Residents hit hard

Unpredictable economy leaving some locals pressed to find ways to pay the bills

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— Steve Nowak has been drinking a lot of coffee lately and reading. He is looking for a job in a Steamboat Today that is regularly filling 50 percent less of its pages with classified ads than it did at this time last year. Nowak is an unemployed 26-year-old Steamboat Springs resident who has spent the past four years relying on the seasonal tourist economy to pay the rent. But this year, as he combs the back pages of the paper and waits for more snow to fall, he realizes the climate has changed.

"After Sept. 11, a lot of businesses cut way back. They don't want to hire anyone," Nowak said.

Nowak doesn't even have faith in the weather anymore.

"It could turn 70 tomorrow and next thing you know the snow will all be gone," he said.

A combination of a recession, fallout from the events of Sept. 11 and a lack of early snow has created a highly unpredictable economy in Steamboat Springs. And some of the people hit hardest are the twenty-somethings that make up the core of the local service industry.

Although Nowak hasn't yet had to fall back on Steamboat's social safety net, many other young people have. The Routt County Department of Human Services is out of rent assistance funds that were supposed to last until summer, and LIFT-UP is on the brink of a similar fate, said LIFT-UP Director David Freseman. Rent assistance funding ranges from about $200 to $700, Freseman said.

LIFT-UP has also been giving out a large amount of food lately, especially to young people, at its food bank, Freseman said.

Freseman said the food bank is often heavily taxed before Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. workers and other seasonal employees get their first paychecks, but this year is worse.

"There are tons more people looking for food," Freseman said.

The ski corp. treated its employees to Thanksgiving dinners Wednesday and Thursday, but lift operators and others who begin work Friday won't get their first paycheck until Dec. 7, said Public Affairs Coordinator Riley Polumbus. And that paycheck will only cover three days' worth of work plus any paid training time.

By noon at the ski corp.'s job fair on Nov. 4, about 250 people had submitted applications for about 60 available jobs and many went home jobless regardless of their qualifications. The ski corp., which has been cautiously optimistic about the fate of the ski season, now has more job openings in its reservations department, Polumbus said.

Evan Soard, 23, was one of the lucky few who will get to load skiers on and off the lifts this winter. News that the ski area was opening late was a blow to his wallet. Although Soard has another job, he said he was counting on receiving a bigger paycheck come Dec. 7.

"I think everybody's feeling it," Soard said.

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