It was a controversial winter in an effort to bring lift-served skiing back to a mountain in southern Colorado. But developers are pushing ahead with their plans to put passengers on a chairlift at the base of what decades ago was the Panadero ski area, now publicly owned Cuchara Mountain Park.
Rides could take place this summer, some say.
“We’re planning on having a big party, band and all, on July 4,” said Mike Moore, longtime Cuchara bed and breakfast owner and ski industry veteran. “We don’t think we’ll have a problem fundraising at this point.”
That didn’t seem like a problem for Panadero Ski Corp., which partnered with another nonprofit, the Cuchara Foundation, to raise money for the 47-acre park.
In 2017, the foundation bought the old ski area for $150,000 and moved it to Huerfano County. Since earning 501©(3) status, the ski company has been scrambling to get the base ski lift back into service, counting on more than $300,000 for parts and labor. This was mostly donated by part-time, big-budget Valley residents, Moore said.
Panadero requested additional funds in a recent post on its website. While the organization’s board considers the elevator to be in “excellent working order,” the post outlines the contractor’s final work and Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board inspections that are expected to total more than $27,000. . An estimated insurance bill to operate the elevator is also listed: $24,000 per year.
This annual sum has been a concern since the creation of the Cuchara mountain park and a master plan envisaged the lift transporting skiers again. The idea was to hire a dealership, a company that saw profit potential and in return covered staffing, maintenance and insurance costs.
“The county has been very clear from the start that it will never operate the elevator, it will not be in charge of the elevator,” said Lois Adams, president of the Cuchara Foundation.
A prospect emerged last year: Moss Adventures, a startup that offered year-round activities in the park that fit perfectly with the concepts of the master plan. Moss Adventures was the sole respondent to the Huerfano County RFP.
After months of simmering tension — with some residents seeing Moss as the best bet for the park’s sustainability, others seeing the commercialization of public land — county commissioners voted unanimously to end negotiations at a January meeting which represented a boiling point. Anger was expressed that had previously erupted on social networks.
“It got very unpleasant,” Adams said. “It was very sad.”
Residents remain divided over the future of the park. Some desire an all-natural oasis; others seek another attempt at skiing with two more lifts waiting higher up on US Forest Service land; and others fear a repeat of the past – one failed attempt after another by foreign investors in the ski area from 1982 to 2000. Some see it as a destination to fuel a year-round economy, while others see the socio-economic threats that afflict other mountain towns.
“There are a few owners who wish it was just a dog park,” Moore said. “Then there are the enthusiastic skiers who resent us for doing the lift because they want it to be the private touring ski area that it has been.”
But Panadero Ski Corp. keep on going.
“Fundraising is our No. 1 goal, and keeping (the elevator) running is our No. 1 priority,” said board member Cale Dancho.
He is responsible for exploring the potential of mountain biking around the park. He said a modest “bike playground” could be added to the park this summer, with a small pump track, trails and rollers built for beginners. The idea, Dancho said, is to eventually add an intermediate area along the progression to more challenging, high-altitude trails in the surrounding national forest.
Maybe the elevator could be a way to get there, Dancho said. But he is careful in his choice of words.
“If I tell you we can build a ton of stuff, then a lot of people will object,” he said. “If I say we can’t build a lot because we have a small area, that too is likely to disappoint a lot of people.”
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