Resort real estate finally flattens

ASPEN – Real estate sales that began slowing mid-way through 2007 have fallen hard in several major resort markets.

The Aspen Times reports that the dollar volume of real-estate sales in Pitkin County plummeted 42 percent during the first two months of this year, as compared to last year. Just $258 million passed hands.

In Vail-dominated Eagle County, the story was much the same. There, looking only at January, theVail Daily found the lowest sales volume in four years. The newspaper, however, did not do a comparison with last year.

Real-estate agents contacted by theTimes acknowledged the down-turn, but warned against making too much of it. “You have brokers saying the market is in the tank, the prices are declining,” said Mike Russo, managing partner of Aspen Land and Homes Sotheby’s International Reality. In fact, he said, the sales volume – if down significantly from last year – is still better than three of the previous five years.

“It’s not the great cause for alarm that everybody thinks,” he said.

But, if not declining in value, real estate isn’t likely to appreciate at the 20 to 30 percent annual clip of recent years, said Chuck Frias, managing partner with Frias Properties. Like Russo, however, he sees no particular reason for alarm.

“This is very similar to past cycles, so it’s not a surprise to me,” he said. “It’s no surprise to any of us who have been in the business in Aspen for some time.”

Slower ski season forecasted

SUMMIT COUNTY – Ralf Garrison delivered a report in theSummit Daily News of silver-lined dark clouds in U.S. ski-based tourism.

Garrison’s Mountain Travel Research Program, which tracks the destination ski sector, found that from November through January, occupancy was down 1.5 percent. Bookings for the rest of ski season similarly suggest declines. However, the average daily room rate for early winter was up nearly 10 percent.

Consumer confidence is lagging, oil prices are now hovering above $100 per barrel, and the dollar is at a record low, he noted. But the silver lining is that the weak dollar should attract more international visitors.

News from Vail Resorts confirms this. Rob Katz, the chief executive officer, reported a 23 percent increase in well-heeled international guests at the company’s five ski areas through January, which Katz said helps make up for a decline in domestic skiers. Skier visits at Vail dropped 6.2 percent, and at Beaver Creek they were down 1.5 percent.

Vail expects to invest up to $110 million at its five ski areas and ancillary base area hotels and other operations, Katz told reporters.

Iraq veteran dies shoveling snow

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – The supreme irony was immediately evident. Eric O’Hara had survived combat for 15 months in both Afghanistan and Iraq only to suffer a violent death a month later in what is an essentially service job in the bucolic setting near the Steamboat ski area. He fell to his death six floors from the roof of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel while shoveling snow.

He had released a safety clip to more easily move along a rope to which he was attached for protection. A piece of ice then broke, and he slid down the sloped roof and fell over the edge.

The Steamboat Pilot & Todayreports that hundreds of mourners attended a memorial service for O’Hara, including soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division in which O’Hara had served.

He led more than 80 combat missions and was a gunner as well as a paratrooper. “The gunner is personally responsible for the safety of everyone in the vehicle and sits exposed on the top,” said Maj. Charles Claffey. “He would be right beside me through hell or high water. I am without a doubt here only because of his actions in Iraq.”

Among the survivors is a step-sister, Heidi Montag, who grew up in Crested Butte and is a central object of an MTV reality show and was recently on the cover ofMaximmagazine.

Snowboard-only resort suggested

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Taos will drop its ban on snowboards effective March 19, but Michael Pearlman, sports editor of theJackson Hole News&Guide, doesn’t see it as a forward march of civilization.

“I don’t subscribe to stereotypes of snowboarders as disre

spectful, but there’s no question that they use a mountain’s terrain differently,” he writes. “If you’ve never seen a snowboarder wipe a steep, narrow chute clean of snow, kneel underneath a blind rollover or lay waste to a powder field that could have housed the untracked turns of a dozen skiers, then you haven’t spent much time in the mountains.”

He notes a challenge issued in December by Jake Burton, founder of Burton Snowboards, offering a $5,000 reward for the most creative video showing snowboarding on one of the (now three) remaining ski resorts that bans snowboards. Until the remaining “elitists and fascist resorts lift their Draconian ban, there should be no rest, no justice,” says the promotional video issued by Burton.

Pearlman’s response to Burton: Take those millions of dollars you’ve earned by selling snowboarding as a countercultural alternative to skiing and purchase a small resort and ban skiers.

Front Range looks for ski access

TABERNASH – The debate continues about how to best defy Colorado’s mountainous geography between Denver and the mountain resorts. This winter has brought a spate of new ideas – including some old ideas filched from the discard bin.

One of those ideas is to build a new highway directly west from Boulder across 11,775-foot Devil’s Thumb Pass and down to Tabernash, located between Winter Park and Granby. “I would be glad to pay for a small toll for an alternative to waiting on I-70,” writes Glenn Glass in a letter published in theRocky Mountain News.

This and other ideas for traversing Colorado’s Front Range have been around since at least the middle of the 20th century. Instead, highway engineers bored the range with the Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels – which is probably why Summit County now is a virtual city, while Middle Park, whereas Granby and Winter Park is sometimes called “Colorado as it used to be.”

Steamboat closes in on snow record

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – With a month left in ski season, Steamboat ski area had reported 436.5 inches of snowfall. Only a foot more, reports theSteamboat Pilot & Today’s Tom Ross, and Steamboat will surpass its all-time record of almost 448 inches of snow at mid-mountain, which was recorded in April 1997.

What has been remarkable about this winter, says Mike Lane, spokesman for the ski area, has been consistency. There was measurable new snow on 26 days in January, and then 20 days in February. Included in those two months was a streak of 26 consecutive days of snowfall.

That falls well short of the remarkable run of 40 consecutive days of measurable snow in late 1983, but this winter’s total snowfall has nonetheless been greater.

Gangs arrive in the Park City area

PARK CITY, Utah – If not a major problem, police in Park City and surrounding Summit County are keeping a close eye on 30 gang members living there as well as the 5,000 documented gang members in the nearby Salt Lake Valley, about 30 miles away.

“We do not have a major problem here yet,” said Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds. “We are trying to prevent any type of foothold they are attempting to establish here.”

Gang members have been fingered in several robberies and cases of vandalism. About four-fifths of the gang members are Latino, some of whom have been members of gangs or been influenced by gangs in California.

“The entertainment venues attract gang members,” Andrew Burton, a gang expert, toldThe Park Record.

Eagle Valley teachers get a raise

EAGLE VALLEY –Teachers in public schools in the Eagle Valley are getting pay raises. The new base pay will be $38,650, second only to Aspen, which starts teachers at $40,000.

However, teachers can earn bonuses by agreeing to teach at schools with higher poverty rates, reports theVail Daily, or by having advanced degrees and experience. A teacher with 15 years experience, for example, could earn an additional $9,663 per year, for a total of more than $48,000.

Still, despite the higher wages and a handsome benefit package, school officials think more enticement will be needed. They’re also looking at home-buying assistance and employee housing.

– Allen Best

Granby gets a little too upscale

GRANBY – While not exactly upscale by the standards of most ski-based mountain towns, Granby has some aspirations. But none of this is at all comfortable to Mike Pierce, of nearby Grand Lake. Writing in theSky-Hi Daily News, he harrumphs about the restrictiveness of covenants adopted by homeowners associations. Parodying such restrictions, he envisions a message: “We are sorry but your car is over the maximum age of five years, and that god-awful yellow is not an approved color. Please leave.”

– Allen Best