City seeks experienced ski area operators to come to the rescue of Howelsen Hill
Historic ski area's finances point downhill
October 11, 2016
Steamboat Springs — The city of Steamboat Springs is seeking to contract with a third-party operator for the operation and management of the Howelsen Hill Ski Area beginning with the 2017-18 ski season.
"We're seeking somebody who has that proven experience, whether or not they operate a ski area right now, or have operated one," in the past, said Parks, Open Space and Trails Manager Craig Robinson.
The search for an independent operator is being carried out through a formal "request for proposals" with a submittal deadline of Nov. 7. A new operator would agree to operate within the existing joint use agreement with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
City Councilwoman Heather Sloop, who sits on the JUA Committee along with Councilwoman Robin Crossan, said they want to work closely with the Winter Sports Club while also providing an asset for the city. She would like to see Howelsen return to the noon hour ski passes that used to attract working people to Howelsen for a few quick runs in the middle of the day.
The RFP makes it clear that the city would like to test the theory that an independent operator/manager could reduce the city's subsidy of the ski area. In 2015, that number was $625,546.
"By issuing this RFP, the city is attempting to determine if a contracted third-party, experienced in the management and operations of ski areas, could reduce the amount of the city's subsidy while working within the requirements of the JUA with the club," the RFP reads. "Vendors may submit a turn-key proposal providing all labor, materials and equipment to operate and manage the ski area. Vendors may also submit an alternate proposal using shared resources with the city."
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Sloop said the RFP deliberately sets a high standard for respondents, requiring them to submit detailed financial information including a five-year pro-forma and employee plan.
"I think the expectation of council was to make sure we can cross the Ts and dot the Ls to make sure (we understand) if it's cheaper for somebody else to run the ski area, and if they can, maybe give them a shot," Sloop said.
City Council is also curious to learn if the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. or another operator close by would step up to the plate and take Howelsen on, she added.
Winter Sports Club Executive Director Jim Boyne said his organization is open-minded to the city's plan and at the same is studying the RFP to determine how the club might operate and manage the ski area in concert with the city.
"We're certainly taking a look at it. We have a lot of experience at Howelsen," Boyne said. "Anything we did now would not be a turnkey solution, but some hybrid with the city."
Boyne said it's important to the Winter Sports Club that the economic solution at Howelsen Hill deliver the best outcome for the community and that includes its niche as an affordable place for youngsters to learn to ski and snowboard. He thinks more consistent hours of operation are essential to building public participation.
"We do believe we could be a credible part of the operation," he added. "Having said that I'd love to see Steamboat Ski Area take a good look at it."
Boyne said he thinks the club could play a role in reducing the cost of operating the Howelsen Hill Ski Area, but he added that achieving profitability would require significant buy-in from the community.
"Can we manage it at less cost? I think we can," Boyne said. "Will Howelsen Hill be profitable in winter? I don't think that will happen unless the community embraces it and buys season passes … We think constructively about this RFP, and our view is that there is hopefully a Steamboat-based solution that (values) all the history. We believe that provides the best chance for success."