STORM OVER WINTER PARK

THE MOFFAT TUNNEL COMMISSION RUBS A LITTLE SNOW IN THE WPRA'S FACE.

The controversial Winter Park Recreation Association went a long way toward smoothing over its frosty relations with the City of Denver last week. It fared more poorly at the Moffat Tunnel Commission, which turned up the heat--and the numbers--in its efforts to collect rent from the cash-flush mountain resort.

While the Denver City Council was being briefed last Wednesday on an agreement by which the city-owned resort would pay Denver approximately $2 million per year--up from only $7,000--WPRA president Gerald F. Groswold was locking horns with tunnel commissioners in a contentious meeting at their Union Station offices.

The tunnel commission, a state agency established in the 1920s when taxpayers paid to build the giant railroad tunnel under James Peak, owns the land on which the ski area's base facilities are located--including the administration building where Groswold works. Under a 98-year lease signed between the ski area and a previous board of tunnel commissioners in 1980, Winter Park gets to use the land for free.

"Times have changed, and the people of the district have a right to get some form of compensation back for their property," commissioner Timothy R. Flanagan told Groswold at last week's meeting. Flanagan and two of the other five elected commissioners say the sweetheart deal signed by their predecessors is unconscionable--and illegal, because it violates the provisions of the Moffat Tunnel Law.

The WPRA has insisted that the license agreement is valid. In a letter dated March 12, the ski area even threatened legal action against the commissioners if they take actions "which are not warranted by existing law or which are interposed for any improper purpose."

Though the WPRA is technically an agent of the City of Denver, it has tended to behave as a separate entity. The organization came under fire during its negotiations with the city for its perceived arrogance and penchant for secrecy. And during last week's meeting at Union Station, Groswold did little to suggest that the WPRA will take a gentler tack with the state.

The ski area president put off meeting with the tunnel commissioners until Winter Park had cut its tentative deal with Denver. WPRA attorneys repeatedly asked--without success--that the commission vote to keep the public out of last week's meeting, and according to an internal commission memo, further demanded that the commissioners promise never to talk about anything said during the secret session. Groswold, clearly peeved about being summoned to appear, chastised commissioners during the open session, which was attended by only one member of the public.

Groswold sarcastically accused the three commissioners who are actively pushing for rental payments--Flanagan, Walter O. Cass and Edward "Jake" Jakubowski--of being unprepared and of "dancing around" the issues. At one point Jakubowski told Groswold, "We all know what we're here for." Groswold replied, "Maybe you do, but I don't." According to Cass, during a brief executive session that took place at the end of the meeting, Groswold told the commissioners he was "wasting his time talking to them." (Groswold tells Westword, "I'm a little confused about where they're at.")

Prior to the executive session, the commission revealed that it has paid an auditor to estimate the value of the state land controlled by the commission and used by the WPRA. The audit, conducted by Valuation Consultants of Avon, puts the value of the land at between $6.2 million and $8.3 million, and says a fair market rent would be somewhere between $372,000 and $497,000 annually.

After discussions, the commission last Friday had a letter hand-delivered to the WPRA asking for $320,000 per year and demanding that the ski area respond by 9 a.m. May 16. If Winter Park fails to respond by then, the letter says, commissioners will take action "as required by their oaths of office"--presumably an attempt to have a court void the lease. If such a ruling went against Winter Park, the tunnel commission could theoretically throw the ski area off its land--or use that threat as leverage in financial negotiations.

"We don't want to get into lawyering," says the commission's Jakubowski. "But if that's the route people want to choose, that's their business."

Another political wrinkle was added late last month when Governor Roy Romer signed a new state law allowing the commission to give back a portion of its surplus cash to taxpayers in the nine-county Moffatt Tunnel Improvement District. The district, which includes Denver County, hasn't actually collected tax for years, but according to the law, could refund to the public rent paid by Winter Park. That money would flow to district taxpayers in the form of public works projects to preserve "historic landmarks or objects," organize educational programs and promote efforts to "prevent or minimize degradation of the environment."

The WPRA is a nonprofit corporation, but turned a profit of $3.7 million last year. According to its balance sheets, the company has more than $32 million in the bank. As president, Groswold earns an annual salary of $193,670.

 
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