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Steamboat Springs learned the value of Triple Crown Sports last summer.

Operating under a new contract, Triple Crown brought 160 fewer teams to Steamboat, a drop of almost 20 percent. Meanwhile, businesses throughout the city reported declines. Lodging properties and restaurants suffered. Attendance at the Pro Rodeo Series was down. Sales tax receipts for July were off 3.09 percent and are down 2.68 percent for the year. And it's worth noting that those sales tax numbers are measured against lackluster 2002 numbers.

It's not hard to make a correlation between fewer Triple Crown teams and declining sales. Estimates are that in the summer of 2002, Triple Crown brought in 32,000 people who stayed an average of 4.5 nights during the summer. Last summer, that number fell to 22,000 visitors. "There hasn't been a business that hasn't felt it," said Sandy Evans-Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.

Residents have complained for years that Triple Crown creates unwanted noise and traffic in Steamboat Springs. The issue is a difficult one for the City Council, and it is not surprising that the city worked with Triple Crown to keep the baseball and softball tournaments to a reasonable level. One of the results of last year's contract was that a girls fast-pitch softball tournament moved from Steamboat to Park City, Utah.

There is nothing wrong with trying to limit Triple Crown activity, unless there is nothing else to fill the void. Then, businesses suffer, as we saw last summer. And if businesses suffer, so does our sales-tax driven city, as we also saw last summer.

The Chamber Resort Association's budget for marketing Steamboat has fallen from a high of $800,000 in the mid-1990s to $470,000. Such cuts make it difficult to create and promote new events and attract new visitors. That's why Triple Crown -- which produces an impressive return on investment -- has become so important.

Steamboat puts in $75,000 and Triple Crown brings hundreds of teams and tens of thousands of visitors who spend about $10 million in Steamboat Springs over a span of eight weeks. One organization. One contract.

How many other events have that kind of impact? Many have mentioned the vintage car races as a suitable replacement. Nothing against such races, but unless someone has a plan for a series that will draw thousands of drivers and their families to Steamboat every weekend of the summer, it just isn't the same.

Triple Crown needs more fields and better fields. Without them, the exodus of teams to other venues such as Park City will continue. The city, which absorbs criticism each time it moves to help Triple Crown, doesn't have a concrete plan yet for new fields.

The city should conduct its own analysis of the costs and benefits of Triple Crown versus the costs and revenues of trying to fill the void if Triple Crown shrinks or goes away. Most likely, such an analysis will show Triple Crown is a pretty cost efficient way to generate visitors and sales tax revenues.

This is an issue the city should address sooner rather than later. We can ill afford to go through a summer like the one that just passed.

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