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Steamboat City Council emphasizes building economy on foundation of existing assets

— Many other municipalities across the country, when attempting to revive recessionary economies, could be trying to start from scratch and create new sources of business and industry in their communities.

Not so in Steamboat Springs.

Preserving existing economic drivers and assets, and using that foundation to improve business-related infrastructure and government efficiency, was the framework the Steamboat Springs City Council established Thursday night in Howelsen Lodge to guide future economic development policies. That's not to say the City Council thinks new businesses aren't welcome in Steamboat — building on the current foundation and adding improvements, such as better broadband access, can help diversify the economy and attract more companies that could provide high-paying, career-level jobs that many say are lacking locally.

But Thursday's primary focus, from city officials and the public, was on keeping and improving what we've got.

"It's very important for us to preserve as much as possible the assets and businesses that are already here," City Council President Cari Hermacinski said. "I think the current assets we have represent the best conduit for the long-term goal."

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond, citing an example of positive local investment, said the city's multimillion-dollar base area redevelopment projects have spurred other investment at Steamboat Ski Area. The cost of Ski Corp. improvements on Mount Werner, he said, have more than matched the city's redevelopment costs.

"It's been a huge change, and I think that investment is already showing returns, in that we're better off than we would have been otherwise," he said.

Diamond also cited ongoing fundraising efforts for improvements to Howelsen Hill, which got a boost last month with $900,000 in grants from Great Outdoors Colorado.

"Protect your recreation base … keep these two major projects going," Diamond said, referring to Howelsen and the base area.

Developer Jim Cook also spoke about Steamboat's outdoor industry, citing homegrown businesses including Big Agnes, Honey Stinger and SmartWool. SmartWool's current lease at Steamboat Springs Airport ends in September 2012.

"We need to keep our finger on the pulse of those businesses — we don't want those businesses to leave," Cook said.

The City Council will hold at least two more economic development discussions with facilitator Roger Good, likely at the end of January and then in mid-February. The goal is to craft short- and long-term goals that can guide business-related policy decisions.

Plenty of ideas were on the table Thursday.

City Council members Meg Bentley and Walter Mag­ill spoke in favor of better broadband infrastructure, an idea that received support all around.

Councilman Bart Koun­ovsky floated the idea of an organization that would serve as an advocate for businesses before city government, citing the complexity — and sometimes, uncertainty — of shepherding a development proposal through the city planning process.

Hermacinski said that idea could be excessive.

"If we have to create a whole new organization to help businesses interact with government, we've got a problem," she said. "We're small enough to make those changes on our own."

Near the end of Thursday's meeting, a train whistle blew outside Howelsen Lodge. The whistle's significance — during a meeting essentially about money — wasn't lost on Scott Ford, of the Routt County Economic Development Co­­operative.

Among his many economic ruminations and research projects, Ford recently has taken a look at coal prices and tonnage to estimate the financial value of each coal train that rumbles through Steamboat.

With an October "spot price" of $51.53 for a ton of coal from Twentymile Coal Co. in west Routt County, about 100 tons of coal per rail car and 110 rail cars per train, Ford has a ready estimate related to one of the county's most vital industries — an industry facing an uncertain future.

"There goes a half-million dollars," Ford said under his breath Thursday, as the coal train rolled by.