2014 Year in Review: Top news stories
January 4, 2015
From problem bears poaching food from trash cans and sneaking into condominium hot tubs to Steamboat's first foray into recreational pot sales, 2014 was a year to remember.
The Steamboat Springs City Council wrestled with several key issues including the perennial downtown parking problem, the ongoing debate about selecting a site for a new police station, employee pay and cuts to the city's free bus service.
It also was a banner year for the Steamboat Springs School District with record enrollment sparking talk of a third elementary school and board members opting to make collaborative bargaining meetings open in advance of a statewide vote.
Year 2014 marked the 100th anniversaries of Yampa Valley Medical Center and Routt County Fair, and sadly, the year did not pass by without tragic news events including the death of a 3-year-old boy and the sentencing of a Stagecoach mother to 40 years in prison for the shooting death of her 9-year-old son.
To help readers remember the news highlights of 2014, the Steamboat Pilot & Today staff has compiled a list of top news and sports stories along with the best of the blotter. Also check out the most-clicked stories below, and then read on.
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Search for 2 missing residents end in tragedy
Police have not yet announced why they think two Steamboat Springs residents died.
The bodies of Page Stockdale and Mark Schiebel were found Nov. 22 in the back of Schiebel's pickup at the Sarvis Creek parking area south of Steamboat Springs.
It was suspected carbon monoxide poisoning contributed to their deaths.
All of the windows to the truck topper were closed, and there was a charcoal grill in the back of the pickup.
The search for Schiebel and Stockdale began after Stockdale did not show up for a dinner date Nov. 18.
Woman gets 22-year sentence for son's death
Routt County is not immune from unthinkable crime.
On Nov. 5, Meghan McKeon was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the death of her 3-year-old son, Austin Davis. Police think McKeon left Austin alone for three days before he died March 27 from severe dehydration.
McKeon pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death. District Judge Shelley Hill called it one of the most outrageous and egregious acts that a parent could commit.
During her sentencing, McKeon spoke and said she was not a monster.
"I know nothing I say or do will bring my little boy back, but I have hope for a brighter future," McKeon said.
Woman sentenced to 40 years for murdering son
In recent years, some of the most shocking crimes have involved innocent children.
In August, Lisa Lesyshen, 47, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for shooting her 9-year-old son, Asher. The shooting took place May 29, 2013, at her home in Stagecoach.
Lesyshen is serving a 40-year prison sentence.
After shooting her son, Lesyshen shot herself and now is paralyzed. During the court case, Lesyshen was held at the Denver County Jail infirmary.
It cost Routt County taxpayers $267,234 to care for her.
Black bears were big news-makers in 2014
Wildlife officials are struggling to deal with nuisance bears in the area because there is no good place to relocate them.
In a single July night, bears broke into four Steamboat homes in search of food.
In November, bears caused damage at a hot tub area at The Pines condominiums. The bears were scared away, and the area was fortified so they would not return and decide to hibernate for the winter.
In an effort to curb bear problems, city officials are considering requiring residents to own wildlife-resistant trash containers.
Yampa Valley Electric moves out of downtown
Yampa Valley Electric Association made two of the biggest and most impactful real estate transactions of 2014 when it put its old downtown headquarters under contract with a developer and purchased the large empty TIC headquarters as its new home.
The moves brought more clarity to the future of an entire block of Yampa Street and a large industrial complex on the west end of the city that has sat vacant for years.
"To have a business like YVEA located (at the former TIC campus) will go a long way in stabilizing the area," former Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern said after the $9.7 million purchase was announced. "It will become an impetus for what happens next there."
YVEA moved into its new home in December.
Blue Sage Ventures continues to do its due diligence on the electric co-op's old headquarters on Yampa Street. The developer plans to repurpose the building into a mix of retail, commercial and residential spaces.
Recreational marijuana has low impact on crime
On Jan. 8, people stood in line for hours to legally buy pot for the first time.
Rocky Mountain Remedies was the first store in Steamboat to sell marijuana for recreational use. Golden Leaf opened March 7, and Natural Choice opened Nov. 20.
During the first year, police said the availability of marijuana had a low impact on crime, but they continually reminded people that it is illegal to drive while stoned.
The owners of the marijuana businesses said sales exceeded their expectations.
The city and state have rules that forbid them from disclosing specifically how much tax revenues the Steamboat businesses have generated.
Third elementary school needed in Steamboat
A demographer this fall told Steamboat Springs School District officials that enrollment at district schools was likely to continue increasing during the next several years, prompting the need for a new elementary school.
Enrollment this fall was the highest ever for the district at about 2,460 students, and demographer Shannon Bingham predicted that number would increase to about 2,700 or 2,800 by the 2018-19 school year.
The district since has put out a request for proposals for an owner's representative to study the district's facility needs and potentially work with an architect to facilitate the planning of a third elementary school.
Intrawest drops seasonal insurance for employees
Changes to the national health care system led to a tough spring for many Steamboat Ski Area employees.
Intrawest, the ski area's parent company, informed all of its seasonal employees in March that it would no longer offer them health insurance after April 30. The ski area cited changes from the Affordable Care Act as the reason for the cut. The announcement left many employees scrambling to find insurance just days before a March 31 deadline.
Erin Gleason, the community and small business health insurance coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said the seasonal employees who came to her office for help discovered that their options on the marketplace varied greatly. Some faced higher premiums, while others qualified for subsidies and could get lower rates.
City of Steamboat tackles downtown parking issues
One of Steamboat's most immortal issues entered the spotlight again in 2014.
The year started with city of Steamboat Springs staff saying they were looking into the prospect of adding paid parking downtown.
Parking discussions continued throughout the year, with a highlight being a controversial proposal from council member Kenny Reisman to eliminate 30 to 40 parking spaces on the riverfront side of Yampa Street to make it more pedestrian friendly. His idea narrowly failed to gain enough votes to pass.
The parking talks culminated with a summer parking study and a slew of small parking changes including some adjustments in parking enforcement hours and a resolve to re-stripe some spaces to open up more parking.
But big parking questions still loom in 2015. The council appears to be one vote shy of ordering meters, and the city still is looking into the purchase of new license plate reading technology to upgrade its enforcement capabilities.
Future of Rita Valentine Park still up in the air
A group of children who built makeshift bike jumps in Rita Valentine Park thought they were just having fun when they ended up setting off another passionate debate about the future of the undeveloped park.
After a neighbor called the city to report the children, City Council member Walter Magill pushed the city and the council to address what kinds of recreation should be allowed in the park. The council ultimately accepted the recommendation of its Parks and Recreation Commission to scrap a 2009 conceptual plan for the park that called for such things as a disc golf course, a new parking area and trails.
They then tasked the commission to come up with a new plan after getting public input.
The scrapping of that plan came after a public meeting, which drew a big crowd of people to talk about the park.
Some in the community see Rita Valentine Park as a prime place to add more recreational amenities, while others want the undeveloped land left alone. The Parks and Recreation Commission has suggested that when they work on a new plan for the park next year, one of the focuses will be on improving existing trails.
Business improvement district tax fails, again
Downtown business leaders learned in November they will have to find another way to secure more marketing and maintenance funding for their business district outside of a property tax.
Stakeholders in the downtown business district again rejected a tax increase aimed at improving the business district.
A proposal to fund it in 2008 also failed.
It remains to be seen how the outcome of the vote will impact the Steamboat Springs City Council's thinking on using an urban renewal authority and tax increment financing to invest millions in infrastructure improvements downtown.
Some council members have suggested that without a funded BID, some other form of maintenance support from private property owners will have to be in place before a URA is considered.
Downtown business leaders already have started meeting again to discuss how they may be able to secure more funding.
Green Machines in Steamboat are doomed
There is no free recycling — that's the reality that Steamboat and Routt County residents were confronted with in early May when a subsidized recycling drop-off service was cut back then eliminated in the fall.
The changing economics of recycling led to the end of an easy, feel-good way for area residents to feel like they were doing their parts to save the environment.
The demise of the Green Machines was precipitated by an announcement from Waste Management that it would begin charging non-customers $5 to drop off recyclables at its yard. That drove more people to leave their recyclables at the overflowing Green Machines at Safeway.
Another factor in the end of the Green Machines was the city of Steamboat Springs' realization that the popular recycling dumpsters parked in a grocery store parking lot were in violation of its zoning codes.
City sales tax collections continue upward trend
Steamboat's summer season was marked by big concert crowds, tubing traffic and record sales tax collections.
Collections came in 9.6 percent higher from May through August 2014 compared to the same months last year.
In terms of total sales tax dollars collected, the city had its biggest July in history. The city collected 13 percent, or $218,433 more in July 2014 than July 2013. July also edged close to the amount of money the city collected in the busy ski month of February.
Collections were up 6 percent in May, 8 percent in June and 9 percent in August compared to 2013.
School Board takes the lead on open meetings
Anticipating the passage of Proposition 104 by Colorado voters in November, which requires school district contract negotiations to be conducted in open meetings, the Steamboat Springs School Board voted in October to make the meetings public, regardless of the election's outcome.
The measure did pass but doesn't take effect until this month, meaning Steamboat had a head start of nearly three months to better understand what negotiations handled in open meetings would look like.
The collaborative bargaining team held its first meeting to talk about the new policy in November, and then its first negotiations in December, both of which were open to the public and media.
County sees lots of rainfall during summer 2014
Summer 2014 was so wet that some farmers and ranchers still were trying to harvest their hay crop during late September. August's total rainfall of 5.05 inches in Steamboat Springs ranked second on the all-time list. And that came on the heels of a wet July.
Only August 1914, with 5.36 inches of rain, was wetter than August 2014, Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist intern with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, confirmed. He said that July here saw 3.69 inches of rain and ranked second only to July 1912, when 4.98 inches was recorded.
Prospective tenants face tough rental market
The fluctuating economy this fall led to one of the tightest rental markets that Steamboat Springs has seen in years, according to state rental data.
Apartments and homes listed in the Pilot & Today's Sunday classifieds were significantly more expensive than similar listings from fall 2013.
Large complexes like Mountain Village were completely full, and non-employee tenants of The Ponds were being asked to move out to make room for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. employees.
A moderately priced apartment complex under construction on the corner of Whistler Road and Skyview Lane is the only new rental housing on the horizon for the area.
Lodging tax dollars in city getting spent
It was a busy year for a group of 14 community members tasked with helping the Steamboat Springs City Council decide how to spend the first year's worth of lodging tax dollars on local trails and Yampa Street.
In the end, the dollars were dedicated to a number of trail improvements such as enhanced pedestrian crossings and the purchase of an old home on Yampa Street.
The home is poised to be removed from the property to make way for a new public park.
While most of the Yampa Street money has been accounted for, trail projects will continue to earn millions of dollars in funding in the coming years.
Elk River experiences record flow May 28
Spring runoff on the Yampa and Elk rivers were robust in 2014, and although it could not match the records of 2011, the Elk set a new record flow for May 28, reaching 5,370 cubic feet per second where it stayed from 2 to 5 a.m.
The previous high for May 28 on the Elk River was 4,730 cfs. Eventually, the Elk peaked at 6,300 cfs in 2014. The all-time high on the river was 6,860 cfs, which was recorded June 6, 2011.
The Yampa peaked at 4,850 cfs where it flows beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat.
The abundant snowpack that fed the rivers led to an abundance of water all summer, and that was before unusually high rainfall in July and August.
The total volume of flows in the Yampa in Steamboat during June and July was projected to be 118 percent of average. And flows in the Elk were projected to be 145 percent of average during the heart of the summer.
Super tight county commissioner race
Former longtime Steamboat Springs City Council member and Republican candidate Cari Hermacinski won the race for Routt County Commissioner District 3 in one of the tightest local races in memory.
On Nov. 4, Hermacinski's winning margin over incumbent Democrat Steve Ivancie was 89 votes out of 10,125 votes cast. But there still was a shred of doubt about the ultimate outcome because of how close it was.
After all ballots were validated Nov. 13, Hermacinski's victory margin was trimmed to 77 votes, still not close enough to kick in an automatic recount.
The election night vote total was 5,107 (50.44 percent) for Hermacinski and 5,018 (49.56 percent) for Ivancie.
On a percentage basis, the margin of victory was 0.88 percent of the total vote.
US 40 project beats construction deadline
For commuters in Steamboat Springs, late summer and autumn 2014 were the season of the traffic backups.
Crews from Connell Resources, working for the Colorado Department of Transportation and under the supervision of Steamboat native Eric Marsh, tackled the major paving project that comprised U.S. Highway 40 at either end of downtown Steamboat. The highway from 13th to Third streets was spared from the construction, which marked the largest highway construction project to affect the city since 2010.
The paving was combined with rebuilding of intersections and replacement of curbs and gutters. The $5.8 million project, which wasn't due to be completed until Dec. 5, finished ahead of schedule despite August and September precipitation that was well above average.
Sustainable goat ranching arrives in Routt County
Cattle are king on Routt County ranches, but Pilot & Today reported in June that the Iacovetto family in rural Milner is tending 1,000 goats in addition to 1,500 head of yearling steers on their 8,000-acre ranch.
The goats are a way to battle noxious weeds that undermine the quality of pastures on the ranch, while greatly reducing the use of chemical herbicides.
Colorado State University agriculture professor Steve LeValley told the newspaper that the sheer persistence of goats actually wears out weeds by eating their flowering tops, which stresses the root system.
"Cattle will avoid weed patches," LeValley said. "Goats are probably a little more aggressive with woody plants than sheep are. They'll eat brush and roughage that sheep don't prefer."
Routt County Fair turned 100 in August
The Routt County Fair, held at the historic fairgrounds in Hayden, reached the century mark in August, and organizers made sure the event's 100th birthday was celebrated in style. There were special ribbons, banners and belt buckles designed for event winners, a commemorative cookbook was published in honor of the anniversary, and the Exhibit Hall set a new record for number of participants submitting entries.
The county's first fair, which was held Sept. 9 to 11, 1914, featured an aerial demonstration by W.B. Cooke, the famous bird man of the Pacific Coast, as well as boxing matches and the now-famous horse races.
After 100 years, the fair remains one of the most successful continuously running fairs in Colorado with longtime Fair board member Linda Long describing it as one of "the biggest little fairs in the state."
Free Concert Series draws record crowds
Steamboat Springs saw a record number of people crowd into the Howelsen Amphitheater on July 4 to attend the Big Head Todd and the Monsters concert, which was part of the 2014 Free Summer Concert Series.
Approximately 7,500 people attended the live show, according to John Waldman, Great Knight Productions concert promoter.
The series kicked off June 21 with Trombone Shorty and closed Aug. 8 with a show by the Infamous String Dusters
"I think it was one of our most successful series," Waldman said.
Holy Name building project completed
The completion of a massive expansion of the Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs was marked with a special dedication ceremony in September. The $6 million project broke ground in July 2012 with Fox Construction serving as general contractor and about 30 local subcontractors contributing to the building.
The construction project more than doubled the church's seating capacity and also involved the creation of stained glass windows by local artists. To date, 60 of the 170 windows have been completed and the project is ongoing.
Strings Music Festival change in leadership
Strings Music Festival announced a change in leadership this season with Executive Director Kay Clagett set to take her final bow and retire at the end of the 2015 season. She will be succeeded by Elissa Greene, Strings' current director of artistic administration, education and technology.
In addition to the change at the top, co-music directors, Andrés Cárdenes and his wife, Monique Mead, retired, and Michael Sachs, principal trumpet for the Cleveland Orchestra, was hired to take their place.
Betse Grassby, Strings director of operations and non-classical programming, retired after 26 years in August 2013, and Anne DeGroff, box office and finance director, who has been with Strings since its early days, will retire this year. Steve Chambers was named as the Strings new production manager.
Beer business is booming in Steamboat Springs
Year 2014 could be tagged as the "Year of the Beer" in Steamboat with two new breweries opening here.
Butcherknife Brewing Co., founded by Mark Fitzgerald and Nathan Johansing, boasts a 4,000-square-foot brewery with a tap room, large tasting room and outdoor patio at 2875 Elk River Road. Within its first year of operation, Fitzgerald said Butcherknife delivered more than 1,000 barrels of beer, and the local business was tapped as the Colorado brewery to watch in 2015, according to the Denver Post.
Storm Peak Brewing Co., located at 1744 Lincoln Ave. and founded by Colorado natives and brothers Wyatt and Tyler Patterson, held its grand opening Aug. 2. With a tap room and bar upfront, the brewery offers a range of beer styles from crisp golden ales to darker black ales and other seasonal styles in between.
Wyatt Patterson said their plans are to allow the brewery to grow organically and eventually start distributing. For now, Storm Peak brews are available in the brewery's tap room.
Yampa Valley Medical Center turns 100
Yampa Valley Medical Center celebrated 100 years of service in 2014.
The Steamboat Sanitarium first opened in spring 1914, eventually expanding and becoming Routt County Memorial Hospital and then Routt Memorial Hospital before moving into its current facility in 1999 and taking on the Yampa Valley Medical Center name.
The hospital currently employs more than 500 people in the region and contracts with many highly trained physicians with unique specialties.
District spends $2.8M on efficiency upgrades
The Steamboat Springs School District spent roughly $2.8 million on energy efficiency upgrades, paying for the updates through Certificates of Participation under a partnership with energy services company Navitas.
The upgrades, completed this past summer, included more than 5,000 new energy-efficient light bulbs, and remotely controlled thermostats that make it easier to cut energy costs when district buildings are vacant on weekends and breaks.
Wall-length sliding glass doors were replaced at the middle school, and light switches were fitted with sensors to save energy when rooms are empty.
Large sales boost real estate numbers
A series of sizable real estate transactions in the second half of 2014 have helped improve market trends for the region.
The majority of the Wildhorse Marketplace, including Sports Authority, Wildhorse Stadium Cinema and other businesses, was sold to a local family's company for $17 million in September.
Also in September, the Elk River Ranch outside of Steamboat sold for $11.25 million to the granddaughter of Walt Disney, and in November, the Round Mountain Ranch near Clark sold for $12 million to a Wisconsin farmer.
More than 11 transactions in October topped $1 million, leading to the highest gross volume of transactions in Routt County for October since 2007.