Telluride Academy

From left, Telluride Academy’s program director Sophie Fabrizio, executive director Luke Brown, registrar and marketing director Sonja Ames, and finance director Larry Rosen. (Courtesy photo)

The Telluride Academy earlier this month closed on a property located along the Highway 62 river corridor, approximately four mile miles past Placerville in Leopard Creek. The 3.8-acre parcel, adjacent to public lands, is a high desert landscape dotted with scrub oak and pinon trees with natural sandstone terraces. Amidst sunny meadows is a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house.

“The academy has always been on the hunt for a piece of property where we can take students and enhance programming,” executive director Luke Brown said.

Over the past six months, however, the focus for land acquisition changed from enriching programming to securing staff housing, which became especially concerning when the academy started hiring for the summer season in January.

“We saw a marked change in the frequency of applications with people hesitating to pursue Telluride because of housing,” Brown explained. “Which put the fire under us as an organization to get serious about addressing affordable housing for our staff.”

Jay Markley, who’s served as president of the academy’s board of directors for the past two years, said staff housing has been a challenge for many years and is only getting worse.

“The team and board has discussed this issue for years and agreed to pursue a long-term solution if one presented itself,” he said. “So when the Leopard Creek opportunity came around, we were ready to move.”

The academy intends to build yurts on the property for additional staff housing during peak seasons. They’ll also be used as classrooms, as well as allowing kids to camp, explore and recreate on the land. The space is ideal for storing the academy’s fleet of vehicles and trailers, while existing sheds and outbuildings on the property can store outdoor gear. With a well on-site, Brown sees potential to construct a greenhouse where campers might harvest food.

But the most critical issue addressed by the purchase is year-round staff housing. Between the yurts, car camping, bunk beds and single rooms, there’s potential to house up to 14 people during the summer and up to eight people during the winter.

“The rates we’re going to be able to offer staff will be substantially below what market rates are for Telluride,” Brown said.

The academy has already started collaborating with other nonprofits that face similar housing challenges, specifically Telluride Adaptive Sports, which has first right-of-refusal for two of the bedrooms in the wintertime for staff.

Upon closing, a crew ripped out old carpets in the house to install brand new flooring, while painters refreshed interior walls. The target date for staff move-in is Monday.

“Next hiring season, we can use the house as part of the job posting, and we’ll get to choose our top candidates early,” Brown said. “‘Come to Telluride and work for Telluride Academy. Affordable housing available!’ That alone is going to be a huge draw and will also help with staff retention.”

In order to expedite a quick closing to house staff immediately, the academy drew from its endowment for a bridge loan.

“As the academy celebrates 40 years, we hope to host a series of fundraising events and reunions with the Telluride community, academy alumni and staff to raise money through a capital campaign for the acquisition of our new ‘home,’” noted Allison Templin, who has served on the academy board of directors for nearly six years, and volunteered her real estate brokering services, time and expertise to close the deal.

“Alpine Bank was amazing working with us,” Brown added. “They saw our vision and our goal and understood why we were trying to close quickly.”

Brown believes that asking donors to give to a staff housing campaign is compelling because the academy is taking initiative to solve a problem, while also protecting the integrity of its program and brand.

“Our staff makes the academy experience what it is,” he said. “So paying down this expense, along with fortifying tuition assistance, will be our fundraising narrative for the next few years.”

Since 2011, the academy has owned a small commercial condominium in the Cimarron complex where managing staff operates year-round. A combination of donations and a capital grant from the Telluride Foundation helped pay the mortgage off in 18 months.

While acquiring the Leopard Creek parcel is exciting, Brown said that the academy is still looking for its “forever home,” a property that checks all of the boxes: Enhancing programming while providing storage and staff housing.

“We’re interested in doing more outreach programming where we might bring in groups from other school districts or youth organizations,” he said. “For us to do that effectively, we’re going to need a place to start boarding students.”

Markley feels confident that the Leopard Creek parcel will help sustain the organization moving forward.

“Leopard Creek is a fantastic step forward to ensure we can continue to provide outdoor experiences for both local families and out of town guests for many years to come,” he said.