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Chair lift plan draws criticism

Last Thursday, Wolf Creek Ski Area CEO Davey Pitcher spoke out against a chair lift purchased by the Town of Pagosa Springs for installation on Reservoir Hill, providing ammunition for those opposing some of the recreational amenities proposed for the hill.

Hoping to clear the air regarding positions he claimed were erroneously attributed to him, Pitcher expressed what may have been the clearest opposition to the chair lift to date.

In late 2010, council voted to purchase a decommissioned chair lift from the Cuchara Ski Area, spending $41,000 to dismantle the lift and transport it to Pagosa Springs. That lift had not operated since 2001.

At that time, securing the lift was championed by Town Tourism Committee Coordinator Jennie Green and TTC President Bob Hart, as well as Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem. A 5-1 vote by council to allocate funds for the lift went against Pitcher’s advice that, if the town was intent on installing a chair lift, it should wait until a better-suited lift went on the market.

At the 2010 meeting, Pitcher told council, “I’m kind of dubious if this is the right lift or the right time.”

During that meeting, Pitcher cited numerous problems with the Cuchara lift, including the fact the lift would require substantial re-engineering to meet state safety standards, as well as to overcome distance and gradient challenges of Reservoir Hill.

In a 1,300-word letter read before council last Thursday, Pitcher provided a brief synopsis of the sequence of events leading up to the purchase of the lift, stating, “Mr. Mitchem asked if Wolf Creek Ski Area would like to participate by investing in this project and sharing its profits. I was very clear that I was not interested and seriously doubted that this project would ever succeed financially. I met with the Town Council and cautioned against buying the Cuchara lift. This advice was not heeded. At the time of the meeting there was undo (sic) pressure for purchasing this lift, against the solicited advice of Chuck Peterson of Tramway Engineering and my own.”

However, Hart, Mitchem and Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon said earlier this week they did not feel Pitcher was clear in his opposition to the chair lift purchase. While Hart correctly pointed out that Pitcher did not tell council not to buy the chair lift, Aragon said, “He was never emphatic about that. Had he been loud and clear that first time around, there may have been a different outcome.”

Mitchem also said he did not sense that Pitcher was entirely against the lift’s purchase in 2010.

Last Thursday, Pitcher was unequivocal concerning what should be done with the town’s chair lift: “If Mr. Mitchem believes he can sell this lift, he should do so as soon as possible. Every day it sits there it becomes more of a scrapheap.”

Mitchem claims that an offer of $100,000 was made, “a couple months back,” to take the lift off the town’s hands, adding, “It’s dependent on a decision by council whether or not to sell it. At least we have an interested party.”

That offer would net the town $59,000, given the $41,000 spent to secure the chair lift ($6,750 was paid to Hart for transporting the equipment).

Pitcher’s letter described a timeline contradicting the series of events presented by Hart and Mitchem in December 2010.

At the Dec. 7, 2010 meeting, when council was presented with the prospect of purchasing the lift, Hart told the board, “I know it’s a big risk and I know it involves a thought process, but I think it’s well worth pursuing,” adding, “but we need to decide pretty quickly if we’re going to do it.”

At that meeting, Hart and Green presented photos of the lift.

Following the Dec. 7, 2010 discussion, council voted to hold a special meeting on Dec. 10, during which it approved allocating $41,000 to purchase the lift.

When asked why council was not informed of details of the purchase or particulars of the lift itself (a week following Green and Hart’s investigation of the equipment), Mitchem said, “I think that was a pretty timely response.”

When pressed as to why council was not provided with technical details regarding the lift prior to the Dec. 7, 2010 meeting, Mitchem said, “I don’t know how to respond to that.”

In fact, Pitcher’s letter from last Thursday presented a timeline, reading, “Sometime during the early summer of 2010 (late May or June) I was contacted by David Mitchem, who explained there was some interest in building a chair lift on Reservoir Hill and requested that I participate in a field visit.”

Pitcher’s letter stated that his visit to the hill led him to determine that skiable terrain resided with private property on the east side or necessitated snow making,

The TTC had begun eyeing Reservoir Hill for expanded development about the time of Pitcher’s walk with Mitchem. At that time, members of the TTC were pushing for improvements to the sledding hill, as well as considering clearing portions of the hill for ski and snowboard runs. Those plans suggested a chair lift would enhance use of the hill.

Council was not apprised of the proposed addition of a chair lift until the Dec. 7, 2010 meeting.

According to Hart, the opportunity for securing a chair lift came up, “Before September or October (2010),” when a volunteer working with the TTC to remove debris from Reservoir Hill sledding runs mentioned the Cuchara lift.

Bruce Cantrell, owner of the Cuchara Mountain Resort, said his group had contacted John Lafferty with Alpine Cable and Construction, of Grand Junction, “In June or July of 2010,” with an agreement that Lafferty could take the chair lift, “As a trade for labor to disassemble it and to take it off site.”

Cantrell said that Lafferty completed the work in late-December 2010.

Hart said Monday that, “The development of a ski hill was never part of our plan. The only reason we got the lift was to take people up and down the hill.”

Minutes from the Dec. 10, 2010 meeting do not support claims made on Monday, indicating a ski hill was indeed part of the TTC’s plans. Those minutes read, “Mr. Hart explained the initial idea for Reservoir Hill included community input using the model, to install a lift from the spa trailhead to the cabin area for access to the festivals and hiking/biking and access to the sledding and boarding slopes. Future visions include another chair from Hwy 84 to the top where the picnic table is currently. This would allow for ski slopes on the north east side of the hill.”

Pitcher’s presentation last week pointed to numerous problems with Hart’s claim of a scaled-back plan for the lift. Aside from the added expense of year-round operations, as well as adding a downloading capacity to the lift, Pitcher said the lift would require substantial upgrades to meet CPTSB (Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, the governing body that controls all lift installations and operations) standards since that board would, in its licensing and regulatory capacity, consider the lift as a new lift.

Furthermore, Pitcher’s letter goes on to read, “Although the CPTSB allows a summer use lift to run at 300 feet per minute (roughly one chair every 6 seconds) it is virtually impossible to load and unload uphill and downhill traffic without significantly more time. This is especially true when dealing with people that have special needs such as the elderly, disabled, or people carrying coolers, backpacks and chairs.”

Aside from the fact the lift would not be able to operate during rain or thunderstorms, Pitcher told council, “A bussing system is still going to have to be a component of any of the music venues that go on up there.”

With a single access point for uploading or downloading passengers for the lift, Pitcher said busses would need to shuttle people from parking areas to the access point.

“I’m not sure there’s a net gain,” Pitcher said.

Pitcher’s letter concluded, “Again, for the record, as CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area and on behalf of the Pitcher family, we will always look for ways to help Pagosa if it makes sense and is supported by the community. In no way do I see this vision of Reservoir Hill as either supported by the community or having a chance of success. Therefore I need to be clear that neither now nor in the future does Wolf Creek Ski Area wish to participate in this project.”

Hart stands by the decision to purchase the lift as a positive addition to town infrastructure and continues to advocate for not only installing the chair lift purchased in late 2010, but for the development of recreational amenities on Reservoir Hill.

On Monday, Hart implied that Pitcher’s opposition to a chair lift on Reservoir Hill (as well as subsequent features) might be due to alleged plans by Wolf Creek to develop its own summertime amusement park.

“Maybe he’s opposed because he’s competing with us and plans for Reservoir Hill,” Hart said. “Maybe he doesn’t want to see something down here because he wants to build something up there. That’s something you may want to consider when you’re writing this article.”

On Tuesday, Pitcher responded by pointing to two meetings in early March with representatives of the Rio Grande National Forest and the San Juan National Forest.

“During the process of our Master Development Plan Revision (MDPR),” Pitcher said in a prepared statement, “we had meetings on March 6th and March 9th where we state that Wolf Creek has no intention of summer activity. We encourage day use on our property for non-motorized vehicles and hikers.”

Asked if Pitcher’s stated opposition to the chair lift would hamper the TTC’s direction for placing those amenities on Reservoir Hill, Mitchem said, “It (the chair lift) is a tool used in many communities and we’re trying to see if it is a tool that will work in this community. I have not heard anything thus far to indicate that it is not.”

Aragon responded to that question by saying, “I don’t think it (Pitcher’s presentation) creates any problems. It’s not a done deal. It’s going to depend a lot on the business plan.”

That business plan, prepared by Fort Lewis College seniors, is due this week. Neither Aragon nor Mitchem could provide a definitive time when the business plan would be presented. It is unknown if the FLC business plan will provide different figures than those provided earlier by the TTC.

Conversely, it is unknown if the FLC business plan will support statements made by Pitcher toward the end of his letter, which reads, “In closing, it is my strongest wish to see Pagosa, its residents and its businesses, succeed and prosper. I do not believe it is in the best interest of this community to undertake massive debt, own significant interest on that debt, and become trapped by the reoccurring expenses? of this project (electricity, wear and tear of parts, CPTSB inspections, non-destructive testing, cable inspections, unforeseen mechanical failures, unforeseen electrical failures due to lighting, payroll for medical staff, payroll for ski patrol, payroll for lift attendants, payroll for operators, payroll for mechanics, payroll for administrating liability claims, payroll for ticketing staff, payroll for parking staff, payroll for snow removal, among other things).”

jim@pagosasun.com

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