At Home: CMC entering a new era with the biggest development in town |

At Home: CMC entering a new era with the biggest development in town

The dramatic $20 million addition to the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus on the western edge of Steamboat's Old Town neighborhood is the biggest development news in town this year.
John F. Russell

A three-dimensional model of the new Colorado Mountain College administrative and classroom building is on display at the school's library in Bristol Hall. John F. Russell

— The dramatic $20 million addition to the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus on the western edge of Steamboat's Old Town neighborhood is the biggest development news in town this year.

Only 30 years ago, the community came perilously close to losing its tiny college that is now about to launch a new era with its first four-year degree programs.

"As soon as people complain to me about the construction noise, I tell them it's music to my ears," says former Alpine Campus CEO George Bagwell, who still relishes his role as a professor after decades with the college.

Dark days in the late 1970s saw CMC predecessors fall into financial difficulty. Professors weren't paid and the sheriff padlocked the doors. One campus operator even came close to selling 60 acres, including today's expansion area, to a developer planning apartment buildings for the site.

Recommended Stories For You

It took visionary community leaders, philanthropy and the willingness of school district voters to tax themselves before the college embarked on its current course of stability and growth.

In her 1987 book about the college, "Miracle on a Mountain," Lucile Bogue, founder of the precursor to CMC, called the establishment of the college, "A twentieth century miracle that happened in a beautiful green valley high in the Colorado Rockies."

The Alpine Campus, which graduated more than 100 students in spring, is part of the larger CMC system on Colorado's Western Slope, which levies its own property tax. Founded in 1967, CMC now has 11 sites in nine counties, and always has blended accredited courses toward two-year associate degrees with non-credit continuing education courses for residents. System-wide, CMC graduated more than 800 students in May 2011 and saw a record enrollment of 25,182, including non-degree students.

In April came the big news that CMC had been accredited by the Higher Learning Commission to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in sustainability studies and a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration.

"That was a historic day for Colorado Mountain College," says CMC President Stan Jensen. "We'll continue to be a community college, but we'll be able to offer baccalaureate degrees. We're a dual-purpose college now."

Current Alpine Campus CEO Peter Perhac says a desire to strengthen the bond between the college and the community is an important theme in the new 60,000-square-foot building that broke ground in May on a hillside overlooking Howelsen Hill.

"When I first got here, I realized that being on the hill, we were pretty isolated from community members," Perhac says. "We have an opportunity with this new building to make sure the neighbors are happy and it isn't a big monster that obstructs the views. Second, we asked, 'How can we make it easier for community members to get here?' Yoga and Pilates are among our most popular community courses, and the new building will have a prominent place for them just to the left of the front entrance."

An entire floor of the new building will be devoted to classrooms and administrative offices. But it also will offer several new public rooms and decks — even a cafe and a secluded garden — to make the campus more appealing to the community.

Showpieces of the new sustainable building will be a geoexchange heating system serving double duty as a teaching facility, and a 250-seat auditorium for public and private functions. A spacious weight lifting room also will be open to members of the public enrolled in classes.

Mark Scully, whose Chicago-based firm Green Courte Partners developed some of downtown Steamboat's newest mixed residential/commercial buildings, says the community's new public infrastructure has proven to be a motivating amenity for affluent second-home owners. The existence of the college along with the rebuilt Soda Creek Elementary School, new Bud Werner Memorial Library and recreation at Howelsen Hill, all within walking distance, send strong signals about the strength of the community.

"The key point for second-home buyers is that Steamboat as a value proposition is about Steamboat as an authentic community. It's not just abut the new college building, but its future as a four-year institution," Scully says. "Before, it was all about ski-in, ski-out. Now, buyers are really looking at these cultural institutions when they make a decision about where to live six months of the year."

Saving the college

Fifteen of Colorado's top 25 ski areas are included within the CMC district, so it's significant that CMC is able to expand its campus within the city limits, where the cost of land is dear. But that opportunity almost got away in the late 1970s.

The original Yampa Valley College was the vision of an irrepressible dreamer named Lucile Bogue, who taught literature at the preparatory Lowell Whiteman School in Strawberry Park in the early 1960s. Bogue was a poet but also a woman who knew how to twist arms, recalls former Whiteman colleague and longtime CMC professor George Tolles.

"She was never embarrassed or intimidated," Tolles says. "She could go to Washington and ask for money and many influential and wealthy people sent their children to the college."

Bogue launched Yampa Valley College in 1962 with little funding and a vision for a four-year liberal arts college with an emphasis in international studies. She succeeded in attracting students from as far away as Japan and Africa. But the dream of going global never quite took hold.

In the early days, the school's facilities were unorthodox. Tolles remembers that he gave up a post with the U.S. State Department in Cali, Colombia, to teach at the college for an annual stipend of $3,500.

For that remuneration, he taught German, history, Spanish, economics and political science in St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Oak Street.

Climbing the hill

The college moved to the hill in 1966 with the opening of three buildings, Willett, Bogue and Monson halls. It was then the institution's name changed to Colorado Alpine College.

Bogue, uncomfortable with a new dean and the direction of the school, moved on to teach in Berkeley, Calif., and Japan and to become a prolific author.

Colorado Alpine College folded in 1969, and United States International University, based in San Diego, purchased the campus. However, USIU shut down its Steamboat operation in 1975, and the campus struggled along by renting dorms to ski vacationers.

Within three years, the college faced its moment of fate.

Tolles wrote in "Miracle on a Mountain" that at one point, it got so bad that the sheriff came to campus on behalf of the bank that held a $1.5 million note on the campus and put padlocks on the doors.

The campus soon reopened nominally as an outreach center for Colorado Northwestern Community College, based in Rangely.

Fortunately, the late Bill Hill left his post running the Steamboat Chamber to lead the effort to save the college.

"The reincarnation of Alpine Campus began on a beautiful September in 1978," Hill explains in Bogue's book. "It had a precarious start. Dr. Erie Johnson, vice president of CNCC, rushed into my office. In a rather desperate tone, he told me that USIU was negotiating to sell the Alpine Campus to commercial developers for an apartment complex."

Hill thought the campus was destined to play a more important role in the community. He assembled a task force of concerned community leaders that included ski area pioneer John Fetcher, Ev Bristol, banker Del Scott, downtown retailer Dorothy Wither and Jim Golden, of Yampa Valley Electric Association. Two more bankers, Rex Pielstick and Ed Hill, also played critical roles as did Tim Borden, a young attorney for Bob Adams' coal mining company, Energy Fuels.

The task force formed the Yampa Valley Foundation and determined that it probably could serve the debt on the campus but was stumped when confronted with a bank demand that the community come up with $60,000 in six weeks.

With Borden serving as matchmaker, a breakfast at Adams' home resulted in Adams writing the check.

But the key to the school's long-term financial stability was the willingness of the voters to impose a new property tax on themselves to join the CMC system, which is organized not by county but by school district boundaries. Voters in the Steamboat Springs School District voted by a 2-1 margin in 1981 to invest in higher education.

Bagwell was recruited from another CMC campus to transform the curriculum from one that included heavy equipment repair and horseshoeing to one that included courses to support Steamboat's resort economy, including resort management, computerized accounting and, at the suggestion of ski racer Billy Kidd, an associates degree in ski business.

Bagwell says it was Bill Hill's unwavering determination, and later the business acumen of Ed Hill, that ushered the college into a new era.

"Bill Hill was the spark plug in the effort to save the college," Bagwell says.

And like the jumpers soaring off the 90-meter jump across the valley, it was the leap of faith taken by the community 30 years ago that now is allowing the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus to enter a new era.

50-year reunion in August

As many as 80 alums, retired faculty and old flames are expected to gather in Steamboat Springs from Aug. 19 to 21 from as far away as Japan and Europe to take part in the 50-year reunion of Yampa Valley College and Colorado Alpine College, the precursors of Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat. The reunion is for anyone affiliated with the college from 1962 to 1969. More info at

Go back to article