Two slates debate future of town
There is at least one thing that each of the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council candidates can agree on—some of the most important decisions in the life of the town could be made in the next four years.
Nearly 60 residents and concerned citizens filled the small meeting room above the fire station on the mountain for the 2008 Crested Butte News Mt. Crested Butte Candidates Forum. The Mt. Crested Butte Town Council election is on Tuesday, April 1.
All six Mt. Crested Butte candidates were on hand to make their claim and answer questions from the audience.
The audience and council candidates focused their concerns on issues close to home, like the traffic situation in town, jumpstarting Mt. Crested Butte’s economy, and supporting Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s (CBMR) future plans—including the development of lift-accessed skiing on Snodgrass.
Each of the candidates had three minutes to introduce themselves.
Candidate David Clayton, general manager at KBUT Community Radio, began the evening by saying, "Over the next four years, many important things are going to be discussed and decided," such as recreational developments like the proposed aquatic center, on-mountain improvements at CBMR and the re-development of the base area. Clayton said, "We want to see that this continues… so our community can be an even greater place." As a professional engineer, Clayton said he is "trained to deal with tough problems every day."
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Candidate Susan Eskew has been a resident of the Crested Butte area off and on since 1984, and played a role in starting the Gunnison County Trails Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission. Eskew also served as an alternate on the Gunnison County Planning Commission. She currently works renovating existing rental housing by improving energy-efficiency, landscaping and interior design. Eskew said sustainability was a key thing for the town to pursue, while managing transportation, affordable housing and waste management.
"You step up to see certain things happen," Eskew said of running for Town Council. "I came here tonight because I believe I can work well with people with different perspectives, to achieve our community vision."
Candidate Andrew Gitin moved to Mt. Crested Butte in 1992, and earned a bachelor’s degree in ski and hotel resort management from Western State College. Gitin owns and operates the Gas Café, and also started the Firehouse Grill, which has since been sold to new owners. Gitin also serves as a local emergency medical technician and firefighter. He says, "I look forward to Mt. Crested Butte continuing the development of the base area using smart growth principles."
Citing the need for a post office and recreation center he said, "I’d like to see the town center become more useful." Gitin also said he was a people person, and would like to serve as a voice for Mt. Crested Butte with other, outside entities.
A familiar face at town meetings, Bob Goettge began his introduction by referring to the town’s shared community vision statement, noting that the document describes the role of local government. "Leadership of our town should have strong fiscal management," Goettge said, adding that the town is currently considering a property tax increase to meet growing financial burdens. Goettge said he had developed a financial recovery plan that would avoid this route. Goettge said as an elected council member he’d implement actions that "foster an economically vibrant community." Goettge said the town needs to be more open with its financial dealings.
Gary Keiser moved to Mt. Crested Butte a few years ago as a retired public accountant with Ernest and Young CPA in Dallas, Texas. Keiser said he was pleased with direction the current council has taken and their "can do" attitude. In coming years, Keiser said, it will be important to develop a sound financial plan and affordable housing solutions, and to address the growing transportation issues. He said completing the rec path extension up Gothic Road and building the new recreation center were also important. "We want to move forward toward the goal of having a world-class resort community," he said.
At the other end of the table, Jim Sharpe said he was interested in improving communication and cooperation between the town and other entities. Sharpe also referenced the town’s vision statement and 2007 Community Plan, and said, "Any of these goals require working together as a whole to be accomplished." On the topic of economic growth and financial stability, he said, "We need more reasons for people to spend time in our town, especially during the summer. Businesses can’t survive on one season alone…" Sharpe also talked about Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s new branding study, "which is just as applicable to the community as a whole as for their products."
With that said, the audience had its turn to grill the six candidates.
Mt. Crested Butte resident Rick Chavez said he was against a property tax increase, and asked the candidates what solutions they would propose for the town’s financial problems.
Goettge said the town needs to look at a variety of short-term solutions, such as continuing the town’s 4.5 percent sales tax. "We’ve got to get our head above water first. Property taxes should go to the voters for something big," Goettge said. He also said the money raised through the mil levy is just enough to keep Mt. Crested Butte out of the red, but won’t be used to fund new amenities or improvements. "We should get something for our money," Goettge said. In the long term, he said, the town needs economic growth.
Clayton agreed, and said more developments and more residents will go a long way in the financial realm. "One of the big engines of success for Mt. Crested Butte is going to be to get a thorough development plan going… to get more of a tax base, not more of a tax millage rate," he said.
Sharpe agreed that as the town’s population increases it will be easier to fund things, but said another solution would be to convince visitors to take longer vacations. He said providing more summer activity could help, such as the rec path, more parklands and the aquatic center.
Gitin said getting more flights into the area is crucial. "We need to make it easier to get here. We’re competing against ski resorts that are easier to get to and cheaper," Gitin said.
Eskew said a hired events coordinator might be a good idea to keep the town active. Eskew also mentioned a traditional way of thinking between the towns. "People used to say have retail (in Crested Butte) and hot beds (in Mt. Crested Butte). I think we have to get rid of that way of thinking and create more of a community up here," Eskew said.
Keiser said the town was a long way from settling on a property tax increase as a way to fix finances. He said, "The process of developing a financial plan is not completed—nothing has been proposed." Keiser said trimming departments and balancing the budget will help the town overcome short-term losses, and economic growth will catch up.
Another question came from Mt. Crested Butte resident Ed Haskell, who asked if the candidates were in favor of lift-accessed skiing on Snodgrass. "Yes, no or maybe?" he asked. Crested Butte resident Dan Escalante also asked about the candidates’ feelings on Snodgrass, specifically a lift in Washington Gulch.
Clayton said nobody has seen the final proposal, but, "I’m in favor of skiing on Snodgrass. I think it will have an economic impact on the community. I think it will increase the number of skier days and get people to stay longer." But he said it needs to be environmentally sensitive and traditional uses of the mountain need to remain.
Gitin was also for the development of Snodgrass. After seeing the "Snodgrass Lite" plan, Gitin said CBMR would be utilizing a lot of the open space to avoid clear cutting and had scaled down development plans from 11 lifts to three. Gitin said as a destination resort CBMR needs to be able to offer visitors more terrain, especially to get them to stay longer. "We need to keep them entertained," he said.
Gitin said many tourists do not actively explore the backcountry, and for them, without chair lifts, Snodgrass is just another mountain. "They’re the ones riding the chair lift up the mountain and using it to experience wilderness," Gitin said.
Goettge’s first concern was what Snodgrass would do for the economy. He noted the need to retain the traditional backcountry use. "I’d hate to think we could not use Snodgrass in the wintertime," he said. Goettge said he was skeptical that Snodgrass alone would provide the additional skiers needed to reach CBMR’s goal of 600,000 skier days.
Keiser said he’s in favor of Snodgrass development. "It has to be a plus to the town of Mt. Crested Butte to have that additional area," he said.
Keiser said it is CBMR’s money and they’re the ones taking the risk to develop Snodgrass, but he hopes the town will get to ride along the associated economic wave.
Sharpe repeated similar concerns and said, "I fully concede there is a desire for more intermediate terrain, but I remain unconvinced that Snodgrass is the answer."
Mike Kelly, a second homeowner in Mt. Crested Butte, and Chris Morgan, the town’s current mayor, both asked about Goettge’s financial recovery plan. Morgan questioned Goettge’s claim that his financial plan would turn a $3 million deficit into a $3 million surplus.
Goettge said one of his ideas was raising the town’s admissions tax fee, currently a 4 percent fee attached to lift tickets or any "admission-based" event. Goettge also talked about hedging the cost of future oil-based product needs, by buying the products in advance in bulk, such as asphalt.
Mt. Crested Butte resident Mike Frame asked about the potential transportation problems facing the town, and Mt. Crested Butte resident Sean Horne asked if anything could be done to improve the efficiency and visibility of crosswalks and sidewalks.
Goettge said the most important tasks were overhauling Gothic Road to handle more traffic and extending the rec path to keep pedestrians off the road. Citing the 2001 East Trade Parcel, Goettge said the resort was supposed to pay for 50 percent of the entire rec path, and 75 percent of future improvements on Gothic Road.
Clayton also focused on the rec path and said it needs to be finished as soon as possible. However, Clayton said, the path would be another amenity the town would have to take care of. "With this kind of snow it could take a full-time person to keep the rec path clear on a daily basis," Clayton said.
Clayton said the traffic situation would improve once bus service is extended farther along Gothic Road, which he believes will happen once the North Village is started. Clayton said the town could do a better job educating visitors about traffic laws and speed limits.
Sharpe said some of the proposals with Mountaineer Square North could complicate the traffic situation, such as roundabouts along Gothic Road. To improve crosswalks, Sharpe suggested the town try raised strips similar to those used in Crested Butte.
Keiser said a big issue was decreasing the number of cars coming into Mt. Crested Butte by building satellite parking lots in Crested Butte or elsewhere. "Perhaps some kind of additional parking is also part of the solution… We need to get those cars off the road at least in the next few years," he said. Keiser also said it would be good to slow traffic down somehow, and agreed that educating visitors was important. "Visitors aren’t used to going that slow," he said.
Eskew also noted the need for off-site parking and improving the rec path.
Gitin said residents should be encouraged to use the sidewalks and rec path, as many still walk on Gothic Road where sidewalks exist.
Gitin also said a better re-configuration of the Mountain Express bus service would keep some residents out of their cars, as would an "on-call" bus service.
Mt. Crested Butte resident Gene Spinner voiced his concerns about transportation, noting that Mt. Crested Butte is at the end of a very narrow road. "What limits do we have on growth up here?" he asked.
Sharpe said the town would need to find out what an optimal growth rate or cap should be. The town’s ability to cope with growth would be heavily dependent on traffic along Gothic Road he said.
Keiser agreed, saying, "Transportation is the big limiting factor."
Eskew said keeping development in check was a good idea, because many visitors and residents come to the Crested Butte area because it’s a small, relatively undeveloped place.
Mt. Crested Butte resident and Planning Commission member Dusty Demerson asked the candidates if they felt the town had enough affordable housing.
Eskew said the Gunnison County Housing Authority board was looking at the affordable housing problem in a regional way, and ongoing need assessments would be important. Eskew said the resort has six affordable housing units available, but cannot find anyone to buy them. "It is important for workers to live close to their jobs so they can have a better quality of life, and not spending needless dollars in transportation costs," she said.
Gitin said ongoing needs assessments were important, particularly because there are many different sides to the housing equation, such as the need for rentals, small studio spaces, and units for families.
Keiser agreed that the town needs to build the right kind of affordable housing. "You have to build something that fits the market that’s there," he said. Keiser said transportation was also a part of the affordable housing issue, in that better public transportation would keep workers who live outside of town from worrying about transportation costs. "If everybody could walk to work, it would be great, but that isn’t practical."
Clayton agreed that transportation was part of the issue, so providing affordable housing was a regional concern. For some workers, like police officers, Clayton said it would be important to provide in-town housing. But for other workers in Mt. Crested Butte, "If we had decent transportation service to Crested Butte South it would be no problem for people living there."
The candidates then each had a moment for closing remarks. Each candidate thanked the audience for attending, and encouraged Mt. Crested Butte residents to come out and vote on April 1.