Most Steamboat Springs residents know the Howelsen Hill ski jumping facilities have historic significance, what many do not realize is how increasingly valuable the facility is becoming.
With ski jumping venues throughout the United States closing or cutting hours, the Howelsen jumps are playing an increasingly important role in keeping American Nordic athletes on the international radar.
That's why officials with the city of Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club say it's important to continue hosting events such as the Mountain Resorts Nordic Combined World Cup B held this weekend, which not only helps national and local athletes develop their skills but also continues Steamboat's Nordic heritage.
"We're one of the lucky few in the States that have an Olympic-caliber venue," said Kathi Meyer, event co-chairwoman and chairwoman of the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission. "So we need to use it."
The ski jumping venue in Park City, Utah, where the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team is based, only has funds to operate the facility
three months out of the year, she said.
High equipment and maintenance expenses are forcing smaller ski jumps in other parts of the country to close completely, Winter Sports Club Executive Director Rick DeVos said, and Howelsen is able to remain open most or all of the winter.
"We're picking up jumpers from all over the Midwest and the East. ... Hopefully, we can continue to be the mecca that attracts kids from all over the place that want to do this at this level," he said.
The ski jump situation is even worse in Canada, which decided to shut down the country's operational ski jumps at the end of this season.
One advantage of having the World Cup B in Steamboat Springs is that 14 local athletes -- instead of the usual six -- are able to compete in the events, Meyer said.
"One of the reasons we wanted to host the event is to develop the opportunity for local athletes that wouldn't normally be able to compete at the international level," she said. "The only way teams are going to develop is if they have the opportunity to compete."
That experience is important in keeping Nordic sports alive in the United States, which pales in comparison to the support the sports receive in places such as Norway, where Meyer has seen World Cup Nordic combined events attract as many as 100,000 people.
"By having a strong U.S. ski team that competes in Europe, we're keeping alive the U.S. tradition -- barely," she said.
But hosting the competitions in Steamboat Springs also is about continuing the town's rich skiing tradition, which Carl Howelsen brought to the area nearly a century ago.
"That's really who this community is and what its history has been," DeVos said, noting that Steamboat Springs and the Winter Sports Club, which is in its 92nd year, has produced more Olympic champions than any community in the world.
"That's something to hang on to from a marketing perspective and as a legacy," he said.
Steamboat's Nordic history and ski jumps also help set the community apart from other resorts, said Riley Polumbus, spokeswoman for the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.
"There's some great mountains in this country and state, but 56 Olympians says a lot for a community like ours," she said. "We welcome world-class athletes any time."
And although World Cup B events are not televised, hosting the event provides ideal international exposure for Steamboat Springs in places that keep close tabs on Nordic events.
"These are some of the top athletes from all over the world coming to compete at Howelsen Hill, which is very characteristic of competition venues throughout Europe," Steamboat City Council member Ken Brenner said. "These athletes are at home here, and this hill is absolutely the best place for competition."
Flanked by open space, Howelsen Hill, with its three lifts and a lodge, shares many characteristics with the ski jumps scattered throughout Europe, he said.
"They are about families going skiing. It's not what typifies the ski resort industry, which is driven by real estate sales," Brenner said. "That's why Howelsen Hill is such a cool place."
But bringing World Cup events to Steamboat is not easy. In addition to marketing the town to the International Ski Federation, a European organization dictating international events, the Winter Sports Club -- which organized the World Cup B event -- must provide lodging and food for teams. The club also funds transportation and accommodations for judges and technical delegates, DeVos said.
In total, the World Cup B bill came to about $30,000. The primary sponsor of the event, Mountain Resorts, provided discounted room rates. The city, which contributed $12,500 in sponsorship money and put $12,500 toward facility needs, was also a critical partner, DeVos said.
On a single day, the event usually attracts about 1,000 spectators, he said.
By contrast, World Cup A events, which typically attract many more people in one day, cost about $250,000.
The U.S. Ski Team foots the bill for live TV coverage, which is required for World Cup A events, and that can cost as much as $100,000, DeVos said.
"That's been the most recent prohibitive cost factor in why we're not seeing World Cup A events in this country," he said.
World Cup events likely benefit Steamboat businesses by attracting future visitors through exposure as a competition venue and resort.
But the event, which brought 66 athletes from 13 countries to Steamboat, also had some direct economic benefit for businesses, particularly souvenir shops and restaurants, Polumbus said.
In addition to athletes, the event also brought coaches, judges and event coordinators to the town. All that amounts to an early season perk for businesses, which typically experience slower traffic in the beginning of December.
"It's a good way to get a start on (the season) with extra business," Polumbus said.
Although the economic benefits of World Cup events may be hard to weigh, the value the competitions lend to Steamboat's heritage are apparent.
"It comes down to (that) we really do believe we are Ski Town USA," Meyer said.
-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail email@example.com