Gunnison County secures $10M state grant for Whetstone

Narrowing in on top applicants to build the project

By Katherine Nettles

 Gunnison County learned this week that it has secured a large infrastructure grant for its proposed workforce housing project in the North Valley. The county also has gotten plenty of interest from potential building partners for the project, and is moving into the formal proposal phase before selecting a developer. County commissioners and staff discussed other grant opportunities for other aspects of the project this week. 

The county approved its Whetstone Community Housing Project sketch plan proposal in February, which aims to build approximately 230 units on a parcel along Highway 135 across from Brush Creek Road south of the town of Crested Butte. A preliminary plan application is anticipated later this year.

The project team is working to collect substantial grant funds for different aspects of the project even as it goes through the county’s Land Use Resolution (LUR) process, from general infrastructure to traffic intersection changes, a pedestrian underpass and potential recreation path connecting to the town of Crested Butte and areas south of town. One major funding source came through this week, as the county learned of having received a $10 million grant from the state of Colorado’s Transformational Affordable Housing Grant (TAHG) program.

“We are extremely excited, and honored, to have been awarded a $10 million dollar grant from the TAHG program,” commented John Cattles, assistant county manager for sustainability and operations. “This grant comes as the county is still working through land use approval of the project and working with the town [of Crested Butte] on possible extension of utilities to serve the project. This funding is a catalyst in the development of sustainable financing for the project that achieves our affordability goals for Whetstone but we still have a lot of work to do, this grant does not solve all of the funding challenges,” he said.

“Gunnison County appreciates that the state is committing funding like the TAHG grant to help solve the housing crisis we are experiencing in our community,” continued Cattles. “This grant is well designed to provide early, and substantial, funding to the project that we can utilize as a foundation to build the remainder of the funding for the project upon. 

Cattles summarized, “The grant requirements align well with our community values including affordability of units, above code energy efficiency standards, ADA accessible units, and electric vehicle charging among others. We want to thank the state legislature and the governor for recognizing the housing crisis and creating this funding opportunity.” 

Cattles said that of the 10 building partner applicants who submitted their qualifications to the county during their RFQ (request for qualifications) period last month, the project team has invited six to prepare a full proposal. “We are working through the final details for public presentations from developers,” he said, and the project team is targeting mid May for that presentation.

 County manager Matthew Birnie told commissioners in an update on Tuesday, April 4 that after a public meeting and presentation, the project team will interview and short-list the remaining applicants. 

“And we’ll see—if one rises to the top, we’ll work with them on negotiations. If there’s a couple, we’ll have some parallel paths happening. We’ve got some very strong proposals from some very strong companies with good experience and a variety of models and structures,” said Birnie. “We’re really just seeking that partner that will bring to the table what we need most: the experience to deliver a project which, for us, is enormous. But for some of these companies, not so much.”

Birnie said the fact that some companies already have experience building to the proposed Whetstone scale and larger would be a great advantage. He said negotiating sound finances will be crucial with any final contenders. “But I am confident we have our partner in this group because of the quality of the submissions we got.”

During their meeting on Tuesday with county commissioners, Gunnison County public works director Martin Schmidt also reviewed a Transportation Alternative Planning (TAP) grant application he is working on to secure $3.1 million for a pedestrian underpass. He said they have already applied for a separate planning grant to design the underpass and how it would coordinate with the Brush Creek intersection, the housing development and a recreation path.  

“The TAP grant that is available to us is really for the construction of the underpass,” he said. “This is about giving people opportunities to get to work not in a vehicle,” he said, as well as giving recreationalists other ways to travel to and from their  destinations. He said the Whetstone project checks every box on the TAP grant’s stated intention, except for being located near a multi-lane highway. The application is due by April 24, and Schmidt said he expects many applicants and competition. 

The TAP grant would offer a 80%/20% match that would provide $2.5 million over two years and require the county to contribute $622,000 for the total estimated project cost of $3.11 million. “That would allow us to go after other grants for the roundabout,” Schmidt added, referring to the planned changes to the Brush Creek intersection.

Commissioners agreed to draft a letter of support and acknowledged their willingness to contribute a 20% match for the underpass funding.

Timing is important as a Crested Butte-to-Crested Butte South trail, the underpass and roundabout are all being pursued separately. Houck noted the “power of planning,” including the intersection that was “on our radar long before this project came along…it’s been years and years in the making.”

Commissioners and staff also reviewed the fine line they are walking to keep themselves on separate tasks since they are acting as both project team applicants and review board. Birnie touched on the importance of reaffirming a separation between the county staff members on the project team (applicants) and the board of county commissioner (reviewing body) roles. 

“We are both the applicant and review body,” acknowledged Houck of the county as an overall entity. He noted that commissioners have already delegated authority to Birnie for implementation of the Whetstone project, much as they have done for other projects such as the new Gunnison library and other housing projects. 

County attorney Matthew Hoyt confirmed that this delegation of authority to Birnie is already in place, but it serves more for transparency purposes than any legal requirements. 

Commissioners proceeded to unanimously pass a motion reiterating and acknowledging the delegation of their authority to the county manager (Birnie) for the continued implementation of the Whetstone housing project.  

“It’s such a marquee project for our county,” commented commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels. “It’s such a valuable project for the community and it’s so high profile and has gotten so much public interest and public engagement that I think it’s important we continue to make sure we’re transparent in our communication and our deliberation.”

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