Frustrations rise over rodeo grounds at Snowmass Town Council work session

Council, planners hope to move forward; rodeo rep feels process has been rushed

Snowmass locals Joshua Sukoff, 17, left, and Emma Goldblatt, 17, watch the grand entry of the first night of the Snowmass Rodeo on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. The rodeo is back this summer after it was cancelled last year due to COVID-19. The rodeo is every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. through August 18th with team roping, barrel racing, bull riding, and children’s events. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The 2022 town budget proposes $3.7 million to go toward continued design and beginning construction on the Town Park redesign in Snowmass Village, which will beautify the town entrance and enhance recreational amenities there.

For an investment that significant, council members and town staff want to ensure that the plan meets the needs of stakeholders like the Snowmass Western Heritage Association, a nonprofit that oversees the Snowmass Rodeo. Is the current proposed layout one that satisfies the rodeo board?

Yes and no, according to association president Jim Snyder and board member Jamie Knowlton, who joined council for a discussion on the topic at an Oct. 11 council work session.

“We basically agree with the whole concept of the master plan,” Snyder told the council. “There’s some things we’ve got to work out but for the most part, we’re there.”

The final rendering of the Town Park Master Plan by Connect One Design in Snowmass Village as presented to Town Council on March 1, 2021.
Town of Snowmass Village/Courtesy image

As for what those things that need to be addressed are, the rodeo representatives were reluctant to offer any specifics about their concerns, sparking frustration from council members and representatives of the Parks, Open Space, Trails and Recreation Board that has worked on the Town Park plans.

Knowlton said the rodeo board felt a council work session initially designated as continued budget review was neither the time nor the place to discuss some of the association’s concerns about arena safety and multipurpose space. He also did not want to discuss some of the issues in a public setting, he said.

It felt as if the rodeo conversation was “thrust in the middle of a budget meeting and it did not seem appropriate” to talk about the rodeo board’s concerns, Knowlton said.

Bleachers at the Snowmass Rodeo arena on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Three of the four stands have been deemed to be in “poor to fair” condition, according to Snowmass Western Heritage Association member Jamie Knowlton. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

But after more than a month of scheduling attempts, the work session on Oct. 11 has so far been the only date that worked out on the calendar; the board was initially going to appear before council back in September but scheduling conflicts postponed that meeting.

Councilman Tom Fridstein also reminded Knowlton that all conversations between the council and the rodeo board must take place in public; the council had just listened to a half-hour presentation about the importance of open meetings and transparency as it relates to liability and insurance. And while yes, the meeting was happening during budget review season, council’s intent for the meeting was to listen to the rodeo board’s concerns and “figure out a path forward,” Fridstein said.

“Now that we’re all here, you don’t want to tell us (what the issues are) and that is a huge frustration, because this has been spinning around for months and months and months, and the purpose of this meeting would be get everyone in would be get everybody in a room, understand what the issues are and try to move forward,” Fridstein said.

“It just seems like we’re nowhere and I don’t know how we’re going to get somewhere,” he added.

So those issues that Knowlton didn’t want to discuss in detail came onto the table anyway.

For one, the rodeo board wants to see more provisions for the grounds as a multipurpose space — which is what Knowlton said was the original reason the rodeo board wanted to meet with council; that’s something that could possibly be addressed through further discussion after the budget season, POSTR Board member Matt Donnelly said.

For another, there are new concerns about the safety of the arena’s bleachers; the rodeo board received a notice just last week that three out of four of the bleacher stands are in “poor to fair” condition, Knowlton said.

Under the rodeo’s previous lease, the Snowmass Western Heritage Association would be responsible for the costs to replace those bleachers, but the lease renews every three years and the board is currently due for a new lease, according to Town Manager Clint Kinney.

With Town Park on the budget as a major capital improvement project next year, financing those bleachers could be up for discussion, but it wasn’t resolved at the work session this week; given that the report on bleacher safety just came in a few days prior and the cost to replace the stands was still unknown, Knowlton said the board was not prepared to work out the details just yet.

For POSTR Board member Lisa Waldman, the rodeo board’s concern about the bleachers was an easy-to-address issue that was instead presented as a roadblock standing in the way of progress on a plan that encompasses far more than just the rodeo grounds. Like Fridstein, she too felt vexed by the ongoing rodeo-related obstacles that have arisen in the Town Park planning process.

“There’s a frustration there that it seems like every time we get to a point where we’re ready to move forward, for some reason there’s a new hurdle and we don’t ever get past them,” Waldman said. “It seems crazy to me that we continue to delay it and that we would even consider delaying it again based on bleachers. … That should not hang up the whole project.”

Councilman Tom Goode likewise wanted to see some progress on the Town Park project, especially after so much work on the plan.

“We’ve been waiting for you guys to come to talk to us and now you’re here and you can’t talk to us. What is the big issue? Just the bleachers? We’ll work that out. … We need to move forward with this,” Goode said. “We are bureaucrats and we don’t want to be the bureaucrats that don’t get anything done. We want to move forward; that’s what everybody wants to do.”

In Knowlton’s eyes, the desire to move forward with more Town Park planning now — and it is to an extent happening right now, since the $3.7 million allocated to design and construction in 2022 is part of a budget slated for approval in early November — put an undue pressure on the rodeo board to give a thumbs up on plans that the board still has issues with.

“I feel like you’re trying to trap us to make a decision that we’re not ready to make and that’s not fair. … I think you’re rushing forward,” Knowlton said.

Technically, it’s the council’s decision to make, not the rodeo board’s; the Snowmass Western Heritage Association does not have any veto power over Town Park nor the budget process.

But council and town staff have maintained from the get-go that they want to include the rodeo board in the process and ensure that the rodeo can continue at Town Park; the association’s endorsement of the plan, though not required, is still desired, Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk said.

“I’ve said it, many other people have said it since the beginning, is that if we’re redesigning Town Park, we do not want to redesign it if it is not going to be workable for the rodeo,” Shenk said.

Still, Shenk agreed with the majority of council and the POSTR board members that it was time to make some progress on a project that has undergone more than a year of close review.

“We need to push this forward, we have people on the POSTR committee and board and staff who have worked so hard on this design and were all excited about it and I think everyone wants to see it go through, and we want it to include the rodeo,” Shenk said.

The Financial Advisory Board weighs in

The Oct. 11 budget-oriented work session also included input from the town’s Financial Advisory Board, which looks not at whether any given item is one the town should spend money on but rather whether the town has the funds to spend money on it.

“We look at, ‘do you have the money to do it,’ … We look at it from a math standpoint, we don’t look at the project and go, ‘Oh, this is a project we want to do,'” said Phil Sirianni, the chair of the board.

Based on the board’s calculations, the math shakes out A-OK, even with a much larger than usual spending budget of $63 million (it’s typically somewhere in the $30 million-plus range) and revenues totaling about $48 million, including $11 million in grants for the transit center on the Snowmass Mall. About half of the expenditures are funded by reserves, funds carried forward and other funds already set aside for capital projects, improvements and repairs.

Even so, the board anticipates that the mall transit center — currently budgeted for $13 million total — may require additional funding as construction costs rise, according to comments included in this week’s council packet.

Otherwise, all looked pretty square, and revenues may even be higher than projected, Sirianni said.

Comments submitted to council indicate that the board agrees with a projected increase in personnel costs that cover staffing requests, a boost to the merit pool and increases in other benefits; the 2022 budget also includes an update to the salary survey for the town and the board hopes to see a “complete mix of compensation and benefits” explored in that survey.

In future meetings, the board hopes to discuss employee compensation, an overview of capital improvement projects, potential lowering of the marketing sales tax rate and how short term rentals affect the housing rental market, according to the comments.

Discussion of capital improvement projects is already underway in council chambers; the Oct. 11 discussion of Town Park and the rodeo grounds was followed by overviews of a potential roundabout at the Brush Creek Road-Owl Creek Road intersection and a possible extension of fiber optic cable providing high-speed internet to more of the town’s facilities. More projects are on the docket for discussion in ongoing review of the budget.