Colorado’s Western Slope is suffering from “child-care deserts.” Here’s what some ski towns are doing about it. |

Colorado’s Western Slope is suffering from “child-care deserts.” Here’s what some ski towns are doing about it.

Jennifer Brown
Colorado Sun
Kris Peterson, a ski instructor at Steamboat Resort, picks up his son, Jonah, from the new resort child care center for kids of employees.
Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun

In Aspen, the ski-resort operator is concerned about a lack of child care for its 4,000 employees. But, instead of building its own center, Aspen-Snowmass invested in creating more day-care slots in the community. 

Steamboat Resort and Breckenridge Resort this year have gone a step further, opening child-care centers for the kids of their employees this season.

Aspen Skiing Co. donated $300,000 over three years, beginning in 2021, to two child-care programs.

Blue Lake Preschool put the money toward expanding its capacity for infants and toddlers at its Basalt and Carbondale locations, plus staff retention and tuition scholarships for families in need. 

The other half of the $300,000 went to Valley Settlement, a non-profit helping the Roaring Fork Valley’s immigrant community establish licensed day-care centers. Through two-year programs, grandmothers, aunts, and friends who are caring for relatives’ kids get training in nutrition and preschool academics. Then, they can apply for licenses, take on more children, and earn better pay. 

Skico also dedicated eight units in its new 43-unit employee housing building in Basalt to child-care workers. 

Like many of the resort company’s philanthropy efforts, the goal is to improve the community at large, which is why Skico is trying to boost community child-care options rather than build a child-care center, officials said.

“If our employees are facing these problems, our friends and neighbors are, too,” said Hannah Berman, senior manager of Skico’s sustainability and philanthropy department. 

Skico has a child-care center in Snowmass, the Treehouse, that takes care of children while their parents are skiing but also accepts the kids of resort employees. 

If every child-care center were operating at capacity in the Roaring Fork Valley, there would be enough spots for only half of the children under 6, Berman said. 

Steamboat steps up

Snowboard instructor Dorothy Olmstead and ski teacher Kris Peterson fly small airplanes into the Alaskan backcountry in the summer, then look for gigs at ski resorts for the winter. 

But, with a toddler, the cross-country seasonal lifestyle started to feel impossible for the couple.

So, when Peterson told his partner last summer that Steamboat ski area was opening a child-care center for its employees, she didn’t believe him.

“He was like, ‘Let’s go to Steamboat for the winter. They have a day-care-center opening,’” Olmstead recalled. “I didn’t even think it was real.”

She has worked 11 seasons as a snowboard instructor at eight mountains across the West. Not one had a child-care center. 

But, the family left Talkeetna, Alaska, near the entrance to Denali National Park, and arrived in Steamboat just as the ski season was beginning. Not only did they get an apartment through the resort’s employee-housing program but a spot for their 3-year-old son, Jonah, at the new child-care center for the kids of resort workers. 

Steamboat is the latest and still one of the few ski resorts to open a child-care center for employees. After affordable housing, child care is the top concern of many workers in resort towns, where the cost of living has far outpaced the salaries of local workers. 

The Steamboat Child Care Center, where the toys and walls are natural greens and blues and the snowy playground is along the banks of Walton Creek, opened in December. Priority for its 30 spots per day goes to resort employees, including those who are seasonal and part time.

The rest were opened up this month to the community, a “day-care desert” where just one other center in Steamboat takes infants from the community at large. Steamboat Resort employees, who get 20% off regular rates, quickly filled 19 spots, leaving 11. 

Within 48 hours, there were 49 kids in the community on the waiting list. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Loryn Duke, who works in the resort’s communication office and helped lead the effort to open the child-care center. 

About a year ago, she and others made a pitch to resort executives that an employee child-care center was key to recruiting and retaining workers. Though it was difficult to predict how many workers needed day care, a review of ski passes for Steamboat’s some 2,000 employees and their dependents revealed 52 ski passes for children under 6. 

The pioneer in 1978

Winter Park was at the forefront of the child-care shortage, thanks to a group of parents who asked their employer if they could use space on the mountain to set up a day-care co-op for the 1978-79 ski season. They were allowed to use a room in the administration building, and the parents bought the equipment and supplies, paying the workers taking care of their children. 

The setup evolved over the years and now is a resort-run, early-education center for up to 33 infants and kids per day in the Balcony House, at the base of the mountain near the gondola. 

“There are employees of the resort who work for the resort and live in the Fraser Valley just because of onsite child care,” Winter Park spokeswoman Jen Miller said. “It’s important to keep primarily women in the workplace, and the talents and skills of those women.” 

Breckenridge Ski Resort opened a child-care center for employees’ kids this season, too, a program for 20 children at the base of Peak 9. Vail Resorts has an employee child-care center in Avon for workers at Vail and Beaver Creek. 

Jennifer Brown is a co-founder and reporter at The Colorado Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. The Colorado Sun is a journalist-owned, award-winning news outlet based in Denver that strives to cover all of Colorado so that our state — our community — can better understand itself.


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