Tuesday, March 30, 2004
It's easy for City Council President Paul Strong to empathize with working-class residents who hold more than two jobs, have a house full of roommates and struggle to stay afloat. He used to be one.
In his early days in Steamboat, Strong worked the gamut of entry-level, ski-bum jobs.
When Strong came to Steamboat in 1990, one of his first job was working as the chip boy at Dos Amigos, filling the complimentary chip bowls. He was also a bus boy at Cipriani's, a restaurant that has changed hands a half dozen times and is now Outlaws.
He worked the front desk at the Phoenix Condominiums, making one of his first Steamboat employers his current City Council colleague, Kathy Connell.
Those were the days when he worked nights, knew almost every bartender in town and skied or snowboarded in the day. Fellow Councilman Steve Ivancie said Strong's working introduction to Steamboat is a great experience as council president.
"It is valuable to be able to draw on that experience first hand, to be in a position of working two to three jobs, struggling to live in a community like this where there is a lot of affluence, where living here, working here, being here is a sacrifice," Ivancie said.
As an accountant with his own business, Strong said he is still part of the working class.
But he no longer works more than one job -- not including the council presidency -- and he only gets to snowboard a dozen times each year.
Strong decided to run for City Council in 1999 after reading in the newspaper that no one was running for his district.
After living in Chicago for nine years, he said he always wanted to be involved in the community, but questioned how much of a difference he could make in a big city. He had never been to a City Council meeting before announcing his candidacy, but friends encouraged him to try.
Strong ran against Ed Mooney and won the District III seat that year. He ran again, unopposed, in 2003 and his fellow council members elected him as president this November.
It's a job that doesn't come with a lot of money, about $800 a month, but is rewarding, he said.
"You are always learning, there is always something new. There are lots of interesting people and you feel like you are accomplishing something," he said.
Ivancie, who has served with Strong for more than two years, calls Strong a welcome addition to council and a pragmatic leader who has an open mind.
"He will defend his position, but is not afraid to change his mind if the facts warrant it," Ivancie said.
But the council president who sits behind the gavel at Centennial Hall every Tuesday night is not the only side of Strong.
He is a man who plays classical music on his piano, is a movie buff who owns most fo the Stanley Kubrick collection and loves a good Rueben sandwich.
Good friend Paul Bialek said Strong has a reputation for being a "rocking" DJ and can pull from his extensive, yet eclectic, LP collection of R&B, oldies and classical music.
His party talents come from a job Strong held in college, working as a general manager of the school's radio station.
Paul was a skier when he first came to Steamboat, but said by the second season he decided to buy a snowboard instead of a pair of rock skis. For years, Paul said he snowboarded on an old-school Burton board, wearing his Sorrel boots with slip-in supports.
"It was really going up lifts, watching people in powder coming down that I decided to snowboard," Paul said. "It looked like the coolest thing. Surfing through snow."
Paul is an avid biker who has participated in both Ride the Rockies and Bicycle Tour of Colorado, grueling events that take riders throughout the state in one week.
Bialek said Strong usually trains for two or three weeks, followed by days of 40 to 100 miles riding a bike over steep mountain passes.
"It's kind of sadistic," Bialek said.
Strong was born in Okemah, Okla., and later moved to Lawrence, Kan.
In high school, he served on student council, sang in the choir and enjoyed photography, hiking and climbing.
After graduating from Washington University in Saint Louis with a degree in economics, his career advanced to a floor trader and broker in Chicago. For nine years, Strong worked on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, working his way up to second vice president of Chase Manhattan Futures.
"It was hours of boredom interspersed with moments of panic, everyone on the whole floor going crazy," Strong said of his past life in Chicago.
When he came to Steamboat, the only skills that he really had were to jump up and down and scream and shout, Strong joked.
Changes at work in Chicago spurred his decision to move west, to a place he'd visited twice, first as a high school student on a field trip and later as an adult on a ski vacation.
When changes started occurring at work back in Chicago, he decided to make a shift in lifestyles.
"I'd been doing the same thing for nine years. It was time for a change," he said. "It was really nice to be back in the mountains. It looked like a great lifestyle."
After juggling entry-level jobs, he worked his way to manager at the Yacht Club.
His entry into accounting came when the Steamboat Springs Arts Council advertised for a comptroller. Although Strong had spent nine years on the trading floor, he admitted to knowing "absolutely nothing" about accounting.
He was a quick study and over time his clientele grew. Soon, he was doing accounting for a restaurant where he once waited tables, charging friends a six-pack of beer each for doing their tax returns and working for a local law firm.
In 1994, Strong decided to go back to school to earn his master's degree and become a certified public account. In 1998, he finished his classes and focused full time on his business. His clientele has been growing every since.
Paul said his business, which now includes two other employees, could grow more, but he has turned down new clients because of time commitments to City Council. "It's amazing how much time he puts in that. It's more than a full-time job," Bialek said of Strong's work on council. "That super strong civic spirit is pretty rare."
Strong won't leave council until 2007, but when that happens he already has big plans. His first goal: learning how to telemark.