The champagne powder just keeps coming, and so do the skiers.
Never mind that an adult lift ticket at Winter Park is $239. (Hey, that looks like a bargain if you compare it to what it costs for a ticket to a Taylor Swift concert.)
The City of Denver’s very own ski area has survived ever-increasing I-70 traffic horrors, a COVID shutdown and the seriously graying skier demographic. On a powder day — jeez, even on an ordinary day — the “full” signs start appearing at the parking lots an hour before the lifts start running. It’s a rousing success and an unparalleled economic engine for Grand County.
But all that success has created a gnarly housing problem in the Fraser Valley.
Worker shortages have forced restaurants to cut hours of operation, required some hotels to reduce hospitality services, challenged agencies struggling to staff essential operations such as snow removal and even made it difficult to keep the lights on at the town hall.
“The Town of Fraser started with only 65% staffing levels last year,” said Town Manager Ed Cannon. “We worked hard and found a lot of ways to recruit people and came up to 100% by the end of the year.”
It wasn’t easy, though. Cannon said 40% of the job candidates would withdraw their applications when they learned how expensive housing was.
Schools, law enforcement agencies and medical facilities face the same problems.
“A lot of highly qualified people can’t afford to live here,” he said.
While that has long been the case in Colorado’s mountain towns, things got a lot worse over the past few years, especially in the Fraser Valley.
A housing needs assessment conducted last year for the newly created Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership pointed to a number of factors exacerbating the problem: the rush of people fleeing urban areas during the pandemic, the continuing influx of remote workers choosing to leave cities for mountain lifestyles, supply chain problems inhibiting new construction and increasing housing costs, the loss of 384 homes from the East Troublesome fire, and an increase in short-term rentals with its corresponding decrease in long-term leasing.
The bottom line: over the next five years the Fraser Valley needs to add about 700 affordable housing units.
“We work with the Colorado Association of Ski Towns to develop strategies,” said Nick Kutrumbos, mayor of Winter Park. “The dire housing situation in all our communities is a top priority of the organization. It’s a critical issue.”
But each community is unique, he said, and “no one size fits all.” Winter Park is not Aspen or Vail or even Steamboat Springs
The cost to build and the price per square foot are much higher in all the mountain towns, he explained, which makes it more difficult for public agencies to fund affordable housing. And in the Fraser Valley, there are fewer quick-fix options.
The existing inventory of structures is much lower than in many other resort areas where efforts are under way to convert older hotels and other buildings to apartments.
To try to maximize what housing there is in Winter Park, the town has created partnerships with local businesses to pay property owners to convert their rentals from short- to long-term.
“A lot of the restaurants in town participated in the program,” said Alisha Janes, assistant town manager. “We were able to add more than 40 bedrooms to help with the immediate needs of businesses.”
Additionally, the Winter Park Town Council approved a three-year plan to add 150 workforce housing units.
“Of course, it’s not going to meet the need,” Janes said. “Seven hundred units in five years is a tall order. But the town is acting aggressively. We can’t solve the problem overnight, but we’re trying to move with the speed the crisis requires.”
The biggest boost came last fall when voters approved a tax on residential and commercial property that is expected to generate $1.2 million a year for construction of workforce housing.
“Before this measure passed, we didn’t have a sustainable funding stream for affordable housing,” Kutrumbos said. Now the communities can leverage those tax revenues to engage in public-private partnerships and turbocharge the development process.
While the Town of Fraser has “been a little bit behind the curve,” Cannon said real progress has been made in the past year.
The town received a $3 million Operation Turnkey grant from the state Division of Housing to purchase an 11-acre parcel of land on the north end of downtown. Master planning is under way to design the development, which is expected to provide at least 100 and possibly as many as 170 housing units.
“Fraser was the first municipality to receive a grant under the Operation Turnkey program,” he said. “With the grant, our out-of-pocket costs are right at $800,000 for a major project. We’re very excited.”
As with all of Colorado’s mountain towns, development is a delicate business.
Sensitive habitat must be preserved; environmental impacts limited; and cherished local culture cannot be sacrificed.
“This is a very popular part of Colorado,” Cannon said. “Over 2 million visitors come through this region every year. We have the ski resort and it’s America’s playground where the summers are special with hiking trails, mountain biking, fishing and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.
“It’s a great community and people are attracted to it. We could put up high-rise hotels but ….”
OK, he’s not serious about that.
The very nature of Colorado resort communities is what makes them so special.
It’s also put them at high risk for misuse and exploitation.
A retail development by Grand Park Real Estate on the edge of downtown Fraser stands as a weather-beaten monument to just that. Construction began around 2019 and then just … stopped.
“It’s a commercial development,” Cannon said tersely. “The town offered some incentives initially. Construction stalled. I’m sure it will be resolved eventually.”
End of discussion.
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In the meantime, he fields calls every week from people complaining about the eyesore smack in the middle of town. It’s not his favorite part of the job.
Despite that, he’s optimistic.
“The Fraser Valley is in a better position than ever for meeting the housing challenges,” he said. “We’re in a good place.”
And with that, he said he’ll be retiring in a month. Assistant Town Manager Michael Brack will succeed him.
So, I asked, will you be staying in Fraser in your retirement?
“Probably not,” he said. “This has been a really cold winter.”
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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