Still reeling from the Great Recession, with local businesses under tremendous pressure as they wait for the economy to improve, Telluride just completed a phenomenal week that offers real hope to anyone trying to make a living here.
The community just celebrated the completion of the major phase of runway improvements at the Telluride Regional Airport, brilliantly hosted its first World Cup, and saw the revival of its landmark destination hotel. All three of these major developments reflect that fact that at least some portion of the local population has been hard at work to build a sustainable visitor-based economy.
Reliable, affordable access. Full-service accommodations. And major events to bring visitors during shoulder seasons. Most serious observers would agree that these are three of the most significant bases of a tourist economy for Telluride. All three have been challenging over the last three decades. But as of last week, Telluride made huge gains in all three.
Even though it is almost 25-years-old, the Telluride Airport has not yet fulfilled its potential. The reason has been the notorious dip in the original runway, which kept the airport below the safety rating it could achieve from the Federal Aviation Administration without the dip. A higher safety rating would qualify the airport for more types of aircraft.
That improved safety rating is now, hopefully, just one year away. The dip is gone, following $24 million in work last summer, and just one summer’s construction remains for the airport to be able to accommodate 74-passenger Q400 planes. The bulk of that work is already approved and funded by the FAA for next year. Even assuming the airport achieves its new rating, there will remain challenges before the airport actually sees its first scheduled Q400 flights, not least getting airlines to come here. (This will be especially problematic if the Telluride and Montrose Regional Air Organization declines to participate, as, unfortunately, it has for the most part for the last decade.) But for the first time it will be possible. If we can actually get frequent, affordable flights between DIA and TEX, we may finally be at the point where we no longer have to battle the longstanding perception (and reality) that Telluride has been expensive and difficult to get to. That can only help us build visitation numbers to a sustainable level.
It has taken almost a quarter-century of persistence and patience from the Telluride Regional Airport Authority Board of Directors to get this far. Twenty-four year board chair John Micetic was honored at Thursday’s celebration of the new runway’s completion by having the airport renamed the Telluride Regional Airport at Micetic Field, a well-deserved recognition. Not only Micetic and the board, but current and 17-year airport director Rich Nuttall and former airport director Dick Arnold deserve credit, as do former Telski CEO Ron Allred and President Jim Wells, and many others.
Immediately after Thursday’s Grand Opening of the new airport runway – featuring the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and garnering national media attention – there was a large event at The Peaks to celebrate Telluride’s first World Cup. There were a reported 700 people there, which begs a question: Can anyone remember the last time The Peaks hosted such a large gala?
Under the new ownership of a local group of investors, with a new management team in place and with the irrepressible Mike Hess running the sales and marketing operation, The Peaks has jumped back to life after years of decrepitude. OK, decrepit may be (a tad) too strong to describe how lackluster The Peaks has been for at least the last ten years and irrepressible may be too weak to describe Hess, who has always excelled at throwing a party, but there is no question that The Peaks finally shows promise of fulfilling its potential. As is true of the airport, there is more work to be done to get there, more parties, more marketing, more renovations. But there is every indication now that it will happen. And Telluride has not just one major hotel now, but two, with the Capella Telluride up and running. Yes, both are in Mountain Village, leaving the town of Telluride out in the bitter cold with its handful of very small boutique hotels and aging condos and no full-service hotel. But still, we can now, as a resort, actually match up to other major ski resort destinations in terms of accommodations. Like the improved airport, this development has been a very long time coming. Its apparent arrival is seriously overdue, and all the more welcome for that.
Finally, kudos to Telluride Ski and Golf Co. CEO Dave Riley, who has done more than anyone would have thought possible just a few years back, deploying extremely limited resources to improve the Telluride Ski Area. This includes not only opening up spectacular new terrain, but also luring the FIS and USSA to Telluride for a snowboarding World Cup this past week. Thanks to early-season snow, Telluride looked and skied great last week, as we hosted athletes and their entourages and the international media. World Cup events put ski resorts on the map, and this one was Telluride’s first. But it may not be the last, with early indications that Telluride pulled it off – thanks to untold hours of work by Telski employees, the Telluride Visitors Board under the leadership of Scott McQuade, and others on the Telluride World Cup Organizing Committee. The week before Christmas has never been a big week in Telluride, but it was big this year, and will be big, hopefully, for years to come. One more week of robust business in an economy that enjoys, at best, 15 or 16 good weeks a year, is a major achievement.
As is true of air service (actually getting the flights here) and hotel accommodations (especially in the moribund town of Telluride), there is more to be done in terms of both ski area improvements and adding weeks of viable commerce to our still-frail economy. More money is needed for marketing, for example, if the Telluride Tourism Board is to build on an encouraging start in successfully giving Telluride an effective position in a highly competitive market.
But there will be time to look to the challenges ahead. For now, this week before the holidays in this most challenging time, we can stop briefly and celebrate the glass that may now, finally, be more than half full.