After clashing with the Moffat Tunnel Commission over lease payments for state-owned land at the Winter Park ski resort, the Winter Park Recreational Association is backing an effort to abolish the agency. If successful, the controversial city-owned ski area could save millions of dollars in rent payments--and get its hands on a much-coveted piece of real estate at the foot of its ski run.
The behind-the-scenes campaign, branded a "cowardly act" by tunnel commission president Edward "Jake" Jakubowski Jr., began last year when Winter Park and other commission tenants retained high-powered lobbyist Pancho Hays to sound out state legislators. It came into the open last week during a monthly meeting of the feisty but obscure commission, a five-member elected body created by the legislature in the 1920s and charged with administering the 6.2-mile bore beneath James Peak.
The WPRA is joined in the effort by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Denver Water Board, the Moffat Tunnel's two prime tenants. The railroad uses the tunnel to run freight trains between Denver and the West Coast, and the water board pumps water to the Front Range through an adjoining shaft.
The railroad has long considered the tunnel commission a nuisance, and a water board representative says her agency would simply prefer to deal with a more "businesslike" landlord. But while those entities expect to save themselves more aggravation than money should the commission go down the tubes, Winter Park stands to make a bundle.
The tunnel board has spent the last several months trying to overturn a sweetheart deal that allows the highly profitable ski resort to operate key base facilities on state land without paying a penny in rent. Putting the commission out of commission would presumably bury that idea for good.
Winter Park attorney Eugene L. Hohensee insists the WPRA's latest political slalom has "very little to do" with the lease negotiations between the resort and the commission. (The acrimonious series of bargaining sessions stalled late last year when the commission backed away from a $50,000-per-year deal and--based on reports that Winter Park turned a profit of roughly $4 million last year--decided to ask for more.)
Attorney Hohensee says Winter Park is primarily worried about the commission's stated interest in developing the Evans Tract, a 9.5-acre chunk of state land that houses key portions of the ski area's base facilities. Such development would be "inconsistent with skier convenience and skier safety," says Hohensee.
However, under the proposed legislation, the resort could end up developing the Evans Tract itself. One early draft of the bill transfers commission land to the state transportation department--and then gives current users first crack at purchasing the property at "fair market value" without competitive bidding. Hohensee adds that Winter Park would be interested in buying the Evans Tract.
The flap with the tunnel commission isn't the first incident in which the WPRA has been accused of arrogance in its political dealings. Although the resort is legally an agent of the city--a distinction that allows it to avoid paying federal income tax or local property tax--it has tended to behave as a separate corporation with its own interests. Many of its boardmembers don't actually live in Denver, and two years ago WPRA president Gerald F. Groswold and other officials tried unsuccessfully to take the taxpayer-owned resort private.
Both Groswold and attorney Hohensee were contributors to Denver mayor Wellington Webb's 1991 campaign, and in 1993 the resort cut a secret deal with Webb under which the city proposed to sell the ski area to the WPRA.
After the Denver City Council refused to put the deal on the ballot--all sales of park land must be approved by voters--Webb backed away from the deal and instead entered into negotiations intended to increase the paltry $7,000-per-year cash flow the city was getting from resort revenues. Despite being a city entity, the WPRA hired its own attorneys and lobbyists and instructed its trustees not to talk to the press so the WPRA could "maintain control" over the flow of information to the public.
An agreement was signed last May under which the WPRA agreed to pay Denver $1 million per year plus 3 percent of its total revenues. Shortly after that deal was signed, the WPRA turned its attentions to fending off the Moffat Tunnel Commission.
The commission has traditionally served as a caretaker agency, making payments on the bonds used to finance the giant tunnel (the last payment was made in 1983) and doing little else. Dominated by Denver's country-club set through most of its history, the panel once was known for taking taxpayer-funded lunches at the Broker Restaurant and graciously accommodating tenants like Winter Park. One former commissioner, Denver banker Bruce E. Dines, sat on the tunnel board at the same time that his bank loaned the resort $7.5 million. In his role as a commissioner, Dines then approved the controversial 1980 lease that gave Winter Park 98 years of free rent from the state.
In recent years, however, a new crop of commissioners led by Jakubowski and Walter O. Cass have begun to question the deals approved by their predecessors. Last April the commission declared the freebie lease null and void and insisted that the state receive fair market value for its land.
That newfound activism got more than a cold shoulder from the WPRA, which soon began looking for a way to eliminate its adversary.
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It is unclear how much authority Winter Park, as an agent of the city, has to engage in political activities. Hohensee insists that the WPRA has full authority regarding the operation of the resort and says officials in the Webb administration have been "fully apprised" of the legislative gambit.
One administration official who appears to support the campaign is parks manager and deputy mayor Bruce Alexander, who has an honorary position on the Winter Park board. "If there isn't a need for them, then there's no reason for them to stay in business," Alexander--himself a former banker for the WPRA--says of the tunnel commissioners.
Newly elected state representative Andy McElhany, a Republican from Colorado Springs, says he expects to introduce legislation targeting the commission by the end of the month. Bills have been introduced to abolish the tunnel board before, but all have gotten bogged down over procedural matters. And commission president Jakubowski--who takes his elected position seriously, arriving at Moffat meetings in stylish bow ties and closing a recent session with a passionate tribute to the U.S. Army's performance in the Battle of the Bulge--says he's "ready for battle."
"It was great to have this lackey state agency as long as they [the WPRA] could control it," Jakubowski says. "Now that there's been some democracy, they want to change the rules.