Friday, August 31, 2012

Mountain Town News


Utah debate heats up about ski interconnect

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—The debate about a gondola called SkiLink, which would link ski resorts Canyons and Solitude, located on opposite sides of the Wasatch Range, has been heating up.

Democrats, environmentalists and Salt Lake City seem to be on one side of the argument, and Republicans and at least some of the ski areas are on the other.

Proponents want to take the federal government out of the decision-making. To that end, U.S. Rep. Bob Bishop, a Republican who represents Park City, has introduced a bill in Congress that would require the Forest Service to sell 30 acres of land to the two ski areas, Solitude and Canyons.

A counterpart from the Democratic Party, Rep. Joel Briscoe, of Salt Lake City, says the bill before Congress “subverts the democratic process—and process matters. It sets an awful precedent for other public lands in Utah.”

If the bill goes through Congress, the decisions would be made by local officials in Summit County, where Park City is located, and in Salt Lake County. 

Salt Lake City is distressed by the bill. The city gets its water from the canyons of the Wasatch area, including those that contain the ski areas of Alta, Solitude, Snowbird and Brighton. Those canyons were heavily mined, and it has taken 100 years to restore them, say Salt lake officials.

“Are we about ready to lose 100 years of restoration?” asked Jeff Niemeyer, the public utilities director for Salt Lake City.

Opponents see the SkiLink as a Trojan horse for future ski area expansions. A map of proposed and rumored ski-resort expansion shows that the terrain near the top of the Wasatch canyons not currently used by ski areas would be consumed by the ski areas.

Salt Lake City is particularly distressed by the proposal.

“It would transform the Wasatch into developed ski-resort areas on an action-by-action, piece-by-piece basis,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who was an environmental planner before gaining public office.

He said the impacts need to be considered comprehensively and decisions made in the long-term interest.


Boomers in decline, millenials on the rise

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—Baby boomers are starting to retire, and many are moving to mountain towns for their golden years. No news there, right?

But Patrick Phillips, president of the Urban Land Institute, downplays the economic impact of that phenomenon. Instead, during a recent presentation in Steamboat Springs, he said boomers as a group will be challenged to achieve their ultimate retirement lifestyle. Many will be cash-strapped and unable to make the big move to the mountains.

Instead, Phillips advised Steamboat to continue to focus on making room for millenials, the children of baby boomers, and otherwise being attractive to investment capital?

How to do so? According to a report in Steamboat Today, Phillips urged Steamboat to continue to invest in amenities.

He also urged continued attention to using technology, particularly mobile devices as a tool to achieve more effective delivery of resources, including management of heating and cooling systems in larger buildings.


Resort real estate prices percolating

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo.—News continues from mountain resort areas of recovering real estate sales—not big, and maybe not everywhere, but in many places.

“I think that we’ve maybe hit the bottom, and it’s starting to rebound, but slowly,” Mark Wadsworth, data analyst at the Summit County (Colorado) Assessor's Office, told the Summit Daily News.

In the same newspaper, real estate broker Chuck Leathers reported average condominium resales have increased nearly 24 percent in July compared to the same month last year.

In the Steamboat area, Land Title Guarantee reported a 5.74 percent increase in dollar volume during July compared to the same month the year before.


Paper-bag charge challenged by group

ASPEN, Colo.—Aspen’s ban on plastic grocery bags is being challenged by the Colorado Union of Taxpayers. Specifically at issue is the 20 cent fee that groceries are required to levy for use of paper bags given to shoppers who have forgotten to bring their own bags.

Since the ban went into effect in May, about 324 paper bags a day have been given out at the city’s two grocery stores, producing $3,950 in revenue, reports the Aspen Daily News.

The taxpayers’ group, which is based in the Denver-Boulder area, says this 20-cent charge is a new tax, and under a constitutional amendment adopted in Colorado in 1992, all new taxes must be approved directly by voters. 

Aspen city officials say it’s not a tax, as the money collected must be used for specific waste-reduction purposes.

“I think we are within our rights to charge a fee to regulate a nuisance, which plastic bags are,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland.

He added that raising revenue is not the point and hence the charge is not a tax.

“If we don’t collect any money, we would reach our aims,” he said.

Veep candidate Ryan quite a peak-bagger

DENVER—Though his homes are in Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan is no stranger to Colorado. The Denver Post reported that Ryan has climbed 40 of the 53 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet.

John Andrews, a Republican activist and Denver Post columnist, said Ryan told him his favorite peaks were two near Aspen: Capitol and Pyramid. Both are considered to be among the black diamond or double-black-diamonds among Colorado non-technical highest peaks. If ropes are discretionary on both, each has plenty of dangers and exposure.

Who knew such synergy existed between arcane tax policy and testosterone-and-sweat mountaineering?


More golf courses than golfers at Vail

VAIL, Colo.—Is the Vail resort complex oversupplied with golf courses? You could make that argument, as several of the valley’s 17 public and private clubs have struggled enormously in the wake of the Great Recession.

But don’t paint with too broad a brush, warn several resort leaders in the Vail Valley.

“They’re not all the same,” said Johannes Faessler, owner of the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail and a companion golf club down-valley at Edwards.

“There are different reasons why things happen to different clubs,” he told the Vail Daily.

The golf courses that have suffered most substantially in the Vail area are those farthest from the ski slopes and resort centers of Vail and Beaver Creek. Brightwater, a project south of Gypsum, about 45 miles from Vail, is now in bankruptcy. A beautiful course called Adam’s Rib, south of Eagle, reportedly sold very few memberships and has revised its fees.

Then came news that only one of four courses at Cordillera, a resort about 10 miles from Beaver Creek, would remain open. There are countersuits between the owner of the golf courses, David Wilhelm, and club members, who own property adjacent to the courses.

“Don’t let the Cordillera fiasco overshadow the fact that each one of these courses is doing better,” said Harry Frampton, managing partner of East West Partners.

The Avon-based company most typically has built golf course-based higher-end real estate.

Frampton, an avid golfer, said there’s no better place to play golf in the United States than the Vail area. But there are two problems. First, the season lasts only three or four months. And second, he thinks too many of the golf courses are too hard for the average golfer, taking four to five hours to play—too much commitment when there are dozens of other things to do.

The percentage of summer visitors who had or planned to golf while in Vail had declined from 32 percent in 2005 to less than 12 percent in 2012.


Taxpayer group plans to challenge carbon tax

WHISTLER, B.C.—The United States remains divided in a cultural war, and climate science has been sucked up into the chasm, leaving the nation fundamentally unable to create a cohesive response.

In Canada, the federal government is drunk on the vast revenues from its deposits of bitumen, otherwise known as tar sands, if you dislike the mining, and oil sands, if you approve. It, too, has no consensus about how to move forward on containing greenhouse gas emissions.

But on the West Coast—in California and British Columbia—are attempts to push along innovation to reduce atmospheric pollution. While California still is putting together the structure for a cap-and-trade system, British Columbia did what most economists said made a lot more sense: put a tax on carbon and let the market figure out how to reward innovators.

But the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is making the case for dropping this grand experiment. The tax was introduced in 2008 and now costs 6.67 cents per liter of gasoline.

Jordan Bateman, the director of the taxpayers group, said the carbon tax has not remained neutral. Removing the tax will benefit Whistler and other resorts, he told Pique newsmagazine.

The federation clams that of the $1.2 billion raised by the tax each year, only $228 million goes back to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts. The remainder is given out in the form of venture capital and industrial property credits, or for research and development.


Pig entrails smell up Trans-Canada highway

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta—Talk about a slimy, unpleasant stretch of highway. The Rocky Mountain Outlook tells about a truck that was taking the offal of butchered pigs from British Columbia to a meat-rendering plant in Calgary, Alberta. As the container heated, it caused the contents to swell over the top of the truck and spill onto the highway.

“It was just awful, utterly disgusting,” said Omar McDadi, a spokesman for Parks Canada. “It smelled just awful.”

The truck was stopped as it crested the Continental Divide between Field, B.C., and Lake Louise, Alberta. Officials were quick to dispatch crews to get the entrails off the pavement, lest bears and other wildlife be drawn to feed on the carrion.


Famous people love their time in Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. (MTN)—The Aspen Daily News recently interviewed two long-standing visitors, rock musician Joe Walsh and U.S. diplomat Madeleine Albright.

Walsh is a guitarist for the Eagles, a band that in 1971 tightened up its sound by playing a month-long stint at a now-defunct bar at the base of Aspen Mountain. That was in 1971, just before the band recorded its debut album.

Since then, notes the Daily News, Aspen has evolved “from a long-hair Mecca of soft snow, hard drugs and casual sex into a playground of the 1 percent.” Despite the changes, Aspen remains the same at the core, Walsh said.

And that was also the message from Albright, the U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Born in Czechoslovakia, her father, a diplomat, moved her family to Denver when she was a teenager. She began visiting Aspen in the 1950s, and has returned regularly through the years—routinely two weeks at Christmas, and two more in summer.

Also speaking out in Aspen last week were Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist (who has a place in Aspen), and local resident Amory Lovins. Their topic: climate change.

“One party has the completely wrong convictions, and the other doesn’t have the courage of their convictions,” said Friedman, who said climate change should be a priority issue for the United States.

Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, also said other countries have surpassed the Untied States in the transition from fossil fuels. Portugal climbed form 17 percent renewable energy in 2005 to 45 percent in 2010, while the U.S. rose from 9 percent to only 10 percent during the same timeframe.


Inside the ski industry, the Epic Pass has been seen as a home run for Vail Resorts.

DENVER, Colo. (MTN)—The fundamental story in the ski industry for the past 15 years has been how companies will compete with Vail. The new Mountain Collective pass announced this month by Aspen, Jackson Hole, Alta and Squaw Valley can be seen as a response.
Costing $349, the pass offered two free days at each of the four resorts, after which pass holders are entitled to buy lift tickets at half price.
Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, called it a “really smart move” on the part of the four ski area operators.
“You have these sort of iconic ski areas on the same ticket. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to ski two of the four, and if you ski three of them, you’re in fat city.”
It’s also an obvious response to the Epic Pass offered by Vail Resorts. That pass, which costs $659 for the full national benefits, allows buyers unlimited skiing at the four ski areas owned by Vail in Colorado plus Arapahoe Basin, a close ally, and the three ski areas now owned by Vail in California.
Inside the ski industry, the Epic Pass has been seen as a home run for Vail Resorts. It has allowed the company to lock in customers the summer before, evening out income—and delivering revenue even in low-snow years, such as last winter.
The idea of discounted season passes didn’t originate with Vail, however. That distinction goes to Idaho’s Bogus Basin. With a big ski area and too few skiers, the ski area saw that less could be more: lowering season passes caused more people to buy them, and resulted in a net increase in revenue.
Colorado’s Winter Park next adopted the discount strategy, followed by Vail Resorts, which only a few years prior had expanded from its origins in Vail into a publicly owned company that swallowed two other ski areas in Summit County. Since then, many ski companies have toyed with passes that offered discounts, allowing greater variety but created brand loyalties.
The Sierra Sun traced the origins of the new pass to a conversation last winter among chief executives of Squaw Valley, Aspen and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
The Vail Daily talked with Will Marks, who analyzes Vail Resorts for JMP Security. He said he believes the new Mountain Collective pass will have a minor impact on sales of the Epic Pass. But he said he does believe that discounted pass products are the wave of the future within the ski industry.
David Belin, a ski industry analyst for RRC Associates, a research and consulting firm, said he believed the new pass was crafted carefully so as not to cannibalize any of the resorts’ client bases.
“They are leveraging each other’s customers to generate interest,” he told the Aspen Daily News.
Similar pass programs have also existed among smaller ski areas. For decades, the very small ski areas in Colorado have offered something called the Gems pass, which offers discounts.
More recently, Colorado’s Monarch Mountain has assembled a friends-with-benefits package that now has expanded to 31 ski areas, including five smaller ski areas in Europe, along with nine in Colorado, five in New Mexico, and others in Arizona, Michigan, California, Wyoming and Utah. Also: Revelstoke and Red Mountain in British Columbia.
Meanwhile, British Columbia ski areas are poling dollars to increase their marketing. A campaign by the province’s 13 destination resorts has tripled in the past three years to a budget of $1.8 million next winter.
The provincial government in B.C. has sought to grow its skiing sector, which currently does about half the skier days of Colorado. Bob Barnett, publisher of Pique Newsmagazine in Whistler, points out that the provincial government has altered its strategy, now seeking to maximize use of existing resorts rather than creating new infrastructure and capacity.

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