Winter Sports Club concerned about future of Howelsen Hill
Steamboat Springs — A century after Carl Howelsen led the effort to build a large ski jump on a hill overlooking Steamboat Springs, some community members who value what has become the city’s most iconic park are worried about the ski area’s next 100 years.
“The next 100 years are not guaranteed if we don’t start doing the right things today,” Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Executive Director Jim Boyne said. “We’ve got to start looking ahead, because I’m watching it erode before my eyes, and it would be great to feel better about the City Council’s commitment to making sure we preserve it and revere it the way it should be.”
Plans to improve the lodge building, replace snowmaking equipment and add other amenities have languished unfunded on shelves, and landslides and failing infrastructure have generated millions of dollars worth of repair bills in recent years.
The big repair bills have spurred some current City Council members to openly question whether the city should continue to maintain and operate some parts of the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado.
Boyne, along with some community members who grew up learning to ski on the hill, think that would be a big mistake.
“It’s frustrating to me, some of the things they’ve said,” Boyne said of the council members who have suggested the ski area could be scaled back.
Speaking passionatley about the hill and its future on Thursday, Boyne said the city and its elected officials have not done enough in recent years to properly maintain the hill and plan for its future needs.
He called for a more strategic vision for the hill so the Winter Sports Club and the greater community can continue to enjoy it.
“Budgets are hard, and there are always tradeoffs, but this has probably been 70 years in the making, and someone has to have the courage to say we’ve got to change the model so this can be preserved,” Boyne said.
With big spending decisions ahead, Boyne is calling on the city and its elected officials to focus on preserving and improving the asset for everyone.
Boyne said the city should focus more on what the hill is and could be instead of what it costs to keep up.
City staff has, in recent years, launched a master planning process for the entire Howelsen park and looked into such things as a new aerial adventure course there.
But saying it does not have adequate funding to realize the plans, the city has convened a new alternative funding working group to study other ways of funding parks and recreation amenities.
Boyne faulted the city for not building up reserve funds it knew it would need to fix infrastructure that has begun to fail after outliving its expected life span by many years.
“I would say our concern is for the long-term viablity of Howelsen Hill. From what I’ve seen, the care and the strategic vision has not been implemented by city councils, both sitting and past, because there are no reserve funds for the infrastructure here,” Boyne said. “Our agreement with the city is clear that the city has to maintain, repair, replace and reconstruct all of the things that constitute the ski complex there. I don’t think they’ve lived up to their end of the bargain, despite the hard efforts of the parks and rec staff.”
City Council recently removed $880,000 from the city’s capital budget that was going to be spent in the next two years to shore up the earth around the ski jumps.
Gabion baskets that serve as retaining walls on the steep slopes are failing, and their collapse could cause serious damage to the jumps.
Before making such a big investment, the council wants to first perform a soil study on the entire hill to get a better idea of the prospect for future landslides.
Boyne praised the council for investing in the soil study, but added he would have liked to see the funding kept in the budget for future years.
He noted the expensive stabilization project on the hill would fix infrastructure that has long outlived its expected life span.
“The original repair had a 20-year estimated life span, and it lasted almost 30, yet there were no funds reserved to replace it,” Boyne said. “When you know something is going to last only 20 years, typically, you would start saving for that repair in the future.”
Howelsen has other needs that have not yet been addressed in the city’s budget.
Boyne said the main snowmaking line at the ski hill needs to be replaced, but the $500,000 project has not made it onto the capital budget yet.
Council members also learned the ski lift is in need of significant maintenance in the future.
Due to funding limitations at the city, the Sports Club has taken on some maintenance and improvement projects itself over the years, including maintenance on the ski jumps.
The city projects it will have to spend about $676,000 next year in subsidy from the general fund to operate the ski area.
Like Boyne, former city councilman Jon Quinn is also calling on the city and the council to set aside money each year so future capital needs can be promptly addressed.
“The budget for maintaining and operating Howelsen Hill is considerable … and the real (return on investement) is hard to quantify, but please do not make the mistake of underestimating the impact that this incredible venue has on our community,” Quinn recently wrote to the current council.
Community members will have an opportunity to weigh in on the future of Howelsen in November when a newly-seated city council sits down in a workshop dedicated to the topic.
A 28-year-old joint use agreement with the Sports Club requires the city to maintain the ski area and keep it operational.
In addition, grant funding the city has received for ski jumps, trails, lighting and other equipment require the city maintain and allow public use of the equipment the grants were used for.
Scott Wither, a local realtor who grew up skiing on the hill, urged City Council to not focus only on the dollars and cents of running the facility.
“It needs to be saved,” Wither said. “Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s an incredible facility that Steamboat is lucky to have. It’s a real treasure, for sure.”
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