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Town ponders purchase of ski lift

On Tuesday night, Town Tourism Committee Board President Bob Hart and TTC Coordinator Jennie Green made a presentation before the Pagosa Springs Town Council proposing to purchase a chairlift from the Cuchara Ski Resort to install on Reservoir Hill.

In that presentation, the TTC was asking council to appropriate $41,000 to cover the cost of dismantling and moving the lift.

In the deal, Cuchara would throw in a 400-foot rope tow, estimated to be worth over $10,000.

If council agrees to the appropriation, Hart said, “There is some engineering that would be involved to make this work ... it needs to be able to take people down as well as up.”

Hart added that part of the engineering required would include adjusting the lift to meet dimensions of the hill (length and rise). That engineering and subsequent construction would run an estimated $300,000, Hart said, adding that a new lift would run $1.3 million in total for purchase and construction.

On Nov. 30, several members of the TTC accompanied ski lift engineer John Lafferty to La Veta in order to examine the lift. During the presentation, Green showed several slides of the lift.

Hart made it clear that, if the TTC was to purchase the lift, it would have to be decided quickly. In fact, the Cuchara ski area alerted the TTC yesterday that it would be shipping the lift on Tuesday to whomever had committed to the purchase.

Davey Pitcher, owner and operator of the Wolf Creek Ski Area, gave his input — not all of it positive — on the proposed purchase.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” Pitcher said, “but I’m kind of dubious if this is the right lift or the right time.”

Pitcher added that it is not unusual for ski areas to sell off old lifts and there would most likely be many more opportunities for the town to secure a used lift.

Estimating an annual $142,000 cost for operating the lift (basing his estimate on the comparable Bonanza lift at Wolf Creek), Pitcher said, “It’s going to take 7,000 people paying $20 a ticket just to pay for maintenance.”

Pitcher added more concerns, pointing out that the Cuchara lift did not include footrests and that other engineering might be necessary to meet state regulations since the lift would be “de-grandfathered” from current exemptions.

“What would be allowed in Cuchara would not be allowed in Pagosa,” he said.

Pitcher also wondered what insurance costs would run, saying, “You’ll be uploading and downloading people to festivals up there. You have a beer garden up there. I’m just wondering what the liability would be, downloading inebriated people.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I think it’s something you need to be thoughtful about,” Pitcher concluded.

“I know it’s a big risk and I know it involves a thought process, but I think it’s well worth pursuing,” said Hart. “But we need to decide pretty quickly if we’re going to do it.”

Apparently, several council members agreed with Hart, with council members Don Volger and Darrell Cotton asking questions that pointed towards purchasing the lift.

Cotton asked, “Can you define ‘pretty quickly?’”

Explaining that Cuchara’s engineers were in the process of dismantling the lift, Hart responded, “It has to happen fairly quickly.”

However, both trustees Stan Holt and Shari Pierce stated concerns about the proposal: Pierce expressed disappointment that the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission had not been consulted or allowed to decide on the merits of the project, while Holt wondered about ongoing expenses.

“My concern is,” Holt said, “with as expensive as it is to operate, it could be sitting still all the time.”

“With all the projects we have that still need to be done,” added Pierce, “I don’t feel like we need another unfinished project,” adding that the $300,000 needed to construct the lift, “would go a long way towards completing some things that need to be done.

“Is there a reasonable expectation that, if this doesn’t work out, we can resell it?”

Mitchem stated that, while unsure of the lift’s market value, there would most likely be interest in buying the lift from the town, especially from areas in the Midwest where regulations for chair lifts are less restrictive.

Pitcher added, “There is a chance you’ll recoup some of that, maybe all of that.”

Conceding that the TTC had not yet developed a business plan for the lift and its operations, Hart said that he thinks the lift would be a worthwhile feature for tourists.

“I don’t like to do things this way,” he said regarding the haste with which the project had emerged and the lack of a business plan, “but sometimes I think you have to have the attitude that you can make it happen, that you can make it work, that you will make it work.”

Cotton agreed, saying, “I think it’s worth a gamble and, if things don’t work out, we can resell it ... I think we go for it and see what happens.”

Volger also agreed, “We could secure it then see where we go next.”

However, both agreed that a special meeting would need to be scheduled that, with input from the Parks and Recreation Commission, would steer a final decision.

“If we’re going to act, we need to do it quickly,” Cotton said.

With an eye on promoting winter sports in town (sledding, skiing and snow boarding) and accommodating festival goers and mountain bikers during the summer, the TTC hopes that council will agree to the initial $41,000 investment as a means to kickstart a vision the TTC has held for Reservoir Hill for over a year.

For its part, council hopes that, if it does agree to the TTC’s request, the investment will be for an added amenity for the town and not a white elephant.

Council meets tomorrow at 10 a.m. in Town Hall to make a final decision on the chairlift.

jim@pagosasun.com