Another Silverton town administrator has resigned – marking the departure of the sixth town administrator in the past seven years and bringing to light deep divides in the small mountain town as it faces an uncertain future.
Silverton town trustees on Monday accepted the resignation of administrator John Reiter, whose last day in the position is Feb. 19.
The resignation highlights a deep chasm in the community of about 600 residents, as differing views about the town’s future, namely the possible expansion of Kendall Mountain into a larger ski area, come to a head.
“The size of our community is growing, and with that comes different requests and desires, while still trying to keep that historic feeling of the community and small-town atmosphere,” said Trustee Jim Harper. “Change is sometimes difficult.”
Reiter, who declined to comment for this article, was hired in 2019 amid a shakeup at town hall after the previous town manager, Louis Fineberg, was abruptly placed on administrative leave the year before, without explanation to the public.
Harper, who also owns the historic Grand Imperial Hotel, said Reiter, a former Purgatory Resort employee, deftly navigated the job as well as the tricky and sometimes hard-to-please personalities around the small town.
But in Harper’s view, the dynamics started to change after the April election, which saw the appointments of newer, younger residents who have different ideas about the direction of the town.
“We have a strong, dynamic group of trustees,” Harper said. “(Reiter) has a very difficult task, and I believe our new board asked more of him during a very difficult time in this global (COVID-19) pandemic.”
The hot topic in Silverton these days is whether to expand Kendall Mountain, and if so, to what extent.
Kendall Mountain, as it stands, is a small, low-key ski area with one chairlift that features five groomed trails and a couple of tree runs on about 16 acres on the east side of town.
In recent years, some town residents believe a concerted expansion of Kendall Mountain could turn Silverton into a regional outdoor hub, bringing a jolt to the economy, luring in new restaurants and stores, as well as more visitors and residents.
Other residents, however, see a massive expansion as a possible detriment to Silverton, which could push out locals and compromise the town’s historic character, as other ski towns like Aspen and Telluride have experienced.
“I still can’t understand how you can want to put our community in that situation to want to be like Telluride,” said Trustee Molly Barela. “It is divisive and has split our town.”
Barela, who has lived in Silverton for 46 years and owns the Golden Block Brewery, said the original intent was to develop Kendall Mountain on a smaller scale, like Monarch Mountain near Salida.
“A lot of the old guard, they don’t want (a massive expansion of Kendall Mountain), they want something for the community, that’s what the original plan was,” she said. “This is my home, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore.”
Harper, too, said Silverton is under all the pressures that come with growth.
“I think Silverton, like other municipalities, is having the same issues,” he said. “But due to our size, it’s probably more magnified.”
Indeed, tensions flared at Monday’s town trustee meeting.
The circumstances around Reiter’s resignation are confidential in nature, so a lot is unknown.
Silverton Mayor Shane Fuhrman said at the meeting Reiter recently had more than 20 unnoticed, unexcused absences, leaving staff members without leadership, resulting in missed deadlines and creating a liability for the town.
“We’re here because he hasn’t been able to be reliable as an administrator,” Fuhrman said.
Harper, in response, said trustees were not supposed to discuss the circumstances of Reiter’s departure, though the town’s attorney ultimately said no privacy laws were violated.
“I believe several members of this board are out of order, extremely out of order,” Harper said. “I am very disappointed.”
Harper, speaking to The Durango Herald, said some new town trustees who want to accelerate growth, as well as the expansion of Kendall Mountain, have put too much workload on Reiter, which is likely at least one factor in his resignation.
“We’ve asked more of him than I think we know and put more on his shoulders than we’ve realized,” he said. “It’s been a lot for him.”
Fuhrman, also speaking to the Herald, acknowledged he is “eager” to explore the options for Kendall Mountain, but doesn’t believe that effort has anything to do with Reiter’s resignation.
“It’s unfortunate we’re not able to clarify (Reiter’s departure),” Fuhrman said. “It would be wonderful to just tell everyone everything so we could be on the same page, but that’s not possible.”
Fuhrman moved to Silverton in 2016 from New York City, purchasing and renovating the historic Wyman Hotel. He acknowledged some residents in town regard him as overly pro-development, but he said that’s not true.
Fuhrman said there’s a strong push to understand the potential options for Kendall Mountain’s development, and some residents conflate the desire to understand the options as pursuing development.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this community that’s gung-ho to build and develop, we just want to understand what the options are,” he said. “The people critical of me discount the idea I want to maintain Silverton’s character.”
Kendall Mountain’s development is in the early planning stages, though Purgatory Resort’s James Coleman, as well as Silverton Mountain’s Aaron and Jenn Brill, have separately expressed interest in taking on the project.
The one obvious, major obstacle is funding.
A 2018 feasibility study estimated a full build-out of about 800 acres of skiable terrain could cost around $25 million. For the mountain to break even, it would need about 1,000 visitors a day in the winter.
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir said he heard from a lot of residents who are against the proposed expansion when he was out on the campaign trail last fall.
Many residents, Fetchenheir said, question whether the mountain would be financially viable and what impact 1,000 visitors a day would have on the town’s quality of life.
“It has such far-reaching impacts,” he said. “You need to talk to every single person in this town and see if that’s what they envision for Silverton. I think you really need to get the pulse of the community.”
(Silverton Mountain is located just outside the town of Silverton and features expert terrain. Proponents of Kendall Mountain hope it would offer beginner to intermediate terrain.)
In the meantime, Silverton has to find its next leader.
Fuhrman, for his part, believes the position will still attract high-quality candidates, despite the turnover in recent years.
The newly appointed mayor believes the town should consider changing some of the structure of the town administrator position to create a higher likelihood of success and ensure more longevity in the position.
Since 2006, the town of Silverton has had 10 administrators leave for various reasons, sometimes for personal reasons, sometimes in controversy.
“The nature of the role is just difficult,” Fuhrman said. “But I’m optimistic about where Silverton is today. Silverton appears to me to be a more cohesive community than in the past.”
Barela, however, is less convinced of the cohesiveness of the board, in part because members haven’t met in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because new trustees seem to be pushing their desire for increased development.
“They want to push what their agenda is, and some of the old guard is pushing back,” she said. “It’s a very difficult position. We might as well be in Washington, D.C., because we’re very divided on issues.”
Requests for comment to several other town trustees were not returned.