demand for STARS programs to continue increasing once the ranch is completed, STARS won’t strive to become the largest program of its kind.

“We’re not looking to be the biggest,” Taulman said. “We want to be the best.” ★

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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