Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mountain Town News


Crested Butte ski plans enter into formal process

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -- The arguments haven't changed in Crested Butte during the last six years about a proposed ski area called Snodgrass, which is across the way from the existing ski area. But the circumstances have. In January, the Forest Service agreed to accept the proposal for the expansion.

That acceptance doesn't make Snodgrass a reality, but it dramatically improves its odds.

The plan calls for a gondola to connect the existing ski area, crossing over the town of Mt. Crested Butte, and reaching 275 total acres of new terrain. About half of the new terrain would be of intermediate difficulty. Ski area officials for years have said the existing ski area's experts-heavy runs dampen interest from the vast majority of destination skiers, who usually find Crested Butte so intimidating that they don't return for a second visit.

The resort hopes to have 600,000 skier days annually within a few years. That compares with 415,000 last year—but about two-thirds were pass holders or people who skied for free during a promotion called Test Ride.

Also part of the plan for economic sustainability is a major expansion of base-area real estate—more than 2,000 housing units—to be built over a period of decades.

The Forest Service accepted the proposal after Crested Butte agreed to modify its layout of lifts to avoid areas identified last year as geological unstable.

Park City gets 1 and loses 1

PARK CITY, Utah -- The big news out of Utah last week was that legislators had agreed to change what many people saw as quaint, even kooky, laws governing the dispensing of liquor at bars. To drink at a bar, somebody had to become a member, which involved filling out a form and paying a membership fee.

Places like Park City had objected to the requirement for years, but The New York Times says it took the recession—and an extremely popular governor, Jon Huntsman Jr.—to move the ball across the line.

Huntsman is a Mormon in a state heavily dominated by Mormons, a religion that officially has no use for alcohol. However, he argued the business case for accommodating a less esoteric approach to dispensing alcohol.

Now, Park City hopes that Huntsman will come to its rescue in another way. For several years, the U.S. Air Force has wanted to build a recreational hotel for personnel from a base located elsewhere in Utah. Park City objects because of traffic impacts it fears at the proposed site. It suggests an alternate site opposed by the Air Force. Utah's legislature passed a law that would bypass local governments in the planning process. Park City sees this as a directly intended snub—but hopes that Huntsman will veto the bill.

Jobs evaporating, but paper still hanging on

JACKSON, Wyo. -- Though the situation surely can't be as grim as in Cleveland, for example, layoffs are mounting in Jackson and the surrounding area, Jackson Hole.

Total numbers were unavailable, but the Jackson Hole News&Guide found anecdotal evidence. The Center for the Arts, a community non-profit, has laid off four people, a quarter of its work force. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has not laid off anyone, but year-round employees will be given mandatory one-week, unpaid vacations.

The newspaper itself noted that it has become thinner, but there have been no layoffs. Associate Publisher Kevin Olson said the paper and its sister publication, the Jackson Hole Daily, do not have the large overheads common at metro papers.

"The community newspaper market is alive and well and healthy (across the country)," Olson said. "We're in that market."

Still, Olson admitted to concern.

"Revenue outlooks make me very anxious about what the future holds," he said.

A glimpse of the economy is offered by sales tax collections for the city of Jackson and Teton County, which slipped 18 percent in January compared to the same month last year. Bob McLaurin, the town administrator, is now expecting sales tax revenues to drop 12 percent on average for the next year. Layoffs are possible, he said.


Squaw Valley slashes prices of skiing passes

TRUCKEE, Calif. -- Squaw Valley has announced major reductions in the prices of its season passes. The reason, according to the resort, is to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the ski area's founding and the 50th anniversary of its hosting the Winter Olympics. That was in 1960.

A more skeptical view suggests that Squaw is competing with Heavenly, the resort a few miles away, which is part of the Vail Resorts chain. Vail hit a home run this season with its Epic Pass, only $579.

Squaw's pass prices aren't that good, but the passes are aggressively discounted, up to $1,000 less. The lowest priced pass will be $379, which does not allow Saturday skiing from Christmas until March, nor during the holiday periods. A tiered level of access and perks is offered in three other increments of passes ranging in price to $1,500.

In a sense, this represents an extension of the discounted season pass pricing introduced at Idaho's Bogus Basin in the 1990s and then expanded by Colorado's Winter Park.

Economy still slowing in Roaring Fork Valley

ASPEN, Colo. (MTN)—The conventional wisdom has been that the most affluent high-end resorts are the last to enter a recession and the first to emerge. If so, this one has a ways to go.

The Aspen Times reports of continued declines in sales tax collections and further layoffs among local governments up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.

Aspen has laid off six employees, all of them with jobs relating to the dormant development and real estate sectors. These layoffs come after the city shaved $25 million from the municipal budget in early February. Further budget cuts are expected yet in March.

Pitkin County, where Aspen is located, is also finding a more severe economic decline than was expected. Sales tax revenues had been projected to drop 3 percent overall in 2009, with a far sharper decline in fees collected from developers. Instead, the January sales tax revenues were down 14 percent. No cuts are expected—for now—as the county has a good cushion in surplus funds.

Snowmass Village also discovered a 17 percent decline in revenues during January. This follows a 10 percent decline in December.

Services are being cut here and there. The valley-wide bus system, called Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, is looking to reduce service in early morning hours and after 9 at night once ski season is over. Ironically, it has money to push forward with a capital-intensive project called bus rapid transit, or BRT. The project was approved by voters, who committed to a sales tax increase and authorized the issuance of $45 million in bonds.

Meanwhile, in Carbondale, an opening for a building inspector that pays $45,000 to $48,000 a year drew 85 applicants. Ironically, the town has issued not even one permit this year for a new housing start, compared to 17 last year at the same time. There have been but a few handfuls of permits for remodels.

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