Small ski areas fall on hard times

JACKSON, Wyo. – Could another small but loved ski area fall by the wayside? That’s the nagging question in Jackson after owners of Snow King Resort asked community leaders to help explore financial options during coming months.

Snow King’s owners seem to do OK with their hotel and convention center, but the ski hill has lost money for decades, says Manuel “Manny” Lopez, the resort managing partner.

The ski area has respectable terrain, 500 acres altogether with 1,571 feet of vertical, just six blocks from downtown Jackson. Unlimited ski passes cost $239, just $139 if purchased early. Often called the Town Hill, it’s especially good for getting in a few turns during lunch.

Located seven miles from Jackson, the better-known Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has 4,139 vertical, five times as much in-bounds terrain and vastly more and speedier uphill conveyances, but comes at six times the cost.

While Snow King has developed some real estate, with entitlements secured for other projects, it lacks the profit centers such as food services and ski school that provide the money for destination ski area operations. Uphill transportation itself doesn’t yield that much income after expenses.

The Community Foundation of Jackson Hole has stepped up, creating a group called Friends of Snow King. “The purpose of it is to take a look at the long-term viability of Snow King and the possibility of a governance model that would be a nonprofit,” explained Katharine Conover, president of the foundation, in an interview with theJackson Hole News&Guide.

Mark Baron, Jackson mayor, said the ski hill anchors the town as much as the Town Square. He suggested he wouldn’t be averse to using a portion of lodging tax proceeds set aside for visitor services, such as buses and pathways, to help prop up the in-town ski hill.

Bob McLaurin, the town manager, reports that the Jackson community will be studying Bozeman, Mont., which operates the Bridger Bowl via a nonprofit group that operates under the federal government’s 501(c)(4) tax code. Annual membership is $25.

For decades, the large ski areas have gotten larger and many smaller ski areas have disappeared. Nonprofit ownership isn’t necessarily a panacea. Colorado’s Ski Cooper, owned by Leadville and Lake County, has dog-paddled for decades and barely stayed above water. It’s a wonderful place for families, beginners and those nostalgic for older ways of skiing. But most potential customers would have to drive by some of the nation’s largest ski areas – think Breckenridge, Winter Park and Vail – to get there.

In Wyoming, with its vast distances and sparse populations, many small ski areas have been barely hanging on. A web-based news agency called WyoFile recently looked at the economics of several so-called mom-and-pops, such as Sleeping Giant.

Located 45 minutes from Cody, on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, Sleeping Giant reopened in 2009 after a four-year closure. A private group led by oil and gas executive Jim Nielson of Cody spent more than $3.5 million to buy, upgrade, and expand the ski area. Ownership was then transferred to a nonprofit, which receives nearly $1.6 million in donations from local state and federal sources.

It lost $300,000 last winter, perhaps owing to poor snow, receiving only 41 inches when it averages 300. But WyoFile suggests a harder challenge: it’s just an hour from Cody to Montana’s Red Lodge, a much bigger ski area.

White Pine, in the Wind River Range near Pinedale, about an hour south of Jackson, has also struggled – despite a reputation for excellence. It was closed from the mid-1980s until 1999 – and was likely to close again this year. But a quickly formed corporation made up of locals purchased the ski area.

For small ski areas to succeed, sources tell WyoFile, they need a solid core of volunteers. But they also need customers. And there just aren’t many in Wyoming.

 “Our biggest problem is, we don’t have the people,” said Lucas Todd, who works at his family owned sporting goods store in Buffalo, Wyo. “For any of these places to make it, they need to find somebody with a big heart and deep pockets.”

Jackson Hole has plenty of deep pockets. Teton County annually ranks as one of the nation’s wealthiest. Whether deep pockets

will emerge to preserve Snow King remains to be seen. Locals began skiing on 10-foot wooden planks on the mountain in the 1920s. In 1939, a rope tow was installed, the first in Wyoming. In 1946, it got a chairlift. It now has three chairlifts, an ice rink and an alpine Slide.

Tamarack opens for abridged season

McCALL, Idaho – Tamarack – a new resort in west-central Idaho with grand ambitions – has managed to open after a year of dormancy. Tamarack opened for skiing operations before Christmas, but with a far more limited schedule than when it opened in 2004, then the most significant new ski area in the United States since Beaver Creek opened in 1980-81.

The fate of the resort continues to be sorted out in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Riding the real estate bubble at its opening in 2004, Tamarack binged on real estate sales and, to a lesser extent, building. In 2005 it hosted President George W. Bush on a mountain biking vacation. Andre Agassi planned to build a luxury hotel.

In 2007, reality set in as sales lagged. Co-owner Jean-Pierre Boespflug told the Associated Press that his fundamental mistake was doing too much, too fast, without assurances of sufficient cash.

Boespflug and his partner owe more than $350 million to creditors, the largest being Credit Suisse Group. But others have their hands out, too. The AP notes that after the bankruptcy, a local man sold bumpers stickers that read: “Honk if JP owes you money.”

With continued hemorrhaging of money, the ski lifts were shut down early in 2010. Unemployment in Long County, site of the ski area, is reportedly 20 percent.

Since then, the case has been moving through bankruptcy court. The AP reports that Boespflug has chosen a business group from Boise called Green Valley Holding as the preferred buyer.

Green Valley has committed $40 million to the resort. However, somebody else could come in with a higher bid. Boespflug told AP that he hopes to have the ownership transferred by mid-April.

The public face of Green Valley is Boise-area businessmen Matte D. Hutcheson and Larry Givens. But there is outside investment money from a so-far undisclosed source.

There has been much speculation over the last two years whether one of the major ski companies, such as Vail Resorts, would swoop in and pick up the pieces. Perhaps tellingly, another ski area operator – JMA Ventures, which has Red Lodge in Montana and Homewood and Alpine Meadows in the Lake Tahoe Basin – bid lower than the Boise-based consortium.

Very fundamentally, Tamarack suffered in its bid to become a major new destination resort by its isolation. It’s 90 miles of sometimes twisting, two-lane road from Boise, site of the closest major airport. And Boise, while big enough, hardly ranks among the nation’s larger metropolitan areas.

While the ownership of Tamarack gets sorted out, the ski area will run during holidays and weekends during a 15-week season. The homeowners group at Tamarack ponied up $250,000 in seed money, but with plans to limit operating costs to $1.5 million. Associated Press reports 500 season passes were sold.

Jackson Hole patrol equipped with ABS

JACKSON, Wyo. – Following the death of a ski patroller in an avalanche last winter, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has started outfitting patrollers with a device called an ABS air bag.

Made by Mountain Safety Systems in Whistler, B.C., it is a backpack fitted with a collapsed bag that inflates when the person wearing it pulls a toggle. The idea is that the inflation will keep an avalanche victim on the surface of the snow.

Citing a letter from resort officials to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in September, theJackson Hole News&Guide reports that ski patrollers are wearing the safety devices on a large scale for the first time.

The ski patroller who died in late 2009 had set off explosives that initiated an avalanche above him, burying him under 6 feet. He was not wearing an air bag or an Avalung breathing device. Although he was located by colleagues using transceivers, probes and shovels, he had died.

The incident has spurred Jackson Hole to outfit the ski patrollers and mountain guides with the air bags and also with three-antennae transceivers to assist in avalanche rescue efforts.

The resort also will require helmets of all employees starting next season. Another ski patroller at Jackson Hole died of head injuries in a fall and was not wearing a helmet.

Gunnison County struggles to cut carbon

CRESTED BUTTE – Like so many towns and cities, Crested Butte and adjoining towns in 2006 set out to shrink the carbon intensity of their lifestyles and economy. The goals were lofty, the successes so far slim.

The goal of the plan – which includes the municipalities of Crested Butte, Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte, plus broader Gunnison County – is to reduce carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020, as compared to the 2005 baseline.

Western State College business professor Roger Hudson analyzed the work and concluded that it was highly unlikely the goal can be met locally – or anywhere, for that matter, without accounting gimmickry.

The Crested Butte News reports some thin hope. One idea examined for several years would involve installation of a hydroelectric generating plant at an existing reservoir on the flanks of the Sawatch Ridge. There is talk of solar farming, as well.

But individuals from local governments and nonprofit agencies consulted by the newspaper seemed to agree that decarbonizing the economy quickly will take lots of front-end money plus clear federal legislation. And neither seems to be on the horizon.

Prosperity returning to ski country

FRISCO – The chatter out of ski towns over Christmas week sounded familiar. They were busy, and people were spending money.

“I’ve doubled my best (sales) in all of the years we’ve been in business,” shop owner Heather Ireland told theSummit Daily News. She said she has been in Frisco since 1986.

In Vail, with several billions of hotel and condominium construction finally completed, the town fairly sparkled with the new hum of prosperity. Meanwhile, the real estate market has been picking up. Local agents report that six properties priced at more than $4 million each sold in Eagle County during November. In one of Vail’s new condominium projects, there have been 16 sales averaging $7.4 million each, theVail Daily reported.

And in Utah,The Park Record reports a resurgence of eateries. “Eating out was considered discretionary spending the last two winters, but affordable restaurant meals are all the rage this season,” the newspaper noted. “Several new restaurants already opened in time for ski season, and several more are planning to open during the first months of 2011,” the paper reported.

Grand Lake Lodge sold for $4 million

GRAND LAKE – After being on the market for several years, the rustic, venerable Grand Lake Lodge has been sold to a subsidiary of the Regency Hotel Management. The price was reported to be $4 million.

The lodge has 56 cabins, a majestic restaurant and the atmosphere of knotty pine that characterized tourism when the lodge was originally constructed in 1920. It sits within Rocky Mountain National Park but overlooking Grand Lake, both the town and the lake.

The new owners, who also manage 50 other properties under the brand names of Starwood, Regency and Best Western, say they hope to figure out ways to stretch the season, currently limited to 100 - 120 days, maximum. That has been Grand Lake’s quest for about as long as the town has existed. Maybe global warming will help.

– Allen Best



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