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Campground controversy

Geraldine Haldner

However, few Minturn residents and business owners seemed charmed by the idea of a $3 million recreational vehicle campground on the eastern edge of town.

Instead of toasting marshmallows, town residents have grilled elected officials, the KAO representatives, a finance broker and the project’s architect on the project’s many unknown risks – and the answers, no matter how thorough, have abate few of their concerns.

“As you can see, most of us have some kind of reservation,” says David Bower. “There are a lot of people here that don’t want this to be.”

The idea of a 82-site campground, volleyed about in town circles for the past two years, is seen by supporters as the missing crank to jump-start Minturn’s cash-poor economy. Without it, their predictions of Minturn’s future is dim. The town currently subsists on about $1.2 million in revenues – barely covering the town’s needs.

An independent study by the University of Michigan suggests, travelling in recreational vehicles, or RVs, may be the winning ticket in a post-Sept. 11 era marked by renewed fears of flying. According to the study, one in 12 U.S. households now has a vacation home on wheels, with 8 million of them cruising America’s highways and back roads.

“(The campground) is really the tail of the dog; it is not the dog,” says KOA’s Walter Preble. “Camping creates a lot more business than just the business on the campground.”

Minturn, Preble says, has several appealing assets to “road warriors” traveling in nearly 50-foot long rigs, including: a scenic and strategic location in between two resorts; proximity to a major thoroughfare; a great summer climate; and the potential to offer cheap accommodations to RV fans who happen to be winter sport enthusiasts.

Critics of the project, however, aren’t enthusiastic with the vision of 50-foot RVs snaking through Minturn, overwhelming the town with middle-aged tourists.

“It would change our image,” says Minturn resident John Osterberg, adding the town will lose its identity. “We are a quaint little Colorado town.”

Other critics say the financial assumptions are overly optimistic – cost too low and revenues to high – to give a realistic picture of how heavy the debt load will be.

Some opponents even accuse town leaders of railroading the project through the approval process, despite concerns a campground would not break even nor be the best use for the six-acre land.

Minturn resident Liz Campbell recommends bringing the project to a public vote – or at least authorizing an independent market study – before digging up the gravel pit for RV hook-ups.

Given Minturn’s dependency on sales taxes for a third of its income, the town’s empty store fronts and failing restaurants make him think “it wouldn’t take much for this town to implode,” says Minturn businessman Randy Milhoan, who also owns an art gallery in town.

Milhoan says the campground might not be the perfect proposal, but it should be considered as a necessary means for Minturn’s success.

Milhoan, however, says some Minturnites are fretting over risks that can’t be quantified but have to simply be tried.

“There are risks in our everyday life,” he says.

Tom Sullivan, owner of a 19-room Minturn Inn, says the project has been presented “without all the information … to make it look like it comes at no risk to the town.”

Indeed, finance banker Alan Matlosz says using private investors to foot the bill isn’t completely risk-free.

If the town defaults on annual payments, Matlosz says, the investors can take over the park and do anything within the given zoning designation to make back the lost money. Once the money is paid back, the parcel reverts back to the town.

If the project is a complete bust, Matlosz says, the investors get to use the land for the duration of a lease of 30 to 40 years, or until the entire debt and interest has been paid.

Meanwhile, the cost of a new bridge or turn lanes on U.S. Highway 24 are not included in the $3 million figure and could add another million to the project. Project architect Corey Fairbanks says further research is required to study potential access problems.

The town stands to lose $30,000 in architectural fees, however, if the answers lead the town to abandon the project. That bill would have to be footed by taxpayers if the project dies.

Town leaders, for the most part defend the project, which would have to received approval in January for an April construction date. The council rezoned the parcel for outdoor recreation back in the fall and has already selected a construction and design team.

Several councilmen repeatedly have pointed to the possibility revenues from the campground could be used toward a recreation center. Additionally, the campground’s pool would be open to residents, says councilman Fred Haslee.

Without the campground, several town leaders say, the town’s chances at a healthy financial future are slim.

“I never felt that we have ever had an engine bringing business to our town,” says Mayor Bidez, adding that Minturn’s retail industry is reeling from under-exposure.

“I can count on two hands the people that walk by my door,” he says. “I don’t think this town has ever been fiscally profitable. We’ve just kind of muddled through.”

Councilman Jim Kleckner says status-quo proponents are a detriment to Minturn’s future.

“We’ve heard this a number of times: “If you are not going to grow you are going to die,'” Kleckner says. “With (this project), it would come down to survival or “not in my backyard,'” he said.

The RV park project will be back before the council Jan. 2.

——-

One of the biggest hurdles the proposed Minturn campground faces with its critics is how many campers will want to brave winter conditions.

Critics say they doubt Minturn Town Manager Alan Lanning’s estimates that on any given day between November and March at least one Recreational Vehicle site or cabin will be occupied.

Lanning’s financial plan aims to have the 82-site park running at a 35-percent occupancy by its third year for a net profit of $50,000. In order to reach that goal the park will have to be the temporary home to 29 roving households at any given time.

Lanning’s plan predicts that the park’s summer and shoulder season business will make up for quiet winter months – with occupation rates of 60 percent and higher.

Year-round campgrounds in cold climates can work, said Walter Preble of Kampground of America, a franchise organization that drives business to its partners with a centralized reservation and marketing system.

Minturn’s winter performance, Preble said, could surprise many once Front Range destination travelers discover a comparably cheap accommodation option in a high-cost resort area.

“Minturn will make vacations possible for people who couldn’t vacation here before,” he said, adding that as a “destination park” Minturn’s marketing effort would make much of its proximity to Vail and Beaver Creek.

Preble said he is confident Minturn would do well as a year-round park that Lanning’s plan amounts to a budget “for a worst case scenario.”

Three other cold weather KAO parks near ski resorts or other destinations, however, offer a more cautious picture.

Jennifer Condrey of the 30-space Central City/Blackhawk KOA, says the primary reason for the park to stay open is its store.

“It’s like a little convenience store and there is nothing else here, so our primary function becomes retail in the winter,” she said. “Camping is very secondary to us in the winter.”

Though cabin business can be brisk during the weekends, when gamblers descend on the two towns, Condrey estimates that no more than a dozen RVs stop during the entire winter season.

“I guess we are a little different, we aren’t really that close to a ski resort,” she said. “We’ll see a few customers per winter that will ski at Eldora.”

Nikki Moysh, shift supervisor at the 500-site KAO in Salt Lake City, Utah, said business slows considerably during the winter.

“There is a big difference,” she said, estimating the park is half-full during the summer but averages as few as five customers per week in the winter.

“We shut half of the park down,” she said, adding that skiers make up some of the winter visitors but not enough to be noticeable – despite the fact the campground is only 30 minutes by car from the nearest ski resort.

Despite his KAO franchise being only 15 minutes from Beaver Mountain, the nearest ski resort, Michael Moldenhauer, said he isn’t marketing to skiers in specific but winter-sports enthusiasts in general.

“We just decided to try staying open for the winter,” said the owner of the 180-space park.

Because this will be his first winter, he has no set performance goals.

“We have no idea how it will go,” he said. “My hope is with snowmobilers. We are really trying to get the snowmobiler business.”

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com.


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