Eagle envisions transformational river park plan
EAGLE — As Eagle prepares to present its residents with a ballot question seeking a sales tax increase to fund a riverfront park proposal, town planners say communities that have funded similar projects are reporting a financial boon.
This week Eagle planners Tom Boni and Matt Farrar unveiled their financial and economic report regarding the Eagle Riverfront Park project. As part of their work, they examined how other communities funded their park improvements and what the economic impact of those projects has been.
“The Eagle River seems to be an underutilized asset in this valley,” said Farrar. To demonstrate that idea, he talked about the river park experiences in Buena Vista, Salida, Golden and Steamboat Springs
The town of Buena Vista spent $623,842 on its whitewater park. That money came from a Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO/Colorado Lottery) grant, in addition to town, county and developer contributions. In Salida, the $794,000 whitewater park was funded by GOCO, the Arkansas River Trust, donations from contractors and the city. Likewise GOCO contributed to the Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden with the city and the Golden Urban Renewal Authority.
As Eagle looks at its own park, which includes whitewater features as part of a comprehensive plan that also features paths, bridges and river beaches, Farrar said the staff explored special financing districts to pay for the plan. “They weren’t all that applicable to what we are trying to achieve,” he said. What’s more, in order to present an attractive grant proposal to lure in GOCO money, the town needs to identify a stable funding source for the project.
In consideration of the funding needs, Eagle looked at proposals for either a sales tax increase or a property tax increase. The sales tax idea — which would increase the town’s sales tax percentage an estimated .5 percent — has emerged as the preferred alternative and the town board is planning to draft a ballot question Jan. 26 to reflect that plan so that the voters can weigh in on the proposal at the April 5 municipal election.
After review of costs, Farrar turned to the notion of returns. He quoted a study by the Colorado River Outfitters Association which said that in 2014, there were 504,400 user days of river rafting with average expenditures per user of $124. The total economic impact of rafting in 2014 is quoted as $160,131,798.
Digging further down, the report says there was 2,032 user days on the Eagle River in 2014 with an economic impact of $645,099. Commercial rafting on the lower Eagle accounts for just .4 percent of the market share of the statewide economic impact of commercial river rafting, Farrar noted.
Not surprisingly, communities who have tried to maximize their river access and amenities have seen increases in users and benefits. Golden reports that the total annual beneficial value generated by the Clear Creek Whitewater Park amounts to between $1.4 and $2 million annually. Steamboat Springs estimates that the future annual monetary benefit derived from its whitewater park are greater than $7.2 million. The Vail Whitewater Park, which includes only one whitewater feature, produces an estimated annual benefit of more than $1.8 million.
To further illustrate the impact in Vail, Farrar noted that in 2001, the Teva Mountain Games had approximately 2,300 spectators. In 2015, the GoPro Mountain Games had more than 62,000 spectators and expenditures made by visitors during the day of the Teva Whitewater Festival were more than $305,000.
While they were enthused by the information, town board members noted they still need to reach out to community members, particularly business owners, to share their river park vision. Because it is a ballot question, the town board members as individuals can work on the campaign, but no staff time or town money can be channeled to the effort.
Town board member Kevin Brubeck suggested inviting local retailers to the next town board meeting to share their views on the park plan and sales tax proposal before finalizing the ballot language. One local businessman has already weighed in on the issue.
“I am a strong supporter of the river park, but I think a sales tax, as quickly as we are going for it, is a bad idea,” offered Matt Solomon on Alpine Arms.
He argued that Eagle’s sales tax is already high compared to nearby jurisdictions.
“As it stands now, I lose business every day because of our sales tax,” he said.