Huerfano County wants a partner to help revive Cuchara Mountain Park, but it won’t be a pair of Florida investors proposing an adventure park for the ski area where lifts have not turned since 2000.
The Huerfano County commissioners on Tuesday ended negotiations with Moss Adventures, led by Jeff Moss and Shayne Young.
“There were a bunch of reasons,” County Administrator Carl Young said. “As negotiations went on, we didn’t feel this was the right deal for the county. We also had, I guess I’ll call them personality conflicts between the Moss team and the county. We found interactions on social media we did not find encouraging. We want to stop now and revise our approach and try again in a couple months. I think we can find someone else.”
After decades of boom-bust proposals by Texas investors who trumpeted condos and skiing, the Moss Adventures plan called for high-end camping, Land Rovers and year-round educational adventure programs with a little bit of skiing.
The two had overwhelming support in the Cuchara Valley for the plan they’d worked on for almost two years. A pair of nonprofits collected more than $300,000 from local and part-time residents to repair a base-area chairlift for skiers. The county has owned 47 acres at the base of the former ski area since 2017, when the Cuchara Foundation raised $150,000 to help purchase the property to create Cuchara Mountain Park.
“Switching it over to the county was a big mistake,” said Mike Moore, who has spent 20 years fighting to breathe new life into the ski area that first opened in 1981. “If we had kept it with the Cuchara Foundation, we would have a deal with the Moss Adventures group and we could have been up and running this winter. But the lawyers told us the county would be a better entity to own the park and we went with it and now the county is trying to figure out how to run a park and a ski area and they don’t have a clue, not a clue, what they are doing.”
Three public assets in Huerfano County are run by county residents: The Fox Theater in Walsenburg is operated by a local nonprofit; the City of Walsenburg owns the local golf course, which is run by a nonprofit; and the Huerfano County Fairgrounds is supported by a local volunteer board.
“We feel this pressure to get this right. This is the first time we have had an outside, for-profit group come in and that’s something we did on our volition,” Carl Young, the county administrator, said – noting that Moss and Shayne Young were the only respondents to a request for proposals the county sent to potential investors seeking an operator for Cuchara Mountain Park. “We are not afraid of bringing in outside people, we just want to make sure we bring in the right people.”
Moss and Shayne Young proposed a long-term lease for the mountain park with their investors directing $2.5 million to renovate neglected structures and infrastructure. The county offered a five-year lease that Moss said his investors did not like. So Moss and Shayne Young changed their investment strategy and offered a $150,000 performance bond, Moss said, “to guarantee what we are going to do.”
Moss said the county’s interest seemed to wane as they shared the reluctances of their investors.
“We got the idea that someone else was offering millions to develop the mountain,” Moss said in an interview with The Sun. “So I think they decided to terminate with us to look into this other developer. Not sure if what they did was legal or not, but it definitely went against the RFP.”
Plenty of blame to go around
Carl Young admits that the blame for the breakdown with Moss Adventures is evenly split between the investors and the county.
A 2018 master plan for the park calls for revamping the day lodge, building a cafe atop the old ski patrol hut, carving an amphitheater into the base area and developing amenities like outdoor classrooms, bike trails, winter and summer tubing, canopy tours, yurt camping, climbing walls and playgrounds. The Moss Adventures plan followed that master plan closely, with detailed development proposals for just about everything listed in the document.
“We need to revisit what our plans for an adventure park look like and we need to be more clear in our expectations,” Carl Young said. “One thing that is continually nagging us is: Do they have the money to get this done? Perhaps it’s not reasonable for us to say we need investors to come in with all the capital and do everything. Perhaps it’s more reasonable for us to say we are going to build and you guys come in and operate it.”
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a parade of wealthy Texans proposed lifts and condos at Cuchara. None could make it work. The ski area would open one season and be idle another. After seven different Texas owners, the Forest Service in 2002 pulled the ski area’s permit to access 345 federal acres.
The Moss Adventures plan was different. It did not include any real estate development. It proposed year-round activities with less emphasis on skiing. The plan was to use the park as a hub to prepare adventurers for far-flung excursions in a fleet of Land Rovers. Their vision, which would debut at Cuchara, included “grand expeditions” with themed backcountry adventures across North America.
As the plan unfolded, the county commissioners saw growing impacts to nearby private landowners whose property overlaps with proposed ski terrain. Carl Young said liability issues, stemming from a 2019 court decision that has the state’s private land owners worried about lawsuits from recreational users on their land, played into the county’s concerns.
“We’ve been listening to the community, the whole community, and their concerns about impacts. This plan just brings a whole new level of impacts and I think we need to re-engage with the community and make sure we are on the same page,” Carl Young said. “Maybe we need to issue another RFP.”
The commissioners heard from other parties who expressed some interest in operating the park, but Carl Young denied the elected officials were siding with any particular investor – including a man who stood up at a public hearing with the commissioners in December and said he had investors waiting to pump millions into the park. That man was light on details and, Carl Young said, his plan “lacked merit.”
“Moss said on social media that the commissioners were negotiating for other developer interests. I think Jeff and Shayne got bolder as this progressed and they took this stance that you are either with us or against us,” Carl Young said. “That rubbed the commissioners the wrong way.”
Huerfano County Tourism Board chair Bob Kennemer has spent 35 years working in both tourism and as an outdoor guide around Cuchara. He said some local residents are reluctant to cede total control of the county-owned park to a private enterprise.
“I think there was concern that we were losing a park but gaining a business,” he said, sharing a commonly heard local concern that the Moss Adventures proposal could prevent local access to the mountain park.
Kennemer also saw personality conflicts in the Moss Adventure team. When the tourism board expressed concerns over access at the park, he said members of the board were “attacked.”
“That’s what we saw on social media and other interactions with the Moss group, they were constantly attacking anyone who questioned anything at all, even our tourism board,” he said. “I think the commissioners didn’t want to work with them because they were aggressive and rude. But their ideas were great.”
Moss was packing up his Florida home on Wednesday. He said he’s moving his family and Moss Adventures out West, but as of Wednesday night, his final destination was unclear.
One thing is for sure, though. He’s not looking for a government partner anymore.
“I learned my lesson with that. We are looking for a private land partner,” he said. “I can’t take any more time not launching this company. We have investors in the background who are waiting.”
Moss doesn’t hide his frustration. He and Shayne Young molded their plan to adhere to the master plan developed by the county and the nonprofits, Cuchara Foundation and Ski Panadero Corp.
“The only thing we changed was including our expeditions, which were not at the park, and instead of yurts we were doing tents,” he said. “I want to stay in the area and finish what we started. I’ve fallen in love with so many people there and I do love the idea of building something that benefits everybody. I guess I can understand why they are so jaded by their past experiences there but we wanted to come in and work with everybody and build spirits back up. Why would you not want that?”
Moore said the commissioners will soon hear from residents in the Cuchara Valley. Many in the region had hoped the Moss Adventures plan would revive an economic engine that could support a sputtering winter economy. Most of the businesses in the village of Cuchara shut down in the winter.
“We aren’t going to stop. We’ve spent 17 years to get here and in another 17 years I’ll be 92,” said Moore, noting how the nonprofit groups are close to getting the base area Chair 4 ready for state inspection. “We are making snow. We are gearing up for next season. Who knows what the county is doing, but we aren’t going to wait for them.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2022, to correct the spelling of investor Jana Sobotova’s last name.