With the birth of a new year and a time of reflection, here are some of the top stories and prevailing trends that dominated the pages of The Mountain Jackpot during the last 12 months.
Arsons, devastating blazes and economic angst
2012 was a brutal year for man-made fires, arsons and other disasters, conjuring up images of the Hayman blaze of 2002. And unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse, with the both the gaming community and local tourist businesses poised for their best season in years.
The fire season got off to a horrific start in February 2013, when the 19th century historic town hall in Green Mountain Falls was completely scorched, as part of an arson pursuit by two Colorado Springs men, Zachariah Shaffer and Kyle Lawrence, who sought revenge against law enforcement officers for receiving traffic citations. One of the suspects even had even ties with an anti-government movement. They both incurred serious injuries during the blaze. Luckily, no one else was hurt and the arsonists are now behind bars or awaiting sentencing. They both will collectively serve about 20 years in jail. The suspects were apprehended at a residence in Colorado Springs, following a swift investigation by a multiple of agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
A temporary town hall was set up at the Joyland church facility, while officials are mulling plans to build a new facility. Many historic documents, though, were destroyed.
Then in the early part of the summer, the region, suffering from the driest conditions in 10 years, got hit with the devastating Springer fire in southern Park County. This set the stage for the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history, the Waldo Canyon blaze. This led to the evacuation of about 5,000 people in the Teller and lower Ute Pass areas and more than 30,000 people in Colorado Springs. It also tested the emergency resources of the area, with the entire city of Woodland Park being placed on stand-by evacuation for a week. The main road thoroughfare, U.S. Hwy. 24, was shut down for nearly 10 days, a development that brought local commerce to a standstill. Nearly 400 homes were scorched in western Colorado Springs and several people lost their lives. But the work of several local fire department agencies played a vital role in saving Cascade and Green Mountain Falls. Teller’s financial toll for the Waldo fire has been estimated locally at $100,000.
To make matters worse, the Teller area, around the time of the Springer and Waldo Canyon fires, was hit by an arsonist (or arsonists) who started more than 20 small fires, none of which destroyed any homes. A community reward fund was established through Park State Bank & Trust and local businesses, including The Mountain Jackpot. But to date, the people responsible for the Teller arsons and the Waldo Canyon fire haven’t been caught.
The last year was capped by several pivotal local, state and national elections.
In the spring, the town residents of Green Mountain Falls and Woodland Park elected a vastly new cadre of leaders, including new mayors Lorrie Worthey in GMF and Dave Turley in Woodland Park. The change was especially unusual in Green Mountain Falls, which featured its most competitive municipal election in recent years. However, the selection of new elected leaders in these cities presented new challenges, with local council meetings often turning into lively entertainment shows. Woodland Park forums were dubbed by this newspaper as modern, small town Colorado versions of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”And Teller County, meanwhile, had one its most competitive showdowns for two commissioner spots. At one time, the GOP field attracted as many as six candidates for these positions. But after the dust was settled, following community forums, the county assembly and the primaries, Marc Dettenrieder and Norm Steen emerged as the winners of the District One and District Three seats, currently held by outgoing commissioners Bill Buckhanan and Jim Ignatius.
And on the national stage, the pursuit for the White House put Teller County on the national map. Presidential Republican hopeful, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, mounted a hefty challenge against Mitt Romney in such states as Colorado. He was especially popular among the Tea Party faction of the GOP. A town hall meeting in Woodland Park, featuring a standing-room-only crowd, buoyed his candidacy for a lengthy period last winter and spring, with Santorum winning caucuses/primaries in Colorado and other key states. Eventually, Romney won the nomination, but received quite a licking during the Nov. 6 contest, with Colorado becoming a blue state for the second consecutive time of a presidential race.
In fact, the state’s one-time conservative color came under fire, with state voters, including Teller County electors, approving a ballot proposition to legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana. This vote will have a major impact in 2013, with local cities already crafting new rules regarding how they are going to handle recreational pot.
It was an up and down year for local development activity. Once again, Woodland Park’s key downtown development project at the former Saddle Club site became fodder for debate and discussion. A one-time $60 million Woodland Station proposal, which featured a Vail-like ski village development design with big plans for entertainment, recreation, shopping and housing, was trimmed to a nuts and bolts $5 million plan, merely encompassing an expanded hardware store and Family Dollar and O’Reilly auto parts outlets. The visual impacts for adjacent businesses, along with such issues as parking and infrastructure costs, became quite controversial and highly divided the city council on the merits of the new Woodland Station. On the upside, ground breaking occurred on the project several months ago, marking the first time this former rodeo grounds experienced renewed life.
As for other substantial developments seeing the green light, plans for the nearly $100 million Wommack Ministries project, calling for a Sanctuary, bible college, banquet center and a spree of facilities encompassing more than 200,000 square feet, survived all regulatory hurdles and a unanimous council approval vote. Plus, the newest expansion pursuit of the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company, a bid that called for another life extension of its Cresson permit, the addition of 150 new jobs and new mining activity, was approved with hardly any controversy. The company also opened a new office in Cripple Creek and did more public education forums.
But 2012 wasn’t a good time on the local recreational planning front. Despite the formation of an enthusiastic board of directors, plans for an aqua center in Woodland Park encountered much opposition from elected leaders. And the city of Cripple Creek continued to retreat from its one-time pursuit to develop an expanded recreation center, including a new gymnasium, next to the Henry Hack facility. The city is still searching for a new site for this project.
Special Event and Business Jackpot
Teller communities hit a mini-jackpot, when it came to local events, zany competitions and business activities. The region experienced quite a national buzz from the second annual USA Pro Challenge cycling race, with Woodland Park receiving the nod as a key sprint line location and pass-through juncture for the Stage Five bout between Breckenridge and Colorado Springs. This paved the way for thousands of sports fans and a week-long cycling party, not to mention international media coverage. Unfortunately, the race organizers opted to snub the region for the race in 2013. Downtown Woodland Park also bustled with art walks and signature cultural/artistic displays, a boom in wine tasting retail areas and a healthy growth in sales tax revenue. The Cripple Creek/Victor district also tried to recreate some of the former events that fell by the wayside in recent years, such as the chili cook-off, gravity race and a new Mine to Mine running competition. Victor also experienced one of the more remarkable rebounds that the town has experienced in recent decades.
And Cripple Creek also displayed a slight business rebound, capped by the opening of a new casino and a gaming expansion, courtesy of The Rush and Big Jim’s. Gaming revenue also showed their first signs of positive growth, based on overall betting volume in nearly a decade. Unfortunately, the Waldo Canyon fire impacted the area’s gaming and tourism surge. But on the upside, Cripple Creek benefitted from several key state decisions, including a measure that would allow casino companies to operate with multi-licenses. Plus, another plan to compete with Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk by having video lottery terminals at race tracks, died in the state legislature. The city also completed the paper work for a record amount of infrastructure and transportation-related grants, which will come into play in 2013.
Election Official Showdown
No year can be complete in Teller without a good old-fashion squabble between county election officials.
In the last few months of 2012, the Teller government hosted a lively showdown between head County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius and Clerk and Recorder Judith “JJ” Jamison. At issue were election problems that occurred in the running of the primary contests in late June. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler and other election observers released scathing reports, which forced the county to hire outside election consultants to run the Nov. 6 presidential election. The end result is that the Teller government had to foot the bill for more than $260,000 in election costs, when it only budgeted a little more than $80,000. The most recent report, issued by election consultant Al Davidson, further enraged Ignatius who pointed the finger at Jamison at several public meetings. The other commissioners also expressed concerns over the fiscal impacts of this situation and the clerk’s leadership skills. The board, though, was quite happy with the current staff of the clerk and recorder’s office.
Other Notable Stories
*A brief and lively pursuit for an adult cabaret in Cripple Creek, resulting in a standing-room-only crowd, but one that didn’t permit any public comment.
*The addition of “stupid” ordinances in Woodland Park, such as the “Chicken Law” and a temporary prohibition against alcohol in the downtown
*The continual conflicts between Sheriff Mike Ensminger and a group of critics, formerly known as Teller Watch, with threats of a recall campaign, but little definitive action.
*More tragic drownings at area lakes/reservoirs.