Ski towns weather the recession

ASPEN – It could be a much, much worse winter – namely one with no snow. Instead, records for December snowfall from Telluride to Aspen Highlands were broken. And the holiday schedule this year allowed for people to excuse two weeks of vacation.

That said, how are the ski towns doing economically?

If you can ignore the giant vacuum that used to be the real-estate sector, spot evidence suggests ski towns are doing reasonably well. Vail, Aspen and other ski towns have been packed at times, although spending is clearly more measured and restrained.

TheAspen Times reports that Christmas week lodging occupancy this year was 67 percent, compared to 87 percent for the same period last year. Aspen Skiing Co. reported strong business at its ski areas over the holidays. More than 20,000 skier and snowboarder visits were recorded at its four mountains on one day, with visits exceeding 18,000 for four consecutive days.

Vail Resorts, which has four ski areas in Colorado and one on the California-Nevada border, reported a 6 percent decline in skier visits through the early season. Lift ticket revenue was down 7.5 percent.

The bright side was that lodging wasn’t down as much as some had feared, just 15 percent at the company’s hotels and condominiums, compared to the 23 percent drop that had been projected as recently as November. The uptick was credited, in part, to “aggressive” promotional offers.

Aspen is also more aggressively offering deals. This week it announced package deals with Frontier Airlines and other partners that will shave $1,000 off the cost of a five-day ski vacation. January bookings have been at 58 percent capacity, compared to 72 percent last year.

Overall, Aspen Skiing projects 5 to 15 percent fewer skier visits this season as compared to last year.


In-bounds slides common this year

TELLURIDE – December was extraordinary in that three people died in avalanches on open ski trails within ski areas. It was the most in-bound deaths in one season since three skiers were killed in a single avalanche at California’s Alpine Meadows in 1976.

The result of these avalanche deaths, report both theDenver PostandNew York Times, is a curious trend. People at both Telluride and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort have been carrying avalanche transceivers for use on patrolled slopes. While transceivers, which are also called beacons, are common among backcountry skiers, the perception has been that in-bound slopes are without avalanche risk.

But while in-bound avalanches are exceeding rare, they have occurred. “We’re doing what we normally do,” said Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center. “Our techniques work really well, but they’re not ever 100 percent guaranteed.”

Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, told the Denver paper that he wonders whether aggressive snow-safety programs at resorts have lulled skiers into complacency.

“It’s almost like we are victims of our own success,” said Baugher, who is also ski patrol director at Washington’s Crystal Mountain Ski Area. “People blot out that the areas they are skiing – the steep and deep terrain – are at risk for avalanches because our snow-safety programs have been so successful.”

Telluride has had no fatal in-bounds avalanches, but neither has it opened up the treasure chest of Palmyra Peak, this year’s expansion into steep and wild former backcountry terrain. “I have a zero-tolerance policy,” said Craig Sterbenz, director of snow safety at Telluride. “If it’s not safe, it’s not open.”


Aspen bomber robbed Vail bank

VAIL – Craig Bettis, a sergeant in the Vail Police Department, was on his way to Aspen on New Year’s Eve when he stopped by his house. On the television, he saw a face he knew he’d seen before.

The individual who had left gasoline bombs at Aspen’s Vectra Bank, closing down that city’s downtown section, was the same man who had robbed Vail’s Westar Bank twice before, on Dec. 25, 2005, and July 3, 2006. 

“I had stared at them probably a thousand times,” said Bettis, referring to the images taken at the Vail bank during the July robbery. Seeing the images from the Aspen bank, he added, was an “ah-hah moment.”

The individual, in both cases, was James Blanning, who later killed himself in a nature preserve near Aspen after shutting down the town’s downtown area on one of the busiest nights of the year. Blanning, 72, had grown up in Aspen and spent much of his life there, but had become embittered when his manipulations of mining claims put him in prison instead of in the lap of luxury.

Interestingly, a coalition of restaurants in Aspen is suing the estate of Blanning, whose bomb threats closed down 16 square blocks of the downtown area for much of the afternoon and evening. Scott Brasington, a restaurateur, told theAspen Daily News that the lawsuit is to “make a statement … We feel it belongs to the restaurant workers who took a huge hit. It’s not just the restaurant owners – it’s the waiters, the waitresses, the bartenders, the guys in the kitchen.”

Several eateries reported losing $30,000 or more that night, which is typically one of the busiest and most profitable nights for restaurants in Aspen


Minturn development forges ahead

MINTURN – Things have gone down the toilet for the Ginn Co. at several of its real-estate projects in the Southeast. Does that mean its plans for a high-end, 1,700-unit project on former mining properties in the Vail-Minturn-Red Cliff area are headed for the same place?

No, says Ryan Julison, the company spokesman. “Every project is its own legal entity,” he tells theVail Daily.

The newspaper also talked with a Florida real estate observer, Don “Toby” Tobin, who seems to think that the “Ginn brand has been tarnished.”

Again, Ginn Co. spokesman Julison disagrees. “If this (financial trouble) was just us, it would be a big deal,” he said. “But we’re in the midst of an economic slowdown that’s unprecedented.”

Ginn’s project for about 5,000 acres last year was annexed by Minturn, but development planning has been put on hold. Minturn officials have received $600,000 in cash from the developer as per the annexation agreement, but another $11.6 million is in escrow for a recreation center and other improvements. The money, however, can’t be touched until the company gets its final development approvals.

TheVail Daily says that the Ginn Co. in early January filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy for two of its resorts in Florida and announced a sale and restructuring of two others, which are located in North Carolina and the Grand Bahaman. The sales were necessary to repay $675 million in loans issued by Credit Suisse.


Whistler sees unstable snowpack

WHISTLER, B.C. – Avalanches are normally a lesser problem at the Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas as compared to ski areas in higher, drier and more inland locations. But this is not a normal year. Two men have died in avalanches while skiing or snowboarding on trails closed due to the high avalanche danger.

The deaths prompted Intrawest, operator of the ski areas, to announce it would suspend skiing privileges for those caught in closed areas. In addition, ski area officials recruited Chris Stethem, an authority on snow science, to speak in Whistler.

“We are dealing with a continental snowpack more common in the Rockies,” he said. “This deep-seated instability hasn’t been seen to this degree (in the Whistler region) since the late ’70s. It requires backcountry users to tread cautiously and inbounds avalanche control to be undertaken with extra vigilance.”


Taos learns to navigate roundabout

TAOS, N.M. – Taoseños, as residents of Taos call themselves, are becoming familiar with how a traffic roundabout works.

Police told theTaos News that there had been no accidents at a new roundabout in Taos, the first on a highway in New Mexico. “Yes, they might scare themselves after going through the first time,” said Glen Baker, a high construction manager. “But it seems that regular travelers are getting the hang of it.”

Indeed, that was the case at Vail, which in the mid-1990s deployed the first modern roundabout in the West. There were predictions of mayhem, but the experience there – now replicated at hundreds of other locations – showed very much the contrary. While there is always a bit of anarchy in the flow of traffic, there are actually fewer accidents at roundabouts than at intersections governed by stop-signs or traffic signals. As well, the roundabouts accommodate much larger volumes of traffic.

– Allen Best