BURIED ALIVE AT WINTER PARK
The City of Denver's Winter Park ski area made a mostly smooth run through the state legislature last week, winning preliminary approval for a bill abolishing its rivals at the Moffat Tunnel Commission. But the Winter Park Recreational Association is headed for a few moguls--including a Denver city councilman who vows to do whatever he can to derail the special-interest legislation, which would allow the WPRA to consolidate its control over land at the mountain resort.
Emotions are running hot as legislators and others choose sides in an unlikely debate that draws in some of Denver's most powerful social and political figures. For instance, questions are being raised about the city's role in the political battle being waged by its own ski area. An assistant city attorney actually helped draft Winter Park's bill and says it will benefit both Denver and the ski area. Yet Briggs Gamblin, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, says Denver doesn't plan to take an official position on the legislation. And Gamblin even claims the mayor wasn't told about the bill prior to its introduction at the statehouse--though Deputy Mayor Bruce Alexander sits on the board of the WPRA.
The administration's backroom role in drafting the legislation angers Councilman Ed Thomas, the chairman of the city's metropolitan governmental affairs committee, a joint administration-council group that sets the city's statehouse policy. Thomas, outnumbered on the committee by Webb appointees who include city attorney Dan Muse, says he's immediately skeptical whenever the Webb administration and Winter Park try to sell the citizens of Denver on a deal. "Anytime they say they're doing it for the good of the city, hold on to your wallet," says Thomas, who notes that Muse and other members of the Webb administration cut a secret deal that would have sold Winter Park to the WPRA in 1993.
And the administration may have good reason for lying low at the Capitol. The controversial legislation backed by the WPRA does more than eliminate the tunnel commission, an obscure entity that controls the land on which Winter Park's base facilities sit. The bill also allows the ski area to purchase 22 acres of commission land without competitive bidding--and initially included language aimed at getting a lawsuit filed against the ski area by the crusading tunnel commission thrown out of court. Legislators sidetracked that effort last week.
Cozy relationships between prominent individuals have characterized the dealings of both Winter Park and the tunnel commission. Both entities historically have been controlled by Denver's country-club set; three of the commission's five seats traditionally were held by wealthy Denverites, and until a new group of activist members came on board, the board tended to work in tandem with the WPRA, a nonprofit group set up in the 1940s by Denver millionaire Allen Phipps to help develop the city's ski area.
Winter Park, which by law is an agent of the city, has been criticized in recent years for its tendency to do business outside the public eye. In 1993 WPRA president Gerald Groswold cut a deal with Muse and Webb to take the resort private (Groswold and WPRA attorney Eugene L. Hohensee both contributed to Webb's 1991 mayoral campaign). The city council refused to approve that arrangement, so Webb entered into negotiations with the resort to increase Winter Park's paltry annual payment to the city, at that time just $7,000. The popular city-owned resort last year turned a profit of $3.9 million and, according to its balance sheets, has a surplus of roughly $36 million.
Those negotiations, however, were spearheaded by Bruce Alexander, who in addition to being parks manager and deputy mayor is the resort's former banker. As president of First National Bank, Alexander personally approved a $7.5 million loan to the ski area in 1979.
Under a new license agreement signed last May, Denver retains ownership of the resort and Winter Park agrees to pay the city $1 million per year plus 3 percent of its total revenues. But the much-touted payments are contingent on an array of financial conditions, and the agreement appears to allow the ski area to miss one payment every five years without penalty. In a move that has been downplayed by city officials, Denver also agreed to give Winter Park roughly ninety acres of city-owned land adjoining the resort at no extra charge, pending court approval. In December Winter Park sued Denver in an attempt to prevent the city from putting the transaction to a public vote.
Winter Park has taken an equally aggressive stance in its bill attacking the tunnel board. The resort, whose current board of trustees includes Kermit L. Darkey of the Mountain States Employers Council and William W. Fletcher, chairman of the board at the Rocky Mountain News, is asking lawmakers to squash the commission and transfer its assets and responsibilities to the state board of land commissioners.
Winter Park's bill has the support of other tunnel commission tenants, who also stand to get their hands on what is now public property, without open bidding. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which is controlled by Denver billionaire and Winter Park ski-train operator Philip Anschutz, would win the right to purchase the railroad tunnel, while the Denver Water Board would get first dibs on the water shaft. In testimony before lawmakers, water board lobbyist Sarah Duncan said the bill was not part of a "big conspiracy" by the tenants to seize assets but simply an effort to see that the tunnels are administered in a more businesslike manner.
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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