A leap of faith

Local group trying to upgrade Howelsen's jumping facilities

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Outfitted in antique brown leather skiing boots, red wool socks pulled up to his knees, brown wool knickers and a forest green shawl-collared sweater cinched with a thin leather belt, Kris Hammond may or may not be the spitting image of Carl Howelsen.

But when he starts to talk, holding thick wooden skis and bamboo ski poles with baskets the size of dinner plates, his accent can take even the staunchest realist back to Steamboat Springs circa 1914.

"I am always looking for ze mountain for ze yumping," Hammond says, in a voice so exaggerated with a Norwegian lilt it would make Carl himself blush. "Vhen I see all zose mountains and all zat snow, it yust makes my heart yump for yoy."

Hammond's act as Carl Howelsen, the Norwegian Army captain who introduced ski jumping to Steamboat, was the crowning moment in a Saturday night show designed to entertain and educate a group of dignitaries. Those officials, including 14 state legislators, five members of the governor's cabinet, the president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, leaders in the oil, gas and coal industries and former Olympians have been invited to the Colorado Ski Heritage Weekend to witness the Nordic Combined World Cup.

Hammond and the members of a local group attempting to outfit Howelsen Hill's jumps with plastic want to turn the audience's yucks into bucks to help pay for the nearly $10 million project that could keep Steamboat on par with the world's great ski jumping towns.

Park City's Utah Olympic Park, the site of next year's Olympic special jumping and Nordic Combined events, is challenging Steamboat as the premier jumping facility in the West. Built only two years ago for upwards of $20 million, the three main jumps are outfitted with plastic and allow jumpers to take off and land year-round. Steamboat's athletes and coaches have already been pulled away to train at the new facility and more may soon take the six-hour drive West. The legacy that tens of Olympic jumpers who have called Steamboat home and 52 total Olympians at last count built over the past century is now in jeopardy.

Park City's jumps were paid for with Salt Lake Organizing Committee money, meaning taxpayers put up lots of cash to get them built in time for the Olympics. Steamboat, on the other hand, does not have an excuse as good as the Olympics to justify spending seven or eight figures on ski jumps.

So while Steamboat spectators concentrate on the world-class athletes skiing off Howelsen's jumps and through the cross-country course, the supporters of the newly dubbed Colorado Ski Heritage Project will be trying to make sure the dignitaries they have invited fully enjoy ski jumping Steamboat style.

For the past six weeks or so, the group has been prepping for this weekend, hoping to make the event a seamless demonstration of the importance of keeping Howelsen competitive by upgrading the jumps. But while they want to make sure the officials have money on their minds, they don't want to give the impression that they are about to pass a hat around.

"This is a fun program, not a fund-raising program," said Kevin Bennett, the former City Council president who is heading up the effort. "We are not seeking money from them this weekend."

Bennett and the approximately 20 others who meet every Wednesday morning in Centennial Hall to discuss their plans for funding and building the jumps have wrestled for weeks with the presentation they will make to the dignitaries.

It's not that it's tough to sell ski jumping in a town where mothers wear ski jumping earrings and have a realistic chance of giving birth to an Olympian. But getting state lawmakers to fund a group of ski jumps when other lobbyists are asking them to fund highways and youth programs is going to take a lot of convincing. They need to sell ski jumping as a serious community activity with statewide importance for the ski industry to a group that could quickly pass it off as a frivolous pursuit. They need to show the dignitaries ski jumping is not only Steamboat's heart, but also the pride of the state. And, banking on the idea that it will be easier to get money in the coming Olympic year than in the future when the world's attention turns elsewhere, the group wants to act fast.

State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, who has taken a leadership role in the project, emphasizes the city needs to make its arguments in terms of how this can benefit the state as a whole. If the group makes its pitch too narrow, it could lose the ears of some legislators, he said.

"They could react that this is just a Steamboat project," Taylor said.

With that in mind, the group changed its name from the Steamboat Heritage Project to the Colorado Ski Heritage Project, after it was forced to drop the word "Olympic" from the Colorado Olympian Project.

The group also has to be sensitive to the needs of Bill Marolt, the president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and a group of Park City officials expected to attend. If Steamboat is too focused on competing with Park City as opposed to working with it to develop great athletes, it could inspire antagonism.

The group knows it is walking a political tightrope this weekend and has developed talking points to keep the message focused. Hopefully for them, the sight of athletes soaring off ramps originally built by Carl Howelsen will keep the dignitaries focused, too.

But what would Howelsen himself think of plastic ski jumps? Unfortunately, we cannot ask the famed Norwegian, but Hammond can answer without a moment's hesitation.

"He would've thought it was a great idea."

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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