A visit by Aspen civic leaders to the Colorado Mountain College campus in Steamboat Springs on Thursday was intended to help attendees imagine what a stronger partnership would look like between the community and the college.
The CMC Foundation organized the day trip, billed as a “leadership exchange,” so that Aspen political and business leaders could get a look at academic programs at the Steamboat campus. Officials from the college, Steamboat political leaders and executives from the Steamboat ski resort touted the collaboration enjoyed between the town and the college, which offers programs tailored to local needs.
“I’ve seen how quick the campus is to respond to the needs of the business community,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber.
Advisory committees that bring in community members to help guide the Steamboat campus’ mission have helped create numerous programs, according to campus leaders. It’s that kind of collaboration that led to the launch of a four-year nursing degree that will be offered at the college starting in 2020, based on unmet needs in the local health care sector.
Michael Martin, director of the ski and snowboard business degree program, highlighted the curriculum in his department that has included working with Nordica on its launch of a new line of backcountry gear and a one-year certificate program in outdoor guiding.
“If you go around town, you’ll meet our students” working in retail shops, for local gear companies and on the resort, Martin said.
The trip was intended to highlight those partnerships in contrast to what’s happening around the Aspen-CMC campus, which is much smaller in size and has around half the students. CMC Foundation, the college’s philanthropic arm, is aiming to raise $20 million for an expansion of the Aspen campus that would include residential student housing and more program offerings. Currently, the 36,000-square-foot Aspen campus has no student housing and limited academic offerings.
There’s a sense that CMC-Aspen is a “significantly under-serving asset” to the Aspen community, according to campus dean Steve Skadron, who served six years on city council and then six years as mayor of Aspen until he stepped down due to term limits in June.
In 12 years at the city council table, Skadron said he could not recall a single time when CMC officials came before the board to discuss a civic or economic issue. Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler, one of roughly a dozen local leaders who participated Thursday, echoed that sentiment, saying she’s never seen CMC at a town council meeting.
Ann Mullins, an Aspen councilmember who was also on the trip, said she sees academic life as being core to any successful city and that, as things stand today, she is not seeing enough interaction and partnership with CMC to support that community value.
Other participants on the trip included Aspen City Manager Sara Ott; local restaurateur and former county commissioner Rob Ittner; Shirley Ritter, director of the city of Aspen’s Kids First program; former Aspen School District Board of Education member Elizabeth Parker; and Norm Bacheldor, a board member of the CMC Foundation who owns the Hotel Colorado and the Mountain Chalet.
“The community leaders invited were chosen specifically as to the role they play in Aspen, and/or what they can learn from their respective industry partner in Steamboat,” Kristin Heath Colon, CEO of the CMC Foundation, wrote in an email before the trip.
CMC trustees have identified investing in the Aspen campus as a priority. A May memo to the college’s trustees notes that Pitkin County has contributed some $200 million to the college through property taxes in the last 20 years, but capital investment in the community during that time has been mostly limited to the $7.8 million spent on the existing Aspen building.
The college unveiled schematic designs showing the density they believe to be possible on the Aspen site, which is smaller than three acres. Those drawings show two- and three-story buildings constructed around the existing facility. A residence hall for up to 175 students is shown.
The idea of that much density and nearly 200 college students living next door has been controversial among homeowners in the North Forty, a development reserved for working residents. Those homeowners have said they feel that student housing will not fit with the neighborhood, and the programming and activation contemplated for the campus will have a negative impact on quality of life.
CMC emphasizes that the schematic drawings presented are only concepts, and they are going to work with the community and neighbors to design something that fits. The college has yet to put together a formal land-use proposal; it expects to seek to hire a design firm to produce those plans early next year.
A major takeaway from Steamboat officials, as they met with the Aspen group for lunch and a tour of their newest building that opened in 2012, was that the most important concept behind any campus expansion is to first establish demand for new programming: In other words, figure out what the community wants and then build the building to serve those needs.
Skadron said he hopes that the Steamboat experience could help the college develop its vision for the Aspen campus as plans move forward. The focus on the Steamboat culinary and ski business was intentional, since those programs are likely to hold appeal in the Aspen community.
Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter, who served as Snowmass Village town manager and worked in the Roaring Fork Valley for 25 years, was at Thursday’s lunch. One of the first things he noticed upon arrival in Steamboat four years ago, he said, was the level of integration between the college and the community. That is felt through the way the town welcomes CMC students, he said.
“They are part of the community,” he said. “They are not aliens.”