A contingency of elected officials and civic and business leaders from the upper valley took a field trip Thursday to Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat campus to better understand how expansion plans at the Aspen campus could benefit the community and local economy.
About a dozen people from the Aspen area met with city of Steamboat officials and CMC leaders and faculty as they toured a campus that has 2,300 students and residential dorms with a capacity of 210 people.
The campus, which includes several academic and residential buildings, is built into a hillside in the middle of a neighborhood overlooking the town with straight-on views of the ski area.
Steve Skadron, vice president and dean of the Aspen CMC campus, which has nearly 1,300 students, said he had an “ah-hah” moment when he visited the Steamboat school in August.
He said he realized what value the college has on the community and its contribution to the local workforce because its academic programs are tailored to the town’s needs.
“I was really wowed by the seamless relationship between the campus and the city,” he said. “I believe the Aspen campus is an underutilized asset.”
CMC leadership is in the early stages of planning the expansion of the Aspen campus by potentially doubling the size of the academic buildings and creating housing for as many as 175 students.
That notion has neighbors in the North Forty neighborhood behind the Aspen campus nervous about density, traffic, noise and a host of other concerns.
Residents representing the neighborhood were invited on Thursday’s tour but had conflicts and could not attend.
Skadron said he met with some residents on Wednesday evening and characterized it as a positive meeting.
“It was as good as I could’ve imagined,” he said.
Gary Suiter, Steamboat’s city manager, reported to the Aspen group Thursday that the residences on campus are not an issue in the community as reported by the city’s police chief.
“It’s not much different or anything worse in town … we welcome our students into our community,” Suiter said. “They are not aliens.”
Aspen’s housing is meant to attract students who go to school full time and work in the community, possibly as interns, with an eye toward joining the area workforce.
Those areas would include training for health care or emergency medical services careers or early childhood education.
CMC Aspen also plans to start a hospitality/tourism/culinary arts program.
Those academic programs, plus more like ski and snowboard business and sustainability curriculums, have provided a steady workforce for Steamboat, said Kara Stoller, CEO of the chamber of commerce.
“It has a lot to do with relationships we have with the faculty and business leaders,” she said, adding local advisory boards are active with each program area. “They keep them aware of what we need. … I’ve been in awe with how this campus responds to the needs of the business community.”
Kathy Kiser-Miller, vice president and dean of the Steamboat campus, said advisory boards are critical.
“When they ask we respond,” she said.
Skadron noted that in the 12 years he was on Aspen City Council, CMC has never been at the table, and advisory boards are nonexistent.
“I hope there are lessons we can learn from Steamboat,” Skadron said.
Suiter and other Steamboat officials said there’s also a lot of informal networking happening throughout the community.
When CMC Steamboat’s main academic building was proposed prior to its opening in 2012, there was pushback in the neighborhood, but concerns were addressed and now it’s a gathering place in town, according to Kiser-Miller.
“This building is an invitation for people to come here,” she said from the third floor, next to a large dining hall with a long deck and sweeping views of the valley.
CMC Steamboat went through the traditional land-use process and gained approval from Steamboat City Council.
With the Aspen campus proposal, which is expected to become more detailed next year, the land-use application would be voted on by Pitkin County’s Planning and Zoning Commission, according to County Manager Jon Peacock.
However, state law allows a public entity applying for land-use approval to overturn the reviewing body’s decision with a super majority of its board.
So, if the county did deny CMC’s land-use application, the majority of the college board could vote to approve it.
Peacock also noted that state law requires a decision by the reviewing body be within 30 days of the application being submitted. Municipalities have 60 days.
Kathleen Wanatowicz, owner of PR Studio who represents CMC, said the school is just starting the community conversation, and a detailed plan is far from ready.
A request for proposals for architecture and design, as well as a community engagement plan, will be issued in 2020.
She said the campus would be built around whatever academic needs are identified.
Suiter told the group over lunch that the CMC campus in Steamboat is an integral part of the community — 85% of students work in town.
He advised the Aspen group to trust the land-use process and let it play out.
“Higher education does not ruin neighborhoods,” he said.
CMC’s Aspen expansion is estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million. CMC would contribute $20 million and raise the rest, said Kristin Heath Colon, CEO of the CMC Foundation.
As the organizer and leader of Thursday’s tour, Heath Colon’s enthusiasm was evident.
“We are trying to see what’s possible,” she said. “What does it look like to work in partnership and see what a community can do together?”