Thursday, September 17, 2020

Council turns an eye toward a winter with COVID-19

But what about the snowbanks?

by Mark Reaman

With a growing concern the coronavirus crisis will not go away anytime soon, the Crested Butte Town Council and staff began preliminary discussions Monday on how to plan for a possible COVID-19 fall and winter.

Topics ranged from the mental health of community members to business support, protecting deed restrictions in town affordable housing and figuring out transportation issues.

Staff presented the Town Council with suggestions on how to begin organizing for fall and winter based on scenarios that basically ranged from the current state of restrictions in a Blue risk assessment level to the worst-case scenario of a Red level where the ski area and most businesses are closed, similar to what happened last March.

Up to now, town revenues are down just 12 percent, which staff deemed pretty good for being impacted by a pandemic. “But we could be living with this thing for a long time, perhaps until a vaccine is developed,” said town manager Dara MacDonald. “There is still a lot of uncertainty out there with the future, so the town is remaining cautious.”

Council member Mallika Magner asked if MacDonald had contemplated furloughs or layoffs of town staff if the valley is shut down again.

MacDonald said that was not being considered at this time. “We are rehiring positions on a limited basis and there are no new projects in the immediate future,” said MacDonald. “Our recommendation would be to do what we did in the spring and continue to pay people to work from home so they are prepared to come back to work when things shift. With current town reserves we can maintain certain services. We learned in the spring that how people adapted and the amount of work they were able to take on was all over the place, especially for those with young school aged kids.”

Looking out for mental health

Under both the best-case and the worst-case scenarios, the staff recommended using nicotine tax revenues along with some other town funds to set aside at least $75,000 to be focused on mental health/wellness programs in the community. The money could possibly be used for counseling, helping with Nordic ski programs, on backcountry education and to alleviate food insecurity.

“Winter is very different from summer,” said town finance director Rob Zillioux. “The valley has seen a lot of mental health issues already but we can only imagine what happens when it gets cold and dark. We can set aside some money to deal with mental health issues and also things like Nordic skiing that will provide outside activities.”

Mayor Jim Schmidt said it was important to keep the Big Mine Ice Rink open in that same vein but Parks and Recreation director Janna Hansen said that would depend on health orders in place at the time. “We are waiting on clarification on whether or not our ice rink would be considered ‘indoors,’ in which case tighter restrictions would be imposed,” she said.

Council member Chris Haver asked that a report be prepared on how previous grants to mental health organizations had been used.

Magner asked if setting aside $75,000, even for mental health issues, was a wise move for the town, given budget concerns. Zillioux said that because the new nicotine tax wasn’t formally budgeted for and the amount being set aside was relatively low, he was comfortable.

The council appeared to generally support the direction suggested by the staff.

Marketing opportunity?

Magner said Haver had suggested that if the ski resort does not open this winter, a marketing campaign be developed that showed “Crested Butte is a great, safe, fun place to be with a lot of things to do aside from downhill skiing. It is a great place to recreate in the winter.”

“That is a great idea but the challenge would be lodging restrictions,” said Zillioux. “If the ski area is closed that would likely mean we were in an Orange or Red risk assessment and not a lot of things would be open.”

“We are in the middle of nowhere so we could have a bigger draw [than other resorts] if the ski area shuts down,” said Haver. “We have the opportunity to capitalize on our assets and the things people maybe haven’t done before where the focal point is outdoor recreation.”

Schmidt noted that there were many second homeowners in the valley but he had no idea how many would come in the winter if Crested Butte Mountain Resort was not open for business.

Council member Laura Mitchell said the ski area was sending messages to employees to prepare for a winter season but no definitive word had been announced.

Protecting affordable housing

Zillioux said if tighter health order restrictions were implemented, homeowners and renters could feel new pressure, especially as federal subsidies, such as the $600 in additional unemployment benefits, are eliminated.

“People could be finding themselves under a great deal of pressure with their mortgage or rent,” he said. “We should be in sync with the Valley Housing Fund and Gunnison Valley Rural Housing Authority and other such groups to be aware of people who might need help. We need a collaborative plan. We don’t want to lose the deed-restricted housing we have in town.”

“It is important to protect the present deed restrictions. It is more affordable to protect those we have than to eventually build more affordable housing,” said Schmidt. “To me that’s the most important priority.”

“I would like us to be very careful with our affordable housing fund money,” said Magner. “The pandemic will go away but the need for affordable housing in the valley will never go away.”

“Planning with all the other groups is important, so that if and when the time comes to protect deed restrictions already in place, we can act,” said Zillioux.

Schmidt said because of uncertainties with Western Colorado University, CBMR and tourism needs in general, there was no idea of what to expect in the future in terms of housing.

“It feels like we’re perpetually in a housing crisis, especially with affordable ownership,” said council member Will Dujardin. “But we have no idea what happens if CBMR doesn’t open. I’ve heard people say they would leave if that happens.”

Business brainstorming

Staff pointed out restaurants and shops will be heavily impacted in the fall and winter with COVID restrictions since the outdoor dining and retail displays won’t be possible in typical winter weather. And indoor restrictions are much tighter than outdoor regulations.

“We recommend that we convene a panel of business owners to talk about ideas and solutions for the fall and especially winter with the limited capacity,” said Zillioux. “The Trump administration is also not allowing J-1 visas and that doesn’t just impact the ski area but many local businesses that depend on those workers. In a worst-case scenario we might think about more business grants but I would suggest they be very pointed.”

“It is important to get the restaurants together to discuss what the different scenarios look like for them,” agreed Haver. “Is it worth doing something like a downtown Crested Butte shopping site where people can find things like who delivers?”

Schmidt said the idea of more families moving to the area to work from home would help with some business. Zillioux said perhaps another 30 families might move into the area.

“Even that won’t make up for the ski area being closed,” noted MacDonald. “I like your glass-is-half-full attitude but that won’t be enough.”

“The town has shown with the Elk Avenue configuration it is ready to try things to help businesses,” added Magner. “I’m all for getting them together and help however we can.”

Staff will come up with a business forum plan and bring it to the council.

Buses…

As for transportation, both the Mountain Express and the RTA bus systems are running routes but with limited passenger capacity. The problem is that in the winter, the RTA transports a lot of workers from Gunnison to the upper valley. Mountain Express is full at times on busy ski days and the idea of handling passengers on a powder day was a big red flag for council.

The Mountain Express and the RTA have a joint meeting planned for August 7, so the idea is to now also get representatives of CBMR to join them to begin discussions on how to handle various winter scenarios. New town community development director Troy Russ also has some transportation experience and will attend the meeting.

Snowbanks…

Haver mentioned no winter discussion would be complete without talking about snowbanks on Elk Avenue. He said removing them could help make take-out food pick-up easier for restaurants. Schmidt said not removing them could save money but that was something best discussed later.

“Overall we will all know a lot more in another month or so,” said Schmidt. “We are all in the same place and there is still a lot of uncertainty.”

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