Year in Review 2020 for Clear Creek County

Corinne Westeman and Deb Hurley Brobst
cwesteman@coloradocommunitymedia.com and dbrobst@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/31/20

COVID-19 pandemic uproots everyday life

On March 13, Clear Creek County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. By Dec. 21, the county had 257 confirmed cases and two fatalities.

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Year in Review 2020 for Clear Creek County

Posted

COVID-19 pandemic uproots everyday life

On March 13, Clear Creek County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. By Dec. 21, the county had 257 confirmed cases and two fatalities.

Starting in mid-March, life as Clear Creek residents knew it changed completely. Under a statewide Stay-at-Home order, schools went online, bars closed and restaurants could only offer food to go, and churches and fitness centers turned to streaming services and video conferences to connect with participants. Only essential businesses, such as grocery stores and gas stations, remained open.

By the late spring and early summer, a small sense of normalcy started to return as restrictions eased. Retail stores and personal services reopened and restaurants offered limited indoor capacity.

During the summer, both Idaho Springs and Georgetown instituted pedestrian malls to encourage outdoor dining and social distancing, and by July, local guide companies were seeing plenty of bookings amid limited capacities.

Clear Creek schools started the 2020-21 school year in-person, but by fall, things started to worsen.

In November, the county moved to Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial. This restricts restaurants’ indoor dining, limits capacity at other businesses, and prohibits social gatherings.

As of Dec. 21, the county remains in Level Red, although its situation is improving, local health officials stated. Restaurants moved to Level Orange, allowing for 25% indoor capacity, with a cap of 50 people.

School properties sold; playgrounds updated

2020 was a year of major changes for Clear Creek School District’s properties.  

Clear Creek High School’s new turf athletic field, complete with a concession stand and announcer’s booth, is expected to be ready in time for spring sports. 

The new athletic field allowed the school board to sell the iconic Golddigger Field and the bus barn properties in Idaho Springs for $2.5 million to Four Points Development for multifamily housing. The company has promised community input in the development.

The school board has entertained several offers in the last few years from developers wanting to buy the properties, and board members said Four Points seemed to have the best interests of the community at heart. 

District officials continue to mull over whether the former middle school building, dubbed Building 103, should be converted into a state-of-the-art facility and move Carlson Elementary students there, or whether the district should spend the money to refurbish the 80-year-old Carlson building. 

Georgetown Community School received its new playground in August, just in time for the school year, and work began in November to remove the old equipment on Carlson Elementary School’s playground in anticipation of its new equipment. Funding is coming from a mill levy override approved by voters in November 2018. 

King-Murphy Elementary School’s new playground will wait a while longer because a retaining wall needs to be replaced first. 

Hillman keeps mayoral seat in recall election

Whether to recall Mike Hillman as mayor divided Idaho Springs residents earlier this year.

After a petition collected sufficient signatures in late 2019, the City Council approved an April 7 recall election date. A few weeks later, resident and local business owner Mike Kowalewski received enough signatures to be on the ballot as a candidate if Hillman were recalled.

By mid-March, the city seemed split down the middle. Those opposing the recall said Hillman had helped improve the town’s infrastructure, such as Colorado Boulevard, and felt the election was a waste of city funds. The pro-recall voters said Hillman hadn’t been very responsive toward residents’ needs and were generally concerned about the city’s rate of development.

Meanwhile, the candidates themselves agreed that there should be a balance between tourism and residents’ quality of life, but differed on what exactly that meant.

Ultimately, Hillman retained his office as mayor with 59 percent of voters against the recall.

Hillman’s term ends in November.

Rec district leadership changes

Clear Creek Metropolitan Recreation District’s leadership looks completely different than it did 12 months ago.

In the spring, with all five seats up for election, 20 candidates entered the district’s May 5 board of directors election. Although some later withdrew, it still was a record number of candidates for any CCMRD election, officials said.

Long-term financial stability, a wider variety of programming and expanding child care were among the candidates’ goals.

The entire CCMRD turned over as the two incumbent candidates were not re-elected. Laura Allen, Meghan Vickers and Tom Harvey won the three-year term seats, while Marcie King and Kate Collier won the two-year term seats.

Collier later resigned, as did her successor, Ona Crow. On Dec. 9, the board appointed Scott Yard to take over the remainder of the two-year term.

General Manager Rob Carter resigned effective June 19 to work for another special district. After months of searching, the board hired Cameron Marlin, an Idaho Springs native and library district staff member, in early October.

Marlin said she hopes the district will be better than ever under her leadership, and already has initiated the ice rink and other projects to draw more users, offer more programs and diversify revenue streams amid the pandemic.

Clinic construction, fundraising underway

With health on everyone’s minds in 2020, financing and building the collaborative care clinic in Idaho Springs became more important than ever.

In late April, the Clear Creek Board of County Commissioners approved entering into a 10-year lease-purchase agreement for $4.45 million to finance the clinic’s construction. County officials are expecting to pay the funds back through a combination of rental income and $3.1 million in philanthropic donations.

Then, in late July, the board unanimously approved a contract with Thornton-based Alliance Construction Solutions LLC to build the clinic.

Officials had hoped to break ground in early August, however, it was delayed until the county and Centura Health could sign a lease agreement. In early September, Clear Creek gave Alliance Construction the go-ahead to start work, and officials hosted a groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 16.

The county is looking to open the clinic in July and now has about $4.4 million of the projected $7.1 million total cost. Fundraising remains a top priority going into 2021.

Access to public lands restricted

Thanks to the pandemic and dry conditions, it was difficult for Coloradans to access some of their favorite spots in Clear Creek.

On April 11, county roads were closed to non-residents, as officials described, to protect local first responders and residents by curbing COVID-19 spread from recreational traffic. Safety officials said it was effective in reducing recreation-related calls for Clear Creek EMS and Alpine Rescue Team.

The closures were lifted on June 4.

On Oct. 21, as wildfires were raging across the state, the U.S. Forest Service enacted a Stage 3 fire ban that closed all lands in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. Land managers across Clear Creek quickly followed suit, seeing the immediate danger.

The closures were lifted on Nov. 10.

Mount Evans’ quiet summer, uncertain future

While it was a strange year for recreation in general, Mount Evans, in particular, was in the spotlight.

The highway from Echo Lake to the summit, which is typically open between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, was closed to motor vehicle traffic for health and financial reasons. Because of COVID-19, USFS said there would be more expenses to operate the area safely while receiving fewer revenues.

The closure didn’t stop hikers, cyclists and runners from enjoying the mostly empty highway, though.

Additionally, the mountain’s name has come under more serious scrutiny in the wake of 2020’s national movements for racial equality. Then-territorial Gov. John Evans is believed to have authorized the Sand Creek Massacre that killed dozens of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

This summer, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reformed the state’s naming advisory board to review the petitions to rename Mount Evans and other Colorado features.

In November, the Oklahoma-based Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and The Wilderness Group submitted a petition to rename the peak Mount Blue Sky, a name that honors both tribes. The petitioners were hopeful to have a decision by mid-2021.

The county commissioners have not yet declared support or non-support for any of the petitions, and conversations continue at the local and state levels.

Downtown Georgetown building burns

The historic Georgetown building that houses Lucha Cantina at the Red Ram was partially burned in a May 15 structure fire. No one was injured, and the bulk of the damage was in the main floor’s dining room. The kitchen and famous rathskeller were relatively untouched.

The current Lucha Cantina owners, who had taken over the restaurant a few months earlier, were trying to build up its customer base. The Stay-at-Home order was a gut punch, but the fire hurt even more.

However, Lucha Cantina will be back. The owners’ initial estimate was a year to reopen the building.

Shortly after the fire, Georgetown community members rallied behind the restaurant and hosted various fundraisers to assist the employees and prepare a food truck, saying they wanted to see the historic building restored.

The Board of Selectmen approved the restaurant’s food truck in early June and it was a part of downtown’s pedestrian mall over the summer and fall. The truck was still operating out of a Sixth Street parking spot in late December.

Half-century since WSU plane crash

Friday, Oct. 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the Wichita State University plane crash on Mount Trelease in western Clear Creek County.

For several days in early October, the Dry Gulch trailhead along Interstate 70 was lined with dozens of cars as locals and visitors alike climbed to the crash site to commemorate the 31 WSU football players, staff and fans who died from the “Gold Plane” crash.

Oct. 2, 1970 is the single-deadliest day in Clear Creek history.

A contingent of local WSU alumni and the victims’ family members and friends held a small memorial service on Oct. 2 at the site. Meanwhile, three cyclists — including one of the survivors — and their friends and family started a weeklong pilgrimage from Wichita that concluded Oct. 10 at Mount Trelease.

Many who made the trek to mark the anniversary said it was a healing experience.

Officials stress accurate count for 2020 census

In January, Clear Creek County was gearing up for the 2020 census. As a smaller, rural county, getting an accurate county is crucial to receive federal funding for schools, medical programs, infrastructure and other items, county officials said.

The county, the municipalities and other local entities put a combined $24,000, along with a $50,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, to hire a census outreach coordinator and spread the word about the census. Hard-to-count populations, such as those without broadband access and young children whose parents need to include them, were of particular concern.

The U.S. Census Bureau started sending out forms in mid-March and Census Day was April 1. Because of the pandemic, door-to-door questionnaire deliveries were put on pause in the spring, and the deadline to respond to the census was pushed back to the fall.

By mid-June, local officials were worried about the county’s low response rate of 39 percent. Staff and volunteers continued to call and text residents, started taking tablets to local restaurants and put up additional signs and advertisements.

In early August, the countywide response rate had greatly improved and officials were focused on individual areas with low response rates, such as Idaho Springs. Electronic messaging boards and postcard reminders continued into the early fall, and Clear Creek began switching its focus to economic recovery.

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