UP THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
The City of Denver's plan to donate ninety acres of public land to a for-profit real estate venture at the Winter Park ski area got the green light from a Grand County district judge. But as the city prepares to transfer the deed on the taxpayers' land to the Winter Park Recreational Association, a Denver city councilman has raised the specter of a new round of debate over who will profit from development at Denver's mountain resort.
And the city still hasn't quite killed off the obscure state agency that first kicked up a snowstorm over Winter Park: the pesky Moffat Tunnel Commission, which continues to find new ways to bedevil the Winter Park deal.
In a letter last week to Mayor Wellington Webb, first-term councilman Dennis Gallagher told the mayor he was "very uncomfortable about what is happening" at the ski area. Winter Park is owned by the city but run by the WPRA, whose board meetings are closed to the public. Gallagher's letter asks Webb to give the council a "complete and thorough report" on activities at Winter Park. The letter in particular questions the city's plan to hand over the ninety acres to the WPRA, which has close ties to the Colorado Arlberg Club, an exclusive private organization that owns property next to the resort.
The WPRA is legally an agent of the city but operates as an independent entity, able to file lawsuits, purchase real estate and conduct other business without city approval. Last year the WPRA incorporated two for-profit subsidiaries to develop a hotel and retail shops at the foot of the ski area; that development would take place in part on the city land the Webb administration wants to give to the WPRA free of charge ("White Out," November 29, 1995).
City officials say taxpayers will benefit from development because it will attract more skiers and Denver will get a share of any profits. But the question always has been: How big a share? Critics say the city hasn't pushed its friends at the WPRA hard enough to share the wealth from the booming resort. Under the terms of a May 1994 agreement, the city gets $1 million per year plus 3 percent of the resort's total revenues. Last year Winter Park cleared $7.7 million in cash and gave the city $2,052,000.
Webb aide Andrew Wallach says Gallagher's letter has been forwarded to City Attorney Dan Muse, who is drafting a response. "I think we have some homework to do with Dennis," says Wallach, who adds that he's confident Gallagher will change his mind once he is given a detailed explanation of the city's position.
Performing damage control on Gallagher is an important task for the administration: Among the items in the councilman's letter is a proposal to formally designate the ninety acres of city land a park. And should such a measure pass, it could bury the WPRA's development plans in an avalanche of courtroom bickering.
The city and the WPRA went to court last year in Grand County because they needed to determine whether the city land is a park. The judge ruled last month that it isn't, clearing the way for transfer of the deed. But if the council says the land is a park, the property by law couldn't be handed over without a vote of the people. That would raise the prospect of a possible breach-of-contract suit by the WPRA against the city--and the question of what to do with a luxury hotel the WPRA has already allowed a private developer to build on the city land.
WPRA attorney Eugene L. Hohensee says the ski area believes it has a deal and expects the city to stick to it. "I wouldn't see any reason to speculate about why the council wouldn't convey land, since they've agreed to do it and it would be to their benefit," he says.
Political realities suggest that an ordinance making the city land a park is unlikely; in 1994 the council signed off on Webb's plan to hand over the land to the WPRA. But though he says he "wants to make sure there's not some stumbling block he doesn't know about," Gallagher tells Westword he is committed to a park- land ordinance. "My theory is, it looks like a park, it acts like a park--why shouldn't it be a park?" he says.
Meanwhile, the city also has its hands full at the state Legislature, where it's backing a bill to immediately abolish the Moffat Tunnel Commission. That state body sued the WPRA last year, threatening to throw it off a parcel of tunnel-board land that the ski area uses rent-free under the terms of a sweetheart lease.
The five elected tunnel commissioners have resigned themselves to extinction. But they're pushing a bill of their own that gives them a few years to wind down their business--a set of affairs that now includes a bitter court battle with the Arlberg Club in Grand County District Court.
Over the past two months, attorneys for the commission have been engaged in a discovery dispute with the club, which includes some of Denver's wealthiest citizens. The commission wants the Arlbergers to release their membership roster so that it can investigate potential conflicts of interest in the Winter Park deal. The club is fighting to keep those names secret, arguing that the First Amendment protects "intimate associations" from what it deems "intrusive discovery."
The Arlberg Club has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the WPRA: Several members of the resort board are Arlbergers, as was the father of WPRA president Jerry Groswold, and the club has entertained Winter Park development plans of its own over the years. However, the tunnel commission's battle with the alpine country club may be moot if it's put out of business by the city.
Tunnel commissioner Dick Rudolph says negotiations are now under way with the WPRA and the city to forge a compromise bill. However, Wallach says the city last week reaffirmed its wish that the commission be shut down as quickly as possible--a position based largely on Denver's desire to get its hands on the tunnel board's bank account. Under Denver's bill, which has met little resistance in the House, the commission would dissolve immediately, and counties in the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District would divvy up its assets. Because Denver taxpayers paid roughly 90 percent of the cost of the tunnel, the city would stand to collect about $630,000.
Tunnel commissioner Edward J. "Jake" Jakubowski Jr., the most ardent defender of his agency, says the city is simply making a grab for quick money. "If you had just built DIA, wouldn't you be looking for new sources of revenue?" asks Jakubowski, who outraged Winter Park officials last year when he suggested that the commission might want to develop a retail complex of its own at the ski area.
The tunnel bills are on hold for now, and they probably won't be taken up again until mid-February. And though the commission survived an attempt by the city and Winter Park to shut it down last year, a new round of infighting has apparently crushed any hope of the panel presenting a unified front at the legislature. Longtime commissioner Walter O. Cass, who played a key role in the commission's activist stance in recent years, is backing the city bill, while the four other members are split over Rudolph's vision of an orderly retreat and Jakubowski's wish to keep fighting.
"I feel like I'm back in the Sixties," says Jakubowski. "What they're trying to do is have a love-in so it will be easy for the legislature to do away with us.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.