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Gunnison County Commissioners spar with local businessman

TA, LUR top on the list

By Toni Todd

Local businessman Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort, recently addressed the Board of Gunnison County Commissioners with concerns about a recent change in the mission of the Tourism Association (TA) to include additional economic development beyond tourism and what he referred to as its original charge, “heads in beds.”

“This article in the Crested Butte News caught me by surprise,” he said, referring to the December 29 story explaining that the commissioners have asked the TA to use Local Marketing District (LMD) funds to not just attract more tourists to the valley, but to also spend time developing a more diverse economic base, shoring up “sustainable tourism” efforts and helping attract and retain students at Western State Colorado University.

The commissioners, who control the LMD budget, signed a contract with the TA to assume those additional responsibilities this week.

“That’s not what was sold to the people,” said Schumacher. “Some of us feel that if this goes through, that we basically lied to the public.”

Schumacher also expressed dismay for what he described as a clandestine approach to publicizing the news. “Putting it out to the public on a Friday at 4 p.m. and voting on it on a Tuesday after New Year’s is not very transparent,” he said.

Schumacher said the Crested Butte News article was the first he’d heard about it.

“We’ve been talking about it for three months,” said commissioner John Messner.

Messner explained that since the TA is already telling the story about our community, it makes sense for them to also share that story to a broader audience in the interest of diversifying our economy. “I don’t want to see this get blown out of proportion that there’s some massive change in the mission of the TA,” he added. “I will also say it was not without consultation with some of the original folks who started the TA.”

“I had a conversation [with you] in springtime and at that time you were going to use the money for housing,” said Schumacher.

“No, no, no,” responded Messner. “That was never discussed. There was some discussion of another, separate revenue stream related to lodging, but never through the TA.”

Commissioner Jonathan Houck suggested the evolution of the TA is no different from what has occurred with other organizations. He used the Regional Transit Authority as an example. When the RTA began, he said, they had no buses. Now they run several, along with senior transportation services. The responsibility of local government, Houck said, is to use that money for the benefit of the community. “We’ve been phenomenally successful bringing people here,” he added as a testament to the TA’s success.

“Where do you guys get the idea that we’ve been phenomenally successful bringing people here?” asked Schumacher. He cited his own business’s poor bookings through the TA/Crested Butte Mountain Resort booking services in September. “I understand your grand philosophy,” he added, “but I’m just saying once you let the cat out of the bag,” it’s going to come across as misrepresenting the TA’s mission.

“I appreciate your position and comments,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland. “We could have said we’re going to take this money and do economic development with it. We decided we weren’t going to have these separate silos. I think having one organization knowing what the right arm and left arm are doing is important, and economic development is something we need to keep doing.”

Heads in beds, assured Chamberland, is still the main mission of the TA.

Schumacher also expressed discontent with the balance of representation on the TA board of directors, saying the promise was for a balance of board members between the north and south valley. He said there have been three representatives from the south and four from the north for quite some time.

Messner suggested it’s hard to strike a perfect balance with a seven-member board. Shumaker said the majority was supposed to alternate. Chamberland said part of the challenge comes with who applies to serve on the board.

Schumacher said he had also tried to get information on TA salaries, but could not. He said the TA’s spending of 25 percent of its funding on payroll is excessive.

Messner said he didn’t think 25 percent sounded excessive and explained that the TA is a private, non-profit owned by the businesses of Gunnison County.

“It’s public money they’re using,” responded Schumacher. “Don’t you think that [information] should be public?” Schumacher said whenever he approaches the TA for answers, he gets nowhere and is labeled a complainer.

Fair Treatment under the LUR?

Schumacher also said he was treated differently from how developers are treated today by the county when he sought to develop property in the county. “I did Three Rivers Resort and I have a mobile home park. I was told I need to buffer the mobile home park and I was forced to put three single-family homes in there.” That park, he said, might have been a good option for affordable, workforce housing.

“I also did Thornton Meadows. I wanted to put 48 units on 13 acres there, and I was told it would never pass. I ended up with 19 units and 30 percent open space. It had to be compatible with the neighboring area.”

“I think that what you have seen over the last few years, is that people have come to understand the [housing] crisis. We’re now looking at our regulations to make sure they aren’t discouraging the type of development that would alleviate that,” said Messner.

“Just because that happened to you 15 years ago doesn’t mean that’s the case today,” added county manager Matthew Birnie.

“It’s been the position of this board that we look at applications for development with affordable housing in mind,” said Houck. “It is unfortunate that in 2008 your subdivision was viewed the way it was.”

“It’s also about learning. Even the housing subdivisions with dedicated lots for affordable housing have not generated enough to resolve the problem,” said Birnie.

“So, should you keep doing that?” asked Birnie. “You had a bad experience so everyone should? That doesn’t sound like good governance.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re changing in that direction,” conceded Schumacher.

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