Fans of ice climbing were not the only ones cheering at the Ouray Ice Festival last weekend.
The state’s bosses of tourism and outdoor recreation were watching closely as thousands gathered in Ouray’s famed ice park, a rally supported by an unprecedented wave of grants designed to pull the community back from the pandemic.
And with a growing trove of state and federal grants banked, the success of the weekend’s Ouray Ice Festival served as a test case for how, as the pandemic fades, the state can support communities that rely on tourism and outdoor recreation.
“We are so excited with how this helped Ouray,” said Tim Wolfe, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “They’ve gone through some challenges and it’s super encouraging to see the public-private partnerships that can come together and build the bridges we need to recover and have sustainable impacts on tourism economies.”
Wolfe was speaking metaphorically about bridges. But in Ouray, the recovery story starts with a broken bridge.
The future of the Ouray Ice Park was dark on a Tuesday morning last March when volunteers and climbers saw carnage inside their icy canyon. A 12,000-pound slab of rock had sheared off the canyon wall and crushed a metal bridge and the penstock that feeds one of the oldest operating hydropower plants in the country.
For a small-town nonprofit operation that ekes by with a handful of staffers and an army of volunteers, the devastation on the heels of a pandemic-clouded ice festival competition could have been the end for the internationally renowned ice park that first drew climbers in the 1990s.
A 2018 study of the economic impact of the park showed park visitors and climbers contributing $3 million to Ouray’s $4.9 million winter economy.
Climbers, the Ouray community and state tourism leaders were not about to let the park melt away. More than 1,100 climbers rallied after the March 2021 rockfall to raise more than $100,000 for the park. They worked hard, and last weekend welcomed back spectators to the 27th annual Ouray Ice Festival.
Earlier this month the park hosted the All In Ice Fest, drawing a diverse collection of climbers who have not traditionally been considered part of the ice climbing community. And early next month the park will host the UIAA North American Ice Climbing Championship, which will be live streamed around the world.
The park is making a documentary detailing the three events and its rebound from 2021.
“It’s been such a year,” said Peter O’Neil, the park’s executive director. “Our sponsors, our community, our climbers. It’s been overwhelming to see.”
New benches, signs and event support came from the Colorado Tourism Office, which last year awarded the park $200,000 from its first Meeting and Events Incentive grant fund. Great Outdoors Colorado in December awarded $100,000 for a new water supply system so ice farmers can build the routes that lure climbers to the park.
The Colorado Economic Development Commission in December directed a $55,000 incentive to support the three-event documentary produced by Colorado’s BurstMarketing and Citizen Pictures. Last year the same producers live-streamed the festival competition that harvested 330,000 views from 24 countries and created an hour-long highlight reel of the contest. The Ouray Ice Festival and the producers last year received $79,000 from the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media, the Colorado Tourism Office, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and the Colorado Office of Business Funding and Incentives.
It’s not just ice climbing that has the attention of state funders. The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic’s new Ouray-to-Silverton race in May also received $8,000 from the tourism office’s meeting and incentives grant program.
And the region’s tourism-promoting Visit Ouray got a Colorado Recovery Assistance For Tourism (or CRAFT) grant last year that offered tourism champions in the region a workshop to identify goals and a recovery plan in addition to $10,000 in marketing support.
The list of people to thank for keeping the park alive, O’Neil says, is long. The local school district donated a school bus to ferry spectators to the park. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard donated a day flyfishing with him near his home in Jackson, Wyoming, for the park’s fundraising auction. Dozens of local businesses stepped in this season to support the ice park’s three events.
The trestle bridge that provided access to a portion of the park’s routes has been rebuilt, and climbing equipment maker Black Diamond donated money for a new access trail that climbs up and over the new bridge.
O’Neil said every clinic during the ice festival filled to capacity. The return of spectators after a challenging year and the roar of the crowds cheering athletes as they scaled overhanging fangs of ice, he said, “was an absolute highlight.”
Officials with the state tourism and outdoor recreation office should start to see the return on their investment in less than two weeks, O’Neil said. The three-hour live stream of the international climbing contest on Feb. 5 will include snippets gathered from climbers and Ouray locals during the previous two events. The full documentary, coming at the end of March, “will showcase Colorado and the City of Ouray and the Ouray Ice Park like never before,” he said.
“We are a good case study and the documentary will be a great testimonial for what you can do for the state of Colorado for just a little investment,” O’Neil said.
Wolfe, with the tourism office, said the investment in Ouray will help inform how the state invests in other communities and tourism businesses. Some areas, like busy mountain resorts, are turning toward stewardship and managing impacts. Wolfe sees the state’s investment in tourist-reliant businesses and communities as a tool for building strength when new travel patterns emerge as the pandemic fades. (Like when the swell of drive-up traffic ebbs and vacationers start returning to urban areas and international destinations instead of mountain towns.)
“Every area is recovering at a different pace and we want to identify where people are hurting and connect the dots so we can recover from this,” Wolfe said.
A tangle of public, private, local and federal that works
The new bridge is built, but it’s not open yet. Eric Jacobson, who owns the hydroelectric plant, penstock and park property in the Uncompahgre River Gorge, was reminded by his bridge builders about a collapse of a pedestrian walkway in Kansas City in 1981 that killed 114 people. Those builders wanted an independent engineering firm to inspect the bridge.
“You may have to walk a little bit further for a bit longer, but because of a historic pedestrian collapse, people want to be quadruply sure that this meets all the regulations and is going to be totally safe,” said Jacobson, who has leased about 60 acres in the gorge to the City of Ouray for $1 a year since he bought the historic Ouray Hydro Power Plant in 1992.
Since climbers first started scaling the park’s 150-foot icy tentacles above the mineral-tainted Uncompahgre River, the park has pioneered a model for a volunteer-run, city-owned, free-to-access nonprofit park that uses private land regulated by federal energy managers as a power plant.
It’s a tangled public-private-local-federal web that works in Ouray.
“I have to give Peter a huge thumbs up for balancing COVID, recreation, my bridge collapsing and everything else,” Jacobson said. “He brings a level of professionalism to the park that is just amazing. He’s like a juggler and he’s pulling off this very odd blend of a hydroelectric plant and public recreation. We’ve gotten along for 30 years and I think our biggest battle has been who gets to use the best parking spot … which means we can count ourselves blessed.”
As spectators and climbers started flowing into Ouray last week, Mayor Ethan Funk watched his community embrace “a sense of normalcy.”
“The fact that this ice fest is not going to be virtual, that alone is a huge psychological sigh of relief for people in this town,” Funk said. “Just the restoration of this event is huge for the benefit of the psyche of the community.”