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January 2010

Blue Pages :: January 2010


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The Forest Service rejection of Crested Butte’s (CBMR) proposed Snodgrass expansion was based on the specific issues there and does not represent a policy change, Forest Service supervisor Charlie Richmond told SAM. But he noted that the FS does look at development proposals differently than it did decades ago.

Richmond said he based his decision to deny the application for a NEPA review on a lengthy catalog of geological and environmental issues, as well as a divided public. That long list made him unwilling to undergo an acrimonious NEPA process. Once a proposal goes public in NEPA, he said, “It essentially becomes our proposal, and I’m not comfortable with that.”

Geology was a key sticking point. “Snodgrass has unstable soils,” Richmond told SAM. “The slopes slide; you can look at the mountain and see it. The unstable soils could affect the village, lift installations, snowmaking, the trails, all of it.” Attempts to mitigate the problems might work, he said, but even if mitigated, “there’s still a problem with that mountain. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should or ought to.

“Another thing: the Forest Service tries very hard not to build ski areas where you need a lot of mitigation. We don’t want to have lots of cuts and fells. We’ve changed over the years from when we simply ran bulldozers and if slope wasn’t right, we made it right. The mountain has to lend itself to the kind of runs that we put there.”

But that may not be the final word. CBMR has appealed Richmond’s decision, addressing all the problem areas Richmond cited in denying the proposal. Stay tuned.

One key thing about technology--it provides better and better data. One concrete example: rooting out season’s pass fraud. Used to be that a skier could bundle up, hat pulled down, goggles on, scarf around the neck, and no ticket-checker in the world could really tell if it was a man, woman, or beast underneath. Rooting out pass fraud was nigh impossible.

Well, that’s all changed. At Vail Resorts’ properties, the scanners can pull up a wealth of personal information and a large picture of the person's face on a handheld device's screen. Increasingly, they are recognizing imposters. Last season, Vail caught more than 450 cheats. This season, the number was already approaching 200 by mid-December.

One side effect is that the new system has led to increasingly creative excuses for a bad match between passholder and passowner. Our favorite: one woman caught trying to use a man's ski pass at Keystone claimed she was in the middle of a sex change. Alas, she was arrested on charges of theft and criminal impersonation after her boyfriend admitted she had borrowed his pass.

Vail Resorts says that an increase in fraud in recent years inspired the area to design the custom anti-fraud software used in the digital scanner. You would think that with VR’s low-priced Colorado and Epic Passes, among the best bargains in the country, people could buy their own passes. As word of Vail’s technology spreads, we’d bet that they will.

With Vail Resorts and Intrawest moving to require all on-hill employees to wear helmets, you might think the helmet trend is moving inexorably in that direction. But Jackson Hole might prove to be the more typical example for most resorts.

Following a review of an accident last March, in which ski patroller Kathryn Miller died in a backcountry incident while not wearing a helmet, Jackson has agreed with Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require helmets--but only for employees working in the terrain park and halfpipe and patrollers working in the backcountry. This suggests that OSHA might view helmets for terrain park staff as necessary safety equipment, and we don’t want to minimize the impact such a position would have on resorts nationwide. But the decision stops far short of declaring all on-snow activities dangerous enough to require helmet use.

This initial move by Jackson does not preclude a broader requirement in the future. Some managers at Jackson will wear helmets voluntarily this year in a demonstration of support for helmet use. But nationwide, there has been no rush to join VR and Intrawest in mandating helmets for employees, and the OSHA ruling implies that’s not necessary.

When Elk Meadows was put up for auction last November, it was valued at $5 million. It fetched less than a third of that, about $1.6 million. But we bet that the creditors are pretty pleased nonetheless.

That’s because the “new” owners of the dormant Elk Meadows ski area are a lot like the old creditors. The buyer, Bowman Asset Management, has the same New York City address as AMDS Holdings, the company that foreclosed on the previous owners, Mt. Holly Partners LLC. A lot of the same individuals are involved, too, though not Stephen Jenson, one of the Mt. Holly principals and a lightning rod for opponents of the project. If homeowners and locals were hoping for a clean break from the Mt. Holly past, they will likely be disappointed.

Rumor has it that the various capital managers are still interested in some version of the Mt. Holly plan, which called for an exclusive resort, multi-million dollar private homes, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and other posh amenities. Perhaps they should take a walking tour of Tamarack Resort first.

For a hip new-school operation, the Dew Tour is taking a decidedly outdated attitude toward women freeskiers. The Tour has all but eliminated women’s events this season. In a sport that has a relatively high percentage of women participants and that has been making overtures to women for decades, this seems a remarkably awkward step to take.

The women athletes themselves protested the decision by Allsports, and others joined their cause. Female snowboard pro rider Spencer O’Brien launched a petition campaign to support for her female skier colleagues.

Will resorts protest as well? Women’s participation in winter sports has been championed by just about every resort in North America. Conventional wisdom says women are the key to growth of winter sports. Young moms make family vacation decisions that could launch their kids on a lifetime of skiing and riding—or go to Disney World. The presence of teenage girls has been known to convince teenage boys to hang out at resorts. For all these reasons, the Dew Tour’s decision seems counter to the interests of the resorts that host its events. And their association with the Dew Tour could boomerang with an important segment of their market. “I would hate to see snow sports go the way of male-only on TV, because it is against everything we stand for as a community—-free-spirited fun sports that can be enjoyed by all,” one resort manager told SAM. Amen, sister.

Two spectacular survivors of the real estate boom and bust have opened in ski country this winter. Both are five-star, brand-name properties that reside mid-mountain, have direct lift access to their doors, and offer luxurious rooms, private residences, fabulous spas, world-class restaurants, and impeccable service. We’re not sure what this says about the economy or the ski industry, but it seems that the rich are still intact.

The $300 million Ritz-Carlton at Northstar -at-Tahoe has 170 rooms, 23 private residences and 25 Ritz Destination Club residences. Guests have a 17,000-square-foot spa and the Highlands gondola that connects them to the hoi polloi in the mountain village. The building, designed after mountain lodges such as Ahwahnee in Yosemite and Timberline on Mt. Hood, consists of linked pavilions that hug the mountain’s contours. It is also LEED green-built, so guests can feel very green amid their lavish surroundings.

The $320 million St. Regis Deer Crest, nestled in a gated community at Deer Valley, boasts 181 rooms (including suites of up to 2,500 square feet) and 26 private residences. Guests arrive at the 17,000-square-foot main lobby and reception center, then cruise to the hotel proper via a 550-foot funicular. The style is “refined mountain elegance,” as exemplified by the 4,600-bottle wine cellar. (This is Utah, remember.)

Did the Great Recession impact this project? Not much. Some buyers tried to renegotiate their contracts, but the developer stood firm and even filed for arbitration when buyers demanded price cuts. “We had an obligation to the banks and the other buyers,” said Michael Zaccaro, managing partner of the development group. Very few buyers actually backed out, Zaccaro said. For the rich, it seems, it’s very much business as usual.