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Steamboat's Skiing Industry Not Yet Feeling The Pinch From Growing Crowds

Larry Pierce
Steamboat Ski Resort
A family of skiers decided which runs to take.

Many parts of Steamboat Springs and Routt County are dealing with growing pains, from infrastructure to housing to congestion. One area that hasn't been overwhelmed is the area's largest economic driver: the ski resort.

Steamboat Springs Ski & Resort Corp joined the Ikon Pass in 2017, shortly after the pass was unveiled by owner Altera Mountain Company. The move is part of a larger competition between Altera's Ikon Pass and Vail's Epic Pass, with both offering access to resorts all over the world and most resorts here in Colorado.

The popularity of those passes has been great for business, but success has come at a price, in the form of increased traffic congestion, especially along the I-70 mountain corridor, parking lots over capacity at Copper Mountain, Vail, Loveland and Arapahoe Basin, and long lift lines.

So, how has Steamboat been affected by the success of the Ikon Pass? Steamboat Springs is about three and a half to four hours from Denver, depending on weather and traffic. Because of its distance, Steamboat is widely seen as a destination resort, meaning if you go there, most people end up staying for a few days or a week, and not driving back the same day.

Loryn Duke, the communications director for Steamboat Springs Resorts, says the national skier who chases the best snow has benefited from the Ikon Pass.

Credit Larry Pierce / Steamboat Ski Resort
Steamboat Ski Resort
Some children attend ski school at Steamboa Ski Resort.

"I think for Steamboat specifically, we are seeing a little bit more of that regional and Front Range drive market," Duke said. "But we're still a very strong destination resort."

Duke said it was a great winter for Steamboat, but there were two weekends that pushed limits for the town and resort, and both weekends were when snow came down in abundance. This brought in Ikon Pass holders from all over Colorado, and more from the Front Range than usual.

"I think that might be one of the changes we're seeing with the Ikon Pass is that skiers and snowboarders have the flexibility to chase weather and therefore they can choose to go to whatever resort is getting the best conditions," said Duke.

Similar feelings were echoed by Lisa Popovich, the executive director of Main Street Steamboat Springs, an economic development organization. She said there were a couple of weekends last ski season that were busy.

"You know, I will say that it wasn't that bad. It was manageable. I think what we felt was, you had to make a reservation for happy hour. You know, it wasn't easy to walk into a restaurant and just sit down at the bar even," Popovich said.

Popovich says with the rise in business from the Ikon Pass, and a record-breaking year for good snow conditions, Steamboat has handled the influx well. She points to good infrastructure: "We have really good, free bus service and shuttle service in the winter. So, other than parking at the ski hill, parking downtown isn't that much of an issue because once you get into your hotel you can jump on a bus or a shuttle and get downtown and not have to worry about parking."

Popovich does think last year's snow brought in some challenges for a couple of weekends, but she said there have been times during the summer, when there isn't as much staff on hand, that are more straining on the town and its resources.

There was the instance that made headlines in March when Steamboat had to borrow school buses from nearby Moffat County to help shuttle skiers and riders to the slope, but both Duke and Popovich said that was a weekend with a lot of new snow and conditions people from around Colorado were trekking to. While it hasn't been the first time Steamboat has reached out to neighboring municipalities to assist in transportation needs, it was the first time Moffat County was tapped.

Tom Ross is a longtime photographer, reporter and editor with the Steamboat Pilot and Today. He's covered the ski industry off and on for decades. When locals talk to him about changes since Steamboat joined the Ikon Pass, they complain about some standard items — longer lift lines on the weekend, traffic, and, he said, "one thing that kinda sticks out is that a lot of locals say that the powder is disappearing faster. So you have to be strategic in how you pursue your powder."

Credit Larry Pierce / Steamboat Ski Resort
Steamboat Ski Resort
Skiers walk around the resort.

Ross says there is another group of people affected by the Ikon Pass: kids who grew up in Steamboat, moved out of town and visit during the holidays.

"I think it's understandable that a lot of these young adults feel a little entitled, having basically grown up on the mountain in another era where if your parents bought a season pass for as much as say $1,100 — much more than an Ikon Pass — it came with one free pass for a child at no additional cost. So, a lot of people got accustomed to that," Ross said.

And lower income families and individuals who can't afford a season pass or Ikon Pass are also having a harder time making it up to Howelsen Hill, a small ski area located in downtown Steamboat that's a city park with its own lift.

"Last year, the city allowed people to ski free, six different weekend Sundays, all through the winter," Ross said. "And about 9,500 people showed up and 18% of those people were even from out of state, which really surprises me. So, modest income families shouldn't be frozen out of introducing their children to skiing or enjoying a little bit themselves."

Housing is an issue, although that trend has been continuing for the past 20 years as more people buy vacation homes. When asked if it's still possible to be a "ski bum" in Steamboat Springs, Ross chuckled.

"I think it's doable, but you're going gonna work multiple jobs and going to have to be kind of savvy about getting here," Ross said. "When you can get housing, it's gonna have to put up with maybe five roommates? Back in 1979 I was one of five people living in a one-bedroom apartment and I was working at the newspaper. So, in some ways things that nothing's changed. It's always been that way."

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