'Free parking' ends at airport

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— "No more Mr. Nice Guy" appears to be the message coming from the manager at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

"People are just parking anywhere out here," said Airport Manager Jim Parker, who said he was forced to tow more than six cars on Wednesday and boot others.

For years, airline passengers got a "free ride" in all three parking areas.

Now for the first time, people parking at all lots are supposed to be paying $3 per day on an honor system. The airport plans to implement paid parking in the lot nearest the terminal starting next week.

In the meantime, many Steamboat residents are arriving at the airport only to learn that they can't park for free anymore. Instead, they're crowding into 30-minute parking spaces, as well as employee parking spaces, and leaving the vehicles there long term.

Avis operator Aaron Wiltfong said he's had to boot cars that were parked in rental spaces, and it's gotten so bad that he has to guard his spaces between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

"I pay an exorbitant amount of money to the airport for these spaces," Wiltfong said. "I don't think I should have to play traffic cop."

Wiltfong said he finds it incredible that the Hayden airport has never charged for parking spaces.

"The airport has been operating at close to a half-million dollar loss," he said. "They'd make up over 60 percent of that loss with paid parking."

Wiltfong said he based that estimate on the airport's six month busy period at $2 per day for each car parked long term.

The county commissioners have made it clear they support paid parking for exactly that reason.

"The county is looking for ways to make that airport support itself," Commissioner Ben Beall said.

"I think we're the only airport of our size that doesn't have paid parking, so it shouldn't be something unfamiliar with the public," Beall said.

To make matters worse, Wiltfong said, there is no one directing traffic.

"No one's telling anyone where to park, where to go," said Wiltfong, who points out that fights have broken out when the traffic comes to a standstill.

He complained that the Hayden police won't write tickets or contribute much to ease the airport's ebb and flow.

"Thirty-four percent of Hayden's sales tax comes from the Yampa Valley Airport," Wiltfong said.

Hayden's police chief wasn't available for comment, but one of his officers confirmed officers try to patrol the parking spots for the disabled and 30-minute parking zones.

Meanwhile, Parker said he will be meeting with the county commissioners Tuesday to discuss what sort of role Hayden's police might play in enforcement and traffic.

"We need to consult with Hayden's town manager and the police chief," Parker said.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, airport employees continued to patrol the parking areas when not busy with their other jobs.

Airport maintenance superintendent Melvin Richardson got an earful from a Minnesota woman who found that he had just booted her car.

"Why did you do this to me?" she wailed. "Please take it off," she said while berating her husband for parking illegally.

"See what happened Vic, don't talk to me," she yelled at her harried husband.

Fortunately for Victor Kelmenson and his wife, Richardson took pity on the woman and took the boot off for free.

Parker wanted to remind people that it costs $25 to take a boot off and much more if a car gets towed.

"Three dollars a day parking is nothing compared to $60 for towing and $10 a day for storage," Parker said.

To put it in perspective, Parker points out that the county spends $80,000 a year just to plow the parking lots at the airport.

"It's not like we're trying to gouge our locals," Parker said. "We're not."

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