Big Mine Warming House expansion hits financial hurdle

Project grew beyond capabilities

By Mark Reaman

A big timeout has been called in the effort to expand the Big Mine Park Warming House.

Representatives of the West Elk Hockey Association (WEHA) and Crested Butte Nordic alerted the town last week that they decided “to suspend involvement in the current Big Mine Warming House Expansion project.” They cited rising costs and a significant reduction in the town’s financial commitment toward the project as the primary reasons for the pullback.

“Throughout the first half of this year Crested Butte Nordic, West Elk Hockey, and Crested Butte Town staff worked closely together to finalize plans for a new winter sports complex at Big Mine,” the letter to town staff read. “We presented the plan to Crested Butte Town Council in July. The project has received strong and widespread support from each of our memberships and the community at large. This fall the three organizations engaged an experienced development consultant to begin a multi-million dollar capital campaign.

Unfortunately, through its budgeting process the Town has significantly reduced its projected financial commitment to the project. Thus, we no longer feel this is a priority for the Town. Given the amount of work that will be required to become a successful project, it will need to be a high priority for each of the three organizations…” and thus the two groups decided upon the suspension.

Through various additions to the project, including an estimated $1.6 million for refrigerated ice, the expansion estimate had grown to more than $5 million. Parks and Recreation director Janna Hansen had presented a plan to the council in July that included the town contributing $500,000 from the town’s capital budget, applying for a $1 million Department of Local Affairs grant, organizing in-kind contributions from local workers and reaching out to other granting agencies. At that time Hansen said she expected $3 million would have to be raised for the project that she hoped could start in 2020.

Town manager Dara MacDonald said the town wants to continue to explore solutions and ideas for the overcrowding at the Warming House during peak times. As for a major reduction in funding commitment to the project, MacDonald said the town had budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The 2018 budget discussions were the first time that the Town Council has formally discussed funding for the Big Mine Warming House expansion project to help provide sufficient space for the CB Nordic and West Elk Hockey operations,” she commented in an email. “The Council recognizes the importance of the two non-profits for the community and was willing to contribute an additional $500,000 toward the project beyond the $100,000-plus that the Town has already spent funding architectural plans and initial fundraising strategies.”

But Crested Butte Nordic and WEHA were counting on more. “When we were planning for the building, the town’s budget consistently listed $500,000 cash and $500,000 in-kind, as the town’s projected commitment,” said Crested Butte Nordic’s Christie Hicks. “Those numbers included the remaining $167,500 in ‘Whatever USA’ funds. When we added refrigeration of the rink to the scope of the project, and went before council in July, our budget suggested $500,000 cash and $500,000 in-kinds, plus the $167,000 from Whatever, for a total contribution of $1,167,500. We also estimated $1.3 million in grants. The actual commitment from council for 2020 was $250,000 cash and $250,000 in-kind, including whatever is left of the Whatever money. The cost of the project continued to climb… so we felt it prudent to step back.”

Hicks said the council also mandated that the refrigerated ice rink be “net zero,” in carbon emissions and that the user groups absorb all additional maintenance and utility costs. “With the reduction in projected Town commitment, and the increase in both up-front and post-construction costs, we (WEHA and Crested Butte Nordic) decided this had grown beyond our capabilities.”

Despite being disappointed at the cost roadblock, Hicks said the town had been very supportive. “The town used Whatever funds and hired the architect, and Janna was going to be the project manager through the construction phase,” Hicks explained. “They were also going to help by doing the majority of the grant writing. With that sort of support from the town (and the expected financial support), our plans grew ambitiously. But over time it became clear that the Town cannot afford the increased costs of a refrigerated rink and/or an expanded warming house, and expected the user groups to absorb these costs, either up front [‘net zero’ ice rink] or in the new lease/user agreements.”

The project had simply gotten too big to afford for everyone, so now, Hicks said, “We’re getting real cozy for the season, and will be exploring more modest improvements that will benefit both user groups.”

MacDonald said the town will be there too. “In the meantime the Town intends to continue the longstanding support for Crested Butte Nordic and West Elk Hockey by providing the Warming House at no cost, substantially below market rates for ice time and access to over 18 kilometers of trails on Town-owned property or easements for Nordic skiing at no cost to Crested Butte Nordic,” she said.

“Fortunately, we are both outdoor organizations, and have been working together for years in this facility,” concluded Hicks. “Most users come in, get their gear, and go outside. Crested Butte Nordic made some small investments this summer to improve organization and flow (cubbies, mostly), and we are working with WEHA on timing during after school programs. It’s still not easy: for example, on Tuesdays starting in January we will have 80 kids in our Nordic afterschool program. We work really hard with their coaches to get them out on the snow and skiing as soon as possible. Hockey is working with their participants to do the same.”

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