Jampacked: Is Steamboat being loved too much?
August 5, 2017
Scott Ford is starting to notice all the honking.
"I'm hearing more of it, and it's not 'hi, how are ya,'" the Steamboat Springs city councilman and local economist said last week as he recalled recent strolls downtown.
Council members are hearing other things associated with the busy summer traffic, too.
At the Farmers Market, the grocery stores and the sidewalks on Lincoln Avenue, some residents are stopping their elected officials and begging them to do something about the overwhelming traffic and crowds.
Letters to the editor from citizens paint a picture of a city under siege by a great tourism army.
Overflowing trash cans. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. A river clogged with tubes.
Recommended Stories For You
Some are crying "Enough is enough. We want our city back."
"I know we get these comments every summer, but it has been markedly higher this summer," Steamboat Councilman Jason Lacy said. "They feel like we're losing our charm and character, and we're overspent in the summertime."
Council members pondered what they could do. But it's a tricky situation.
The city is dependent on sales tax, and thereby, a significant level of tourism.
End the summer party, and city budgets will surely take a hit.
But, is the summer party, filled with hot air balloons, free concerts, tubing, air shows, Mustangs and Minis, getting too big?
What about a small property tax to allow the city to curb back the number of these summer events aimed at attracting sales tax dollars?
"Over my dead body," one citizen recently told Councilwoman Robin Crossan when she floated the idea of a property tax.
Councilman Ford has raised the idea of perhaps curtailing the amount of city funding for special summer events. People are coming here, anyway, he said.
While the council considers how to address a cranky citizenry worried about how popular their city has become, one thing is clear — Steamboat is indeed getting busier.
Traffic levels are back to what they were in Steamboat's heyday in 2007.
The Yampa River resembles a busy amusement park ride where few fly-fishermen dare to step into the water on a busy July weekend.
U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are fully booked six months in advance while overall usage of the forest is growing by about 20 percent year over year.
Even in the Zirkel Wilderness areas to the north, the Slavonia Trailhead parking lot, equipped to hold no more than 20 cars, was mobbed by more than 100 cars on a recent weekend.
And, as a result of increased usage, bigger parking lots and campgrounds might be on the way.
Next year, the city could install more advanced traffic signals downtown that respond to congestion in real time.
Will those improvements be enough?
Or is Steamboat getting too busy?
We asked around.
Lisa Popovich, Main Street Steamboat Springs executive director
"I'll be very careful in how I answer this," Popovich said with a laugh when she answered the phone and first heard the question.
"I think there are weeks in the summer where to add anything would be irresponsible," she said. "But we have to find a way to co-exist with the guests that are coming to town. We, as a community, spend a lot of time and effort to bring people here, so once they're here, we need to remind ourselves there are going to be some inconveniences, but it's why we get to enjoy the life we have here."
She said her organization, which advocates for downtown Steamboat, continues to look for events that have less impact on the city's infrastructure.
For example, she said the recent introduction of a restaurant week in the fall isn't as impactful as such events as the Mustang Roundup, which require a closure of Lincoln Avenue and come with a big traffic impact.
Popovich also addressed the recent sights of overflowing garbage cans in downtown.
"I don't think the problem is we have too many people in town," Popovich said. "It's that we don't have a good system to manage it."
Gary Suiter, Steamboat Springs city manager
Suiter, a relative newcomer to Steamboat's big summer party, said he hasn't been here long enough to fairly comment on the question.
But he can point to towns that are worse off than Steamboat.
"We're not as busy as Estes Park," he said. "They see 3 to 3.5 million people through their main street in three months. That's busy."
By comparison, Scott Ford, also a local economist, estimates Steamboat sees in the neighborhood of 250,000 visitors in its entire summer season, with most of them coming in June, July and August.
But Suiter said he personally enjoys the tourism activity in the summer.
"I'd rather see a community that's busy and a little noisy and pesky at times than one with boarded-up storefronts and empty parking spaces," Suitor said. "My perspective is we all could do a better job of coordinating and planning events."
Karen Vail, author, landscaper and Yampatika naturalist
Vail thinks Steamboat is at a crossroads.
"Do we want it to look and feel like Estes Park or Vail? I think we really need to have this discussion starting here, because the Chamber is intent on filling every month with event after event after event. Do we have a say in it?"
Vail hopes locals can still have the shoulder season to give them some time to breath.
Vail was spurred to sound off on the traffic problem after a few harrowing drives in recent weeks.
"Everybody I talked to is getting so frustrated with everything," she said.
Vail also said what she's starting to miss is some of the civility in town.
"It just seems everybody is all so stressed, and they get so angry," Vail said. "I think Steamboat is better than that."
"It wasn't even six years ago when you could walk down Lincoln and imagine you were in an old Western. I swear, one day, I saw a tumbleweed blow across the road. No mas."
"Too much. There's no need to have an event every single weekend. Moderation is a blessing and necessary to keep the feel of what brought us here to live — Having tourists roll in and roll out like the tourists do every weekend, trashing the town and no skin in the game, makes for a vibe that isn't Steamboat."
"If you like the restaurants and activities in Steamboat, welcome a couple of busy months in the summer — these businesses can't make it on ski season business alone and certainly not just on local patronage."
"It took 10 years, but we are finally back to nearly as busy as it was in 2007. We don't have several large construction projects going on simultaneously downtown like we did back then though . . . In the end, this is how a large number of wage earners in this town earn a living, and having a few big weeks makes a big difference in people's ability to pay bills and make it through the offseason coming up.
Wilderness loved to death
When Win Dermody set out on a recent Saturday to greet hikers and provide information at the Slavonia Trailhead, he talked to more than 200 hikers and counted 104 cars parked along the road leading up to the trailhead, which serves as the entrance to the Zirkel Wilderness.
"We are definitely loving the Wilderness to death," he reported in an email to the U.S. Forest Service.
District Ranger Chad Stewart said usage of the Routt National Forest has been climbing by about 20 percent year over year.
He's not considering a permit system for the Zirkel Wilderness yet. But he acknowledged if the trend continues, such a system might be on the horizon.
For now, Stewart said he's more worried about the crowds that are building on Buffalo Pass.
There, he has counted more than 70 dispersed campsites in a 6-mile stretch of road from Dry Lake to Summit Lake.
Yampatika naturalist Karen Vail drove up the road to camp near Mount Ethel during the busy Balloon Rodeo and Art in the Park weekend last month.
"It was the most insanity I think I've ever seen on Buffalo Pass," she said. "People were camped in meadows nobody has ever camped in before."
To spare the area from overuse, Stewart is pursing road improvements to the bumpy, gnarly road that goes up the pass.
His hope is that if it's easier to get to the summit, campers will discover lightly used campgrounds in the area and spread out more.
"My vision is to put the infrastructure in place to handle the current and expected use, while maximizing the access we currently have," Stewart said. "I am working on dispersing the use while providing an opportunity for all users across the landscape."
Northwest Colorado is not the only area seeing a surge in visitors looking to camp and hike in the wild.
The Forest Service is investigating ways to manage crowds at the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area near Aspen.
"The Maroon Bells is becoming like the entrance to Disneyland," Pitkin County Board Chairman George Newman told the Aspen Times last week.
And, Zion National Park in Utah is looking at adopting a reservation system that would allow park visitors to hike, picnic and camp only if they had a reservation.
A quieter time
As a young girl growing up in Steamboat Springs, Lynn Abbott remembers riding her horse down the gravel roads from one end of town to the another at age 10.
"My mother always said the best babysitter in town was Kino, which was my horse," Abbott, now 74, said. "There were no fences. We could go anywhere we wanted. Most of the time we had free reign."
Abbott's trip to the local grocery store is dramatically different today.
And, if Kino were still around, the horse might sound a big "neigh" if asked to make the ride though town, fighting all the traffic.
"It's not even an option now," she said of leisurely horseback rides downtown. "Nobody could do that today. I'm overwhelmed when I go downtown and wait in bumper-to-bumper traffic to go to Safeway."
But Abbott says she isn't grumpy about it. In fact, she rather enjoys some of the things that the new traffic has brought to town.
"I love the music that has grown with Strings on the Mountain," she said. "I'm also liking the dining possibilities. And there's lots of interesting people to meet, too."
Could technology help?
What's up with all those funky poles and cameras that have been stationed at pedestrian crossings around town this summer?
Well, they might just help the city get a more sophisticated stoplight system next year.
City of Steamboat Springs engineer Ben Beall said the devices are part of a traffic count study.
And that study could help the city secure state support for something called adaptive signal control technology.
Steamboat's traffic signals are currently pre-programmed to follow a set schedule.
Beall said upgraded traffic signals could respond in real time to traffic backups, allowing clogged intersections a longer green signal, for example.
"It's kind of like analog going to digital," he said.
The traffic signals would be smart enough to respond to peak traffic when schools in the area are getting out.
That might make it easier to travel through the intersection of Third Street and Lincoln Avenue, for example.
The signals from Third to 13th streets are already connected by fiber optic cables, making them a prime candidate for the new technology, Beall said.
The traffic signals are not a silver bullet to Steamboat's traffic woes, however.
"It doesn't make the road any bigger," Beall said.
The city plans to propose funding for the project in next year's capital improvement program.
If the state buys in and the Steamboat Springs City Council approves, the high-tech signals could be working as soon as next summer.