Steamboat officials may examine whether Howelsen Hill can be profitable | SteamboatToday.com

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Steamboat officials may examine whether Howelsen Hill can be profitable

Lexie Baden rides the Poma lift at Howelsen Hill in December 2008 while training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. City officials are taking a close look at the ski area's finances after budgeting $769,812 to subsidize it in 2012.

— In recent years the city of Steamboat Springs' general fund has supported the operation of Howelsen Hill and the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena by nearly $1 million per year. Now the Steamboat Springs City Council appears ready to see whether the facilities can generate revenue instead of eating it.

City Council members expres­sed their support during an all-day budget hearing last week for re-examining the city-owned facilities across the Yampa River from downtown. Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department Director Chris Wilson said Monday that he would present the idea of forming a Howelsen Hill task force to begin investigating whether the ski area and rodeo grounds can generate revenue when the Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation Commission meets Wednesday. If Parks and Rec Commission members support the idea, Wilson said the topic would be added to the group's Oct. 26 work session agenda.

The city's annual subsidy of Howelsen Hill came up when Wilson presented the Parks and Recreation Department's budget to council members last week. His proposed budget for 2012 includes scaling back the hours of operation at the small, historic ski area at Emerald Mountain. Several City Council members expressed concern that Steamboat wasn't maximizing Howelsen Hill as an asset for the city.

"Are there additional ways we can make this more of a community ski hill, more of a revenue generator?" City Council President Pro-tem Jon Quinn asked. "I think it will take some dollars to study that."

The City Council didn't discuss spending money to study whether Howelsen Hill could become a viable revenue source, but council members acknowledged that such an analysis could cost money.

The city's subsidy of Howelsen Hill and Brent Romick Rodeo Arena's operation is budgeted to be $798,331 in 2012, Finance Director Deb Hinsvark wrote in an email Monday. She wrote it is expected to be $769,812 this year. In 2010, the subsidy was $952,597.

"That $700,000 or more every year is a big, big number," City Council President Cari Hermacinski said Oct. 4. "I think that, you know, as we move into more difficult budget years, it's going to get a tremendous amount of scrutiny."

Wilson said a vast majority of the annual subsidy stems from operating costs exceeding revenues as the ski area.

He said the city assumed operation of the ski area from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in 1977 (the club operated the ski area since it opened in 1914) when the two parties reached a joint-use agreement.

"My understanding is as long as the city's had the facility, it's required a subsidy," Wilson said.

Winter Sports Club Executive Director Rick DeVos said all of the club's more than 1,100 athletes buy a Howelsen Hill season pass, which ranges in cost from $25 for a child to $160 for an adult. He said the Winter Sports Club also pays for the operation of the ski area during training and competitions that take place outside regular hours.

DeVos said the annual costs for an athlete to participate in the Winter Sports Club can reach $4,000 per child. He said the nonprofit club provides some financial assistance from its scholarship fund to 50 to 75 of its 800 families.

Wilson agreed that the issue of whether the ski area could generate revenue for the city needs to be studied. He suspects the Parks and Recreation Commission will agree.

At the Oct. 4 budget hearing, City Council member Kenny Reisman also supported pursuing whether the ski area could become a revenue generator. Reisman said its use didn't feel right.

"I know it's not a simple answer, but I feel like we're heading into the winter not having it optimized," he said.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com