Steamboat Springs Olympian Johnny Spillane and four local business partners are exploring the viability of building a casino, hotel and entertainment venue on land near Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
The partnership faces many hurdles along the way, including winning the support of surrounding communities, finding an American Indian tribe to work with, jumping through the federal regulatory hoops and getting approval from the governor.
“We’re still definitely in the process of gathering information,” said Steve Hofman, one of the group’s partners. “If we reach the point that we say that the project’s not viable, we’ll say that.”
Spillane discussed the idea Thursday with Hofman, a Steamboat resident who spent much of his career in Washington, D.C., and was a U.S. assistant secretary of labor under former President George H. W. Bush.
Meetings have been held with business leaders and council members in Hayden, Craig and Steamboat, with the goal of soliciting feedback before plans went “too far down the road,” Spillane said.
“We’re going out of our way to do this slowly and to do this right,” he said.
Hofman said that future market research would determine how big the development would be and that the group is in the process of researching what the economic impact would be.
“The numbers that we have are very positive,” Spillane said. “We’re making sure we have the best info possible before we put it out there.”
Hofman said that the group is moving forward and that it envisions a project that would generate jobs, provide profit sharing for impacted communities and create more of a draw for tourism year-round.
“We don’t anticipate people looking at this and coming to this valley to gamble exclusively,” Spillane said. “This is something that will attract people in a way that other ski areas and other outdoor areas can’t do. It’s just an added benefit to what already exists.”
Hofman said the the other men involved in the partnership are Hayden resident Dave Marin, Hayden developer Stefanus Nijsten and his business partner Bob Zibel. Nijsten and Zibel developed the Creek View project on the west side of Hayden, and Zibel owns a 187-acre parcel along Routt County Road 51A just northeast of YVRA.
Hofman said that the location by the airport makes sense because the airport needs a hotel and that a casino and entertainment venue would be a regional draw.
“We see this as a piece of regional economic development,” Hofman said. “If it were to be just at the ski area, there would be the sense that it’s just about Steamboat, and it’s not. It’s about the valley.”
Hofman said recent regulatory changes make the possibility of building a casino more of a reality. He said the group needs to find an American Indian tribe that would own the casino and a firm to manage it. Gaining regulatory approval would be expensive, Hofman said, and the governor would have to sign off.
“We’re not going to ask our governor to support a project that our community doesn’t support,” Hofman said.
It could be two or more years before any building started, Hofman said.
Steamboat Springs City Council President Bart Kounovsky called the project interesting and said it was too early to say whether he would support it.
“They’ve got a lot of work to do in regards to getting the residents of the Yampa Valley educated in regards to the impact both good and bad a project like this would have,” Kounovsky said.
Craig City Council member Ray Beck said he thought the plan presented potential opportunities.
“It appeared like this was going to be a huge opportunity for economic development and job growth benefiting the whole valley,” said Beck, who also is on the Yampa Valley Regional Airport Commission.
Hayden Mayor Jim Haskins said the Hayden Town Council has heard about the project.
Haskins said the town would be mistaken to not consider any sort of development proposal for land surrounding YVRA.
“I have a very open mind about this,” Haskins said. “It’s kind of interesting. It was interesting last time this happened.”
In July 1999 the Northern Ute Indian Tribe approached the town about building a casino near the airport. A survey of 450 Hayden residents found that 70 percent were against it, and the Hayden Town Board voted unanimously to deny the proposal.
Spillane still committed to skiing
Since the 2010 Olympics, Spillane, 31, said he has been considering options for when his Nordic combined career ends. He said he was approached by Hofman in spring 2011 about the casino project.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Yes, I would be interested in it,’ and it’s something that I feel is really exciting for the valley and the communities it would affect because it’s something that can set our tourist industry ... apart from anything else that’s in Colorado.
Hofman said Spillane’s partnership has more to do with Spillane’s deep roots in the community than it does with his celebrity status.
“My role in this is not going to be someone who stands at the front and is going to sign autographs for people to come inside a casino,” Spillane said. “My intention is to be a partner and do everything I can do to make sure this is a project we can all be proud of.”
Spillane said he talked with his coach Thursday and told him that he would continue preparing and training to compete the same as he has the past 15 years.
“This is a big project, and if and when it moves forward, if it requires more of my time, I will re-evaluate. ... But right now, I have every intention of continuing to be an athlete and a competitor,” Spillane said.
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