OURAY – Santa came early to Ouray this year, delivering some serious “ka-ching” in the form of a $193,000 Great Outdoors Colorado grant to help the city purchase a key parcel of United States Forest Service land within the Ouray Ice Park.
News of the grant arrived on a bluebird day late last week, just before opening day of the Ice Park’s 18th season, and three weeks ahead of the annual Ouray Ice Festival, coming up Jan. 5-8, 2012.
“The timing is pretty neat,” said City Administrator Patrick Rondinelli, for whom the Ice Park acquisition has been a top priority since he started working for the city in 2004. “It will be great to have this buzz around the Ice Festival.”
When the sale goes through (U.S. Forest Service officials have said they will likely make the formal decision in writing to sell the land to the city in early January 2012), the City of Ouray will be one giant step closer to perfecting its ownership of the Ouray Ice Park, the icy manmade wonderland in the guts of the Uncompahgre Gorge, just footsteps from town. Since 1994, this place has wooed ice climbers from around the world, redefining Ouray’s winter economy.
GOCO grant funds could help the city acquire popular climbing areas including Five Fingers, New Funtier 2 and a big chunk of South Park, currently under the jurisdiction of the USFS, as well as much of the staging area for the annual Ouray Ice Festival.
“South Park probably has the most new route development possibilities in the park,” said grant writer and ice climbing guide Danika Gilbert, who crafted the successful GOCO grant proposal. Transferring ownership of this parcel from the Forest Service – which according to Gilbert is “not super gung-ho” on liabilities associated with new route development – to the city, will open up exciting new possibilities for ice climbers and guides within the park.
While playing a crucial role in the success of the Ice Park for 18 years, the USFS has made it clear that as a multiple-use organization managing three million acres on the Gunnison National Forest alone, it was not interested in being the long-term manager of its 24-acre inholding within the Ice Park.
“The Ice Park is really this odd, different thing,” Rondinelli explained. “It’s not a commercial operation such as a ski area. It’s not wild land. It doesn’t really fit into the parameters of the foundation of the Forest Service and what they do.”
Over the years, concern mounted in Ouray that the USFS might eventually sour on the whole Ice Park concept, and that perhaps the agency would stop issuing the annual special use permits that allow ice climbing, and the Ouray Ice Festival, to take place on its lands within the park.
In spite of the expense involved, the City of Ouray saw acquisition of those lands as the best insurance policy to allow the Ice Park, and its revenue-boosting power, to carry on.
“Going back and looking at sales tax and lodging numbers since the Ice Park started in 1994, the city has seen significant contribution in the winter months,” Rondinelli explained of Ouray’s motivation to acquire the land.
Indeed, a breakdown of City of Ouray tax revenues included in the GOCO grant application shows that since 1994, tourism in winter months in Ouray has increased the overall revenue base of the area, with gains greater than 140 percent in lodging taxes and 82 percent in sales taxes for the winter months of December, January, February and March, from 1994 to 2010.
“I would say it even has spilled over into the summer months now, with how popular rock climbing has become in the region,” Rondinelli said. “All those pieces are a huge benefit to the city. The main point is to ensure that the Ouray Ice Park will continue to grow into the future.”
The 24-acre parcel the city plans to buy from the USFS includes the Ouray Police Department’s shooting range, which the Forest Service has indicated it no longer wants to be in the business of permitting.
As Gilbert noted in her grant application narrative, the land acquisition will greatly simplify what now is a complex land use arrangement, “one that has become increasingly burdensome for all parties and has hindered Park development and recreational use, as well as media access, marketing and event development.”
Current stakeholders in the Ice Park include not only the USFS and the City of Ouray, but also Ouray County, and Eric Jacobson, owner of the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant and much of the land and infrastructure along the rim of the gorge.
The City of Ouray gained administrative oversight of the Ice Park from Ouray County about two years ago. When the property transfer with the USFS goes through, operational agreements the city has in place with the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc. and San Juan Mountain Guides (the Ice Park’s guiding concessionaire) will remain in place.
“Really, the only thing that changes is the Forest Service will no longer be a party, and there will be no need to get special use permits from the Forest Service every year,” Rondinelli said.
Jacobson, as a private landowner allowing ice climbers to use his land, is protected from liability by the State of Colorado’s Recreational Users Statute. The city has a five-year easement agreement with Jacobson that’s good through 2015. Acquisition of Jacobson’s property is also on the city’s list of priorities, Rondinelli said, but at this point, “pretty far down the list.”
For two parties that have long agreed on such a mutually beneficial concept, it took the City of Ouray and the USFS a surprisingly long time to agree on the scope of the proposed purchase, as well as its value.
One early iteration of the deal had the city purchasing not 24 but a full 40 acres of Forest Service land. It included the Ice Park and shooting range as well as Forest Service land encompassing the city’s water tank.
The Forest Service appraisal of the area came in higher than the city felt it was worth – over $800,000 – much of it vertical terrain, and the rest of it zoned within the county to prevent heavy development.
In response, the city scaled back the size of its target acquisition by about half. A new set of boundaries for the land transfer, agreed upon in October 2008, included only that Forest Service land which was within the Ice Park’s boundary, as well as the shooting range.
In 2010, the Forest Service and the city scrapped over the terms of a collection agreement for the cost of new appraisal. Once the Ouray City Council agreed to pay for the cost up front, the two entities settled on a new appraiser to determine the current market value of the property. That appraiser’s work was completed by year’s end.
Throughout the first half of 2011, the appraisal ping-ponged back and forth between officials until all parties involved agreed on a final value for the property: $277,000.
The City applied for a Local Parks and Outdoor Recreation grant from the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund in August 2011 to help fund the acquisition.
“Danika was huge,” Rondinelli said of grant-writer Gilbert. “$193,000 was the maximum amount we could ask for, and that’s what they granted.”
To meet the USFS’s full asking price of $277,000 the city will augment its GOCO grant funding with a $35,000 chunk of change, earmarked for this purpose years ago from the sale of some mining claims in Yankee Boy Basin. OIPI has pledged a modest contribution of about $6,000. The remainder will come out of the city’s 2012 budget.
“I look forward to now moving to the final stage of closing on the property with our partners at the Forest Service,” Rondinelli said in a celebratory e-mail broadcast to some members of the community last Thursday. “And then we will have a really big party to celebrate the completion of this project.”
Great Outdoors Colorado is a Colorado Lottery-funded entity that awards money for outdoor recreation projects throughout the state of Colorado. GOCO has three grant cycles per year. Ouray’s Ice Park acquisition proposal was one of 11 projects to win funding in this grant cycle, out of 40 applications that made it into the final round.
Gilbert noted that as far as she knows, it is the first time that GOCO has used lottery funds to fund a transfer of lands between government entities.
“The Ouray Ice Park is a unique venue, and an excellent opportunity for GOCO to use its funds as leverage to assist the City of Ouray,” she stressed in her application. “With this purchase, GOCO can further its efforts to improve recreation and economic well-being of southwestern Colorado. We welcome GOCO’s involvement in this world-renowned and respected recreation facility – one that we feel matches GOCO’s mission well.”