Relocation of Steamboat’s downtown police, fire stations enters critical phase | SteamboatToday.com

Relocation of Steamboat’s downtown police, fire stations enters critical phase

A police cruiser sits outside the Steamboat Springs Police Department headquarters on Yampa Street.

— Inside Steamboat Springs City Hall, a new clock is ticking.

In the wake of the Steamboat Springs City Council’s decision Tuesday night to start negotiating the sale of the city’s downtown emergency services building to Big Agnes and Honey Stinger for $2.1 million, city officials now are pressed to find a new home for the police officers and firefighters who could begin to move out as early as March 1 if the sale goes through.

Council members heard the city’s two final options for the relocation of police and fire services on Tuesday night, but they eliminated one and wouldn’t commit to the other. Instead, they requested more options and sent city officials back to a drawing board they’ve been working off of for 11 months.

"I feel comfortable with (the sale), but I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little nervous," Public Safety Director Joel Rae said Thursday about the council’s decision to begin the process of selling 840 Yampa St. before settling on a new home for the police and fire stations housed inside. "It’s concerning when you sell a building and you haven’t committed to a plan to build a new building."

Rae and Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark were busy Thursday fleshing out other options for council to consider besides constructing a combined public safety campus at the Stock Bridge Transit Center for $11.4 million.

While Rae said the Transit Center option remains his top choice, he and Hinsvark specifically were looking at a map of west Steamboat and mulling the cost of purchasing land near U.S. Highway 40 and Elk River Road for an alternative building site.

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If the sale of the current emergency services building goes through, city officials plan to temporarily lease office space for the police department from TIC, and will lease back the lower level fire station bays at 840 Yampa St. from Big Agnes and Honey Stinger for 18 months after the sale closes.

But their plan hinges on starting construction of the new facility this summer, making timing more critical.

In recent emails and at Tuesday night’s council meeting, community members have criticized the city for proposing to sell the emergency services building for well below its $3 million appraised value.

Officials counter that they’ve been planning the move for nearly a year and that it would fill a longtime need as well as increase the efficiency of Steamboat’s emergency services.

Rae and Hinsvark said now is also the time to build, and the city’s sale of the building, dubbed an "economic development deal," would allow an international outdoor retailer to stay in Steamboat while helping to kickstart a revitalization effort on Yampa Street.

"Whether we find a site to build on, it was the right thing to do to sell that building now while we can use the sale to incentivize the activity on Yampa," Hinsvark said. “That was a big part of the project and the plan” to relocate our downtown fire and police stations.

An evolving plan

The city’s plan to build new police and fire stations has evolved significantly since it was first publicly introduced to the City Council in March.

It started as a proposal to go to voters to help fund a new public safety campus in west Steamboat with a property tax.

But as they investigated purchasing property near the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Elk River Road, city officials said the high cost of land made them look at properties they already own.

They then presented a new plan to demolish the Iron Horse Inn and replace it with a police station.

That proposal, like the current one for the Stock Bridge site, has the city using a significant portion of its reserves to pay for the project.

But the Iron Horse plan was criticized by a majority of council members, and despite the city’s effort to strengthen the proposal earlier this month, it was unanimously rejected last week.

Now, the city has returned its focus to the west, and officials plan to present council with a list of alternatives at an Oct. 30 meeting. Their only fully-developed option Thursday was the Stock Bridge Transit Center site.

Several council members expressed concern about that proposal Tuesday, including how it would significantly reduce the parking at a site designed to be a park-n-ride.

Rae said Thursday that Stock Bridge long has been underutilized as a parking facility, and the city is looking into how to maximize parking efficiency there if the public safety campus is built.

Still, some council members think the city should slow down the process.

"This is going a little fast for my taste," council member Walter Magill said as he reacted to the relocation proposals.

He and fellow council member Cari Hermacinsiki voted against starting negotiations with Big Agnes and Honey Stinger to sell the emergency services building on Yampa Street.

Some members of the public who attended Tuesday night’s council meeting questioned the feasibility of the entire proposal.

"I think this is the wrong time to do this," Steamboat resident Steve Lewis said. "Your budget is already challenged, and because it is a budget challenge to do this, you’re cannibalizing other city properties to do this."

‘Stars aligned’

Hinsvark said that Thursday a new police station has been on the city’s capital improvement plan every year for the past decade. She said the need for more space and a more efficient building will only grow in the coming years.

"Our police department has never functioned in a building that was built to be a police station," Hinsvark said, adding a space study conducted for the department in 2002 indicated police services needed “twice as much space as they have now.”

Rae, too, has been quick to point out the flaws and inefficiencies in the current police headquarters.

A parking enforcement officer working out of a closet is evidence of the lack of space. He also worries the fire trucks that must exit onto the pedestrian-busy Yampa Street create a safety hazard.

Hinsvark said throughout the past year the "stars started to align" for the relocation project that has been passed over year after year because of its price tag and a lack of funding.

Conservative budgeting during the recession has helped to build the the city’s reserves that would pay for the project.

The Urban Land Institute arrived in June and bolstered a grass-roots effort to revitalize Yampa Street and make it more pedestrian friendly.

Former City Manager Jon Roberts approached Big Agnes and Honey Stinger with the proposal to establish a headquarters and retail presence in the building, and company officials jumped at the opportunity to continue their growth downtown.

"There’s really not a single driving force for the project," Hinsvark said. "It’s just the right time for all of these things to get done."

Asked what would happen if the project didn’t become a reality this year, Rae said he worried it never would happen.He said the drawbacks of their current police headquarters would worsen as the city grows and his department continues to work without sufficient space.

Hinsvark said the city still must work to convince the public the facilities are the best use of the city’s reserve dollars.

"It’s really not unusual for a community to have a little bit of difficulty with spending dollars on fire and police, it’s not a sexy thing to do," she said. "But it’s an absolute municipal necessity. It’s just hard to express that to the community."

Rae said too many good opportunities would be squandered by delay the project: A growing international business’s growth in Steamboat would be put in question. A grass-roots effort to revitalize Yampa Street would be disparaged. Emergency services would continue operating with too little space in a city he projects will continue to grow.

"Tell us why we should wait," Hinsvark said.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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