Clear Creek is at the tipping point

Everything has a cost. Cost, though, has a double entendre. Cost can be the price one pays for a product or service that becomes the amount a business or person providing the product or service takes in, including profit. Cost can also be the consequence one pays for behavior, which might or not involve money. After a fun night’s romp, the cost might be a serious hangover, fine, or greater.

As heaven is the goal for Christians and Muslims, so is profit for capitalists. To stay open, a business must meet its costs, and many, especially small businesses that are the backbone of the American economy, operate on slim margins. That’s especially true in a seasonal, tourism-based economy in which traffic is imperative to remain sustainable.

But traffic, whether vehicular or foot, negatively impacts the environment in which it occurs. It’s not only devastating for the ecosystem itself but also for businesses environmentally related. Which is to say all Clear Creek businesses. As much as one might love Tommyknocker microbrews and Beau Jo’s pizzas, it’s not likely folks would travel from afar to enjoy them without the benefit of their location in an historical town set amid breathtaking scenery.

Given capitalism is our global religion, it’s interesting to view everything from an economic perspective: a commodity, product, or service. Hiking Mount Bierstadt could be considered a commodity when gauging its impacts. Hope springs eternal hikers will not just drive in and out without dropping a few bucks at a restaurant, motel, or curio shop and not trashing the mountain in the process. Unfortunately, excessive, uncontrolled traffic to and on the mountain is degrading that product. And that foot traffic is sustained by the vehicles that get people here.

That’s the conundrum we face in Clear Creek. On one hand, we want and need our small businesses to be profitable. But at what point will the cost to the community and ecosystem due to overuse become unsustainable?

The same is true across Colorado. Hanging Lake, St. Mary’s, and Maroon Bells areas are becoming exhausted.

In a recent Denver Post article on the I-70 Corridor through Clear Creek, Steve Harelson, a CDOT program engineer for the area, asked the ultimate question.

“Even 25 years ago, traffic would back up, but it would be for an hour or two. Now, it’s four or five hours. What we’re going to move into is six or eight hours, or 10 hours. And then people just stop going.”

Exactly, I thought. At what point will people quit coming up? What is that tipping point?

It’s critical to keep in mind our valley is a limited expanse. It’s critical also that we look at it through the lens of it being a limited resource. Upwards of 80 percent of it is undevelopable. It’s only so wide along its base, a restricted area that struggles to accommodate a major highway, a side road, several communities, and other private homes and businesses.

It comes down to values. Will we summon the political and moral courage to protect our natural treasures not only for environmental reasons but also for maintaining the quality of the product? How much do we value our environment, quality of life, homes, and businesses? For tourists, what value do they place on their time and experiences?

Should we Los Angeles-ize the corridor with more lanes that will certainly encourage more people to come up and sit in idling vehicles? Should we Aurora-ize it by building atop—develop—every parcel in the hope more will come and drop more bucks? At what point, if the answer is yes, will Clear Creek reach a saturation point?

During the recent eclipse, hundreds of thousands of Coloradans made their way up into Wyoming. Right after the peak moment, most revved their engines and headed south. For many, it was a 12-hour commute. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so by all accounts everyone kept his/her cool. To Harelson’s point, that air of good feelings is not likely to happen during angst-filled drive back from skiing. Frustration will boil over into anger, leading to much worse.

We have a call to make, and the time is now. We’re at the tipping point.

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  • Jim Leonard
    September 21, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    Your article pretty much defines one of the major questions that the Clear Creek Econ Dev team must answer. The question goes something like this:

    We want to develop CC County to be an authentic highly desirable destination for mountain recreation, mountain hospitality, mountain ambiance. We want to attract the customers who will really appreciate the mountain culture and spend $$$ and time (days, not hours) in the county. We DO NOT want to attract those who create crowding and congestion but spend little. Preventing/minimizing crowding is critical for two reasons: a high quality of life for CC County residents AND provide a desirable mountain culture experience for the premium visitors/tourists we do want to attract.

    The question: How can we do this?

    For sure this would be very difficult, but smart, innovative people on the CC County Econ Dev team need to think about it and strive to achieve this or a similar set of goals.

  • Lindsey Valdez, President and CEO Clear Creek Economic Development Corporation
    September 21, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    I believe we really need to focus on ramping up shoulder seasons (non-recreational tourism, marketing efforts specific to shoulder periods, etc.). I recently spoke with a CCC business owner in G-town who would love to stay open year-round, but ends up shutting down every January. Her business offers a unique non-recreational tourism opportunity that could be promoted with other activities to increase traffic. I realize that the weather can get interesting during this time of year, so I understand there are some challenges! It was also mentioned that radio stations down the hill rarely report the correct weather for CCC–it may be hazardous further west, but beautiful here. Just some things to think about.