Friday, January 7, 2011

Mountain Town News


Smaller ski resorts seek magic formula

     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.

     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. However, Snow King lacks the profit centers such as food services and ski school that provide the money for destination ski area operations.

     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 the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

     Jackson Mayor Mark Baron 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 the new lodging tax proceeds set aside for visitor services, such as buses and pathways, to help prop up the in-town ski hill.

     For decades, many smaller ski areas have disappeared. 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. It lost $300,000 last winter, perhaps owing to poor snow.

     White Pine, in the Wind River Range near Pinedale, about an hour south of Jackson, has also struggled—despite a reputation for excellence.

     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,” he said.


Tightening the carbon waistline proves tough

     CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – 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 people 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.


Wealthy and wealthier starting to spend again

     FRISCO, Colo. – 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 the Summit 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, the Vail 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.



A story of ski areas in Idaho old and new

     McCALL, Idaho – Even as Brundage ski area celebrates its 50th year of operation, Tamarack has struggled to open after a year of dormancy.

     Brundage, a smallish ski area with about 2,000 feet of vertical, was opened in 1960. Two names familiar in the intermountain West were involved: Corey Engen and J.R. Simplot.

     Brundage has operated as a day area, with no more lodging than needed by a night watchman. But it has been in an expansion mode. It added 160 acres in 2007, and in 2009 it won approval for a major housing development of up to 1,200 units. That ambition earned the resort an “F” this winter from the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition.

     Eventually, Brundage hopes to expand sufficiently to bring the comfortable carrying capacity of the mountain from 2,700 skiers per day to 7,100 skiers per day, according to documents at the ski area’s website.

     Tamarack, meanwhile, managed to open for skiing operations by Christmas, but with a far more limited schedule than when it opened in 2004, the most significant new ski area in the United States since Beaver Creek opened in 1980.

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

     While the ownership of Tamarack gets sorted out, the ski area will run during holidays and otherwise during long 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.


Tragedy amid the snowy fun

     WHISTLER, B.C. – The snow is so much fun, but oh so dangerous, as can be attested by any number of stories in recent weeks.

     Consider the case in British Columbia where a snowmobile rider was swept away by avalanche. Although he was wearing a beacon, and 10 members of his group immediately began searching, digging him out within 15 minutes wasn’t quick enough, reports Pique Newsmagazine.

     In fact, only a third of people buried in avalanches survive, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, though presumably having a beacon does improve your odds.

     In Whistler, a 20-year-old college student from California died in a creek. He was described as “quite an accomplished rider,” but ski area officials think he punched through a snow bridge over a creek and went down about 15 feet.

     “It was a big hole. Anybody riding by, and people probably did, would have avoided it,” said Doug Forsythe, senior vice president of operations at Whistler Blackcomb.

     The lesson, one often repeated at Whistler, is that “if you’re going out of bounds or into the trees, do it with partners,” said Forsythe. “That would have been (the victim’s) only chance, if somebody had seen him go in.”

Ski patrollers outfitted with avalanche devices

     JACKSON, Wyo. – After a ski patroller was killed and others trapped inside a lodge last winter, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort began giving patrollers a device called an ABS air bag.

     Made by Mountain Safety Systems in Whistler, B.C., it’s 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.

     The ski patroller who died in late 2009 had set off explosives that initiated an avalanche fracture above him, burying him under 6 feet. Though he was located by colleagues using transceivers, probes, and shovels, he had died.

     Federal regulators did not find Jackson Hole at fault, and in 36 years of record-keeping, the kind of hard slab avalanche that occurred was never known to have been set off by explosives.



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