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Dirtbags and dollars

Tom Boyd

They say water flows upstream for money. But can water make money just by flowing downhill?Proponents of whitewater parks often quote an economic impact study done in Golden in 1999. The study reported that the whitewater park had a $1.4 $2 million economic impact in the town.But detractors often point out that economic impact studies are an inexact science. Add up all the slices of the pie claimed by such studies, they say, and there’s more pie than really exists.A 2002 study of the Vail and Breckenridge whitewater parks reports that the Recreational In-Channel Diversions (RICDs), which make the water parks possible, brought a combined $3.2 million to those communities.Over a 20-year period, the anticipated value of those parks is estimated to be $16.1 for Breckenridge and $20.6 million Vail. If Senate Bill 62 passes, Vail, Breckenridge, Golden, Gunnison, and many other towns which have tried to bolster their economies with whitewater parks stand to lose a lot of money (see main bar).Those numbers may be inflated, some say but Teva Mountain Games organizer Joel Heath said there’s no doubt about the benefit of holding his event each June in Vail and without a water park, he said, there’s no event.”I understand where people are coming from economic studies are tough, there’s so many variables,” he said. “But take a look at Teva alone. They bring their international sales and domestic sales groups (to Vail), and almost all their employees, and they’ve already signed up for about 1,000 hotel rooms for an average of $180 a night. Right there that’s $180,000, and in every survey I’ve seen it’s 3-to-1, so every dollar being spent on lodging you get three on dining, activities, shopping, and that kind of thing. So there’s a half a million dollars right there.”Add the possibility of attracting a worldwide event like the World Whitewater Championships, Heath said, and the stakes are even higher.The Games also happen in late May or early June, during the shoulder season, so they offer an economic shot in the arm right when resort communities need it most, Heath said.Somehow these kinds of figures aren’t impressing supporters of Senate Bill 62.Ian Anderson, of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, said that’s because whitewater parks, and the kayakers who use them, suffer from an image problem.”There’s clearly a perception that people throughout the state have, that kayakers are dirtbags that live in their trucks and don’t have two nickels to rub together,” he said. “But it’s just like any other sport there’s a wide spectrum.”Anderson himself is a kayaker, and said the “dirtbag” perception isn’t accurate.”We go up to Steamboat just to play in their whitewater park,” he said. “And every time we go we eat in the restaurants, buy gas, and oftentimes spend the night.”The water needed for whitewater parks also stays in channel, providing better flows for fish habitat and bolstering the fly-fishing industry, said Trout Unlimited’s Drew Peternell.”RICDs provide incidental benefits for the environment,” he said. “It provides streamflow which the fish need.”Tourism is also one of the state’s strongest sectors (see break-out box).Agriculture, which uses about 90 percent of the state’s water, accounts for only 1.5 percent of the state’s gross product. Recreational water use, in comparison, uses about three percent of the state’s water (see chart).Although there is no breakdown of the effect of tourism on the state’s gross product, tourism does contribute to the construction, retail trade, real estate, and service sectors all of which make up a larger portion of the gross state product. Anderson and Heath, whose livelihoods depend on a healthy tourism economy, are hoping Senate Bill 62 doesn’t get past the Senate floor.


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