BURIED ALIVE AT WINTER PARK

THE SKI RESORT TRIGGERS A POLITICAL SNOWSTORM OVER THE MOFFAT TUNNEL COMMISSION.

The tunnel commission has fought the legislation bitterly. But Winter Park won the first round last week when the state affairs committee voted 9-2 to send the measure to the appropriations committee. That decision came after a February 9 hearing punctuated by emotional outbursts.

Statehouse lobbyist Pancho Hays, working for Winter Park, derided the tunnel board as a group of "so-called elected commissioners," while Groswold blasted them as "less than professional" individuals bent on wreaking havoc with the resort. The tunnel commission, meanwhile, handed out an informational sheet accusing the WPRA of attempted larceny. "I see this not as a bill of legislation but a bill of sale to the WPRA," commission president Edward J. Jakubowski Jr. told lawmakers.

Groswold, a former real estate attorney who earns $194,000 per year for running Winter Park, provided some drama of his own when he brought along two former tunnel commissioners as surprise witnesses. The first, former state legislator and outspoken Denver International Airport critic Bill Chenoweth, told lawmakers that during his eight years on the commission the members did little more than eat lunch once a month at taxpayers' expense. When asked why he had opted to run for re-election three times if the commission served no purpose, Chenoweth said he simply enjoyed the other members' company.

The other retired tunnel commissioner, Bruce E. Dines, accused the tunnel board of being "divisive" toward its tenants. He closed by telling legislators that they would see Winter Park blossom into a "wonderful destination resort" within their lifetimes.

Dines, who comes from a prominent Denver banking family and is the grandson of a Colorado governor, was accused of having a conflict of interest during his tenure on the tunnel board. Although Dines worked for years at the Denver bank that served as the WPRA's chief lender, he voted for a 1980 lease that gave the ski area free rent until the year 2078--an action that helped the ski area secure a loan from the bank but was of dubious benefit to the tunnel district, which was still paying off bonds at the time.

Dines resigned from the tunnel commission late last year, shortly before the commission filed a hostile lawsuit against the WPRA in Grand County. That suit asks a judge not only to throw out the controversial 1980 lease but to kick Winter Park off the tunnel board's land.

Whether the commission would actually try to evict the ski resort is doubtful. But if successful, the suit would allow the tunnel board to extract significant annual rent payments. Groswold argues that the city will be the loser under such a scenario, since Denver now has a greater financial stake in Winter Park's profitability. That position is echoed by Assistant City Attorney Patrick Wheeler, who helped draft Winter Park's bill. Notes Wheeler, "We don't want someone else draining our cash cow." Thomas, however, isn't convinced. "Anytime the administration says this is good for Winter Park, all I can remember is when they tried to sell it," he says.

Thomas and the tunnel commissioners aren't the only politicians fighting Winter Park's latest political run. The three Western Slope counties within the tunnel district, which have long been wary of Denver's influence, have come out against the bill. Representative Jack Taylor of Steamboat Springs told fellow lawmakers at the February 9 hearing that eliminating the commission raises "too many unanswered questions."

The measure appears to have wide support at the Capitol, though, in large part due to the success of Winter Park lobbyists in convincing legislators that, regardless of past or present controversies, the tunnel commission serves no real purpose. The bill already has 35 co-sponsors in the House, and Winter Park may be willing to engage in horse trading to see that it passes--even if that means diluting some of the bill's more blatantly self-serving provisions. Says representative Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs, the bill's original sponsor, "Winter Park's willing to do almost anything to get rid of these people."

Thomas says he's equally determined to shoot the bill down. He says he and the mayor's representatives on the governmental-affairs committee have been giving the city's Capitol lobbyist diametrically opposite instructions on how to handle the Winter Park bill at the statehouse. And Thomas recently succeeded in scheduling an eleventh-hour meeting between Winter Park and the tunnel commission at which he hopes to hammer out a compromise leaving the tunnel board intact. "They want to give away any kind of control [over the ski resort]," says the councilman. "Well, not on my watch.

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