By: Sophie Dingle
Imagine a town with everything you ever dreamed of.
It might have a thriving downtown scene with bustling restaurants, carefully curated art galleries and small boutiques with a local flair. It might lend to an active lifestyle with a winding trail system and a river flowing through for rafting, kayaking, and fishing. You might be looking for a house or a new job at any stage in life from newlywed to new family to newly retired. Or you might come for the skiing; after all, the ability to ski one of North America’s largest ski resorts would be right at the tips of your fingers.
Imagine all of this and then imagine Steamboat Springs; because this is the Steamboat of the future.
This valley is one that is rich with history; in the late 1800s, James Crawford came to Steamboat and settled here. Over the next few decades, more settlers came and in 1900, the town was incorporated. The following century would bring bold growth in the form of new businesses, the railroad, the development of two ski mountains and a thriving community.
It was a bold endeavor to create a new community, and the spirit of those original pioneers has not been lost in the Yampa Valley. As Steamboat has slowly developed, changed and grown over the past century, community visionaries have contributed innovative and daring ideas that have shaped our community into what it is today – and what it will become in the future.
For a town that is known as “Ski Town USA,” it is impossible to overlook the role that Steamboat Resort plays in the Yampa Valley.
The original groundbreaking took place in 1958 and the first major expansion occurred just several years later in 1965 when Thunderhead Peak was developed. Throughout the years, the resort saw slow and steady growth as more trails were cleared and the area became known for its famous champagne powder.
More recently, momentum for the resort began to build in 2017 when Alterra Mountain Company came on as a parent company, said Loryn Duke who is the resort’s director of communications. Currently, the resort is undergoing a major, nearly $200 million renovation which includes changing ‘Gondola Square’ to ‘Steamboat Square’ – and transforming the space into an apres-ski plaza with shops, restaurants and even an ice rink – adding 650 acres of new terrain, incorporating a dedicated area for new skiers and the new ‘Wild Blue Gondola’ which is slated to be the longest gondola in North America and the fastest 10-person gondola in the country, whisking skiers the 3 miles from bottom to top in 13 minutes. When the renovations are finished, Steamboat Ski Resort will be the second largest in North America.
The main goal though, said Duke, is to not only improve the resort for all – locals and visitors alike – but to foster the relationship with the community.
“Steamboat is a really unique resort,” she said. “The relationship with the community is very special. As we look to the future of what the resort can and should be, we always look to the community.”
The community and the resort are integrally tied together, and as the resort grows, Steamboat has seen steady growth as well. In the past decade, Steamboat’s population has increased by a little more than 10%. It’s a number that can feel large in a small, rural community. As more people move to Routt County – families who want to raise their children here, retirees who want a second home here, an influx of seasonal workers each winter – one of the most pressing issues is livability.
“Our market has definitely pivoted over the last two years as a result of the “Covid-bump” – more location-neutral job opportunities – and an increased awareness of what an amazing place Steamboat Springs is to live,” said local agent Jim Walter of RE/MAX Partners. “Looking at 2021 over 2020, there was an increase in the average price for a single family home of 27% for downtown and 35% mountain-area properties, with an average of 25% county-wide. Over the last two years for residential property, compound appreciation has been about 49% for Routt County and approximately 63% for Steamboat Springs. This of course is tough for folks just entering or trying to enter the market.”
Last year, the town collectively exhaled when the Yampa Valley Housing Authority acquired the Brown Ranch, a 536-acre property that will eventually house multiple neighborhoods and a wide variety of housing options for locals.
“If you work in Steamboat, you should have an opportunity to live in Steamboat and that’s rapidly slipping away,” said Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. “Our vision is to work with partners to develop a significant supply of housing, especially for locals – people that work here – so that we can maintain that character of Steamboat that real people actually live here; you don’t have to come here with a trust fund to make it work.”
With the Brown Ranch property, as well as other properties that the Housing Authority owns, the goal in the near future is to provide a constant supply of housing for the local workforce and their families. But to make this vision a reality, says Peasley, it will take a lot of collaboration – in fact, it takes a whole community.
“We need to work together with everyone who has a stake in this – the city, the county, the school district – to make this a reality,” said Peasley. “It’s up to us to work with the community to figure out exactly what the vision looks like in their eyes so that we can go out and execute it to the best of our ability. It takes an entire community to make it happen.”
Community collaboration is one thing that most prominent organizations in Steamboat agree on. Along with the Housing Authority, the Steamboat Springs City Council and the Steamboat Springs Chamber are also focused on livability.
“For us, housing means figuring out what we can do with the land that the city already owns,” explained City Council President Robin Crossan. That land includes a piece of property in Barn Village, as well as land off 13th Street. Council members are exploring building dorm-style housing at the latter location that would be for seasonal workers – bus drivers in the winter, for example, and parks and rec staff in the summer. Without available and affordable housing, the city will struggle to find seasonal workers – workers who are more than a necessity in a resort town.
With the issue of livability comes the issue of transportation. Crossan, who also works at the airport in Hayden, spent one drive counting the number of cars driving from Steamboat to Hayden during one commute home and was surprised by the high volume. As Routt County continues to expand housing options into Oak Creek, Stagecoach, Yampa, Hayden and even a few miles west of downtown, a transportation master plan will be created and enacted in the next few years.
A hope, said Crossan, is a transportation system that connects all communities between Oak Creek and Craig together with a core trail, a possible light rail or a bus system to take cars off the road.
The ultimate goal, said Kara Stoller who is the executive director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber, is to see Routt County continue to be a place where a diverse business base can thrive and where people at all levels of employment can continue to live.
“If businesses are thriving, then they can provide meaningful employment to Steamboat residents,” she said. “We want to make sure that Steamboat is here for many generations to come, for everyone to enjoy.”
With that goal in mind, the Chamber has created a ‘Destination Masterplan’ which will be implemented over the course of the next few years and focuses – among many things – on messaging, shifting the timeframe for visitors and ensuring that visitor impact positively outweighs any negative impact. As is the case with any resort town, one challenge is maintaining the fine balance of life between tourists and locals.
When not on the mountain, most visitors can be found enjoying downtown Steamboat and taking advantage of all that it has to offer. Main Street Steamboat is the organization that works tirelessly to create a welcoming, Western atmosphere throughout the historic downtown area. And while these changes and upgrades often go unnoticed, they are prime examples of the bold vision the valley projects. Barrels filled with fresh flowers in the summer; trees lit with glittering lights all winter long; refurbished chairlifts provide unique seating along the Yampa River; bus stops designed to look like a mine shaft echo the town’s mining heritage – this is what Lisa Popovich, executive director of Main Street Steamboat, calls “the icing on the cake” – small things that make a big difference to the ambiance and appeal of downtown Steamboat.
Ensuring that the downtown area stays vibrant, appealing and welcoming is the top priority for the organization, but they also have big plans for the future. On the agenda? Turning Yampa Street into an entertainment district, more street entertainment and cleaning up the alleys to better utilize the space they provide.
“I’d like to see our sense of community grow downtown,” said Popovich. “It’s where we demonstrate the heart of who we are.”
The heart of who we are though, it seems in speaking to different leaders in the community, is a welcoming town with a sense of pride around their history and a sense of hope for their future.
“In the next decade,” Crossan said, “it’s important to make sure that we don’t lose the fundamentals of who we are. We have good support systems and we come together to help others. It’s so good to see people in this community so involved and I think that’s unique to mountain towns; we have a hometown feel. We’re friendly and we make eye contact and say hello. That’s what puts a smile on your face every day. I’m very optimistic and hopeful about the future of the community.”
If bold is beautiful then Steamboat Springs has both: natural beauty paired with a bold vision for the future to create, maintain and foster positive changes for years to come.