Risk-Ski Business

Can Aaron Brill's single lift save Silverton and earn salvation for the sport?

These two southwestern Colorado ski areas on the cusp of development -- Aaron Brill's in Silverton and Chuck Cobb's outside of Durango -- are real-life examples of an internal struggle for the soul of an industry. Although this past year saw record numbers of riders flocking to the nation's slopes, over the past couple of decades the ski business has been flat.

The business has fought to keep up, and in the process changed from one dominated by skiers to one controlled by developers and retailers. Analysts say that, as recently as five years ago, sales of lift tickets generated more than half a ski area's revenue. Now, two-thirds of the money flows from non-skiing enterprises tacked onto ski runs: real-estate sales, restaurants, T-shirts and equipment rentals. Without such marketing accoutrements, the wisdom goes, you cannot make it in today's ski market.

Cobb's plans to turn the old Purgatory ski resort into the Durango Mountain Resort hold tight to that theory. Brill's project, however, counters conventional wisdom: He is building it without condos or $3-a-slice pizza stands or T-shirt shops.

The crew, more believers than employees, work to make Brill's slope reality.
The crew, more believers than employees, work to make Brill's slope reality.
Although trees came down for the Core Mountain lift, none will be cut for ski runs, Brill pledges.
Although trees came down for the Core Mountain lift, none will be cut for ski runs, Brill pledges.

But will they come?

It was after skiing the ski "clubs" of New Zealand for six months in the early 1990s that Aaron Brill first thought of building one of his own. The mountains there were small, almost ski co-ops--one paid employee with volunteers. And the skiing was pure, the way God intended -- deep powder, no designated runs. No intermediates cluttering up the place.

Though he grew up cutting his first turns on a minuscule ski bump in Wisconsin with less vertical drop than a painter's ladder, Brill himself passed intermediate years ago. Moves to California, then Steamboat Springs, then New Zealand and finally Montana were all based less on employment opportunity than ski-able terrain. "I kept moving around to places with less people and more snow," he says.

Of all those places, New Zealand stuck with him the most, and even coming back to the States' premier ski resorts proved a letdown. "You go to Squaw Valley on a powder day, and you're all in a frenzy, trembling to get out there -- and then you've got 25 minutes before it's all tracked out," he says. At that point, Brill remembers, "I knew I wanted to do something in the ski business. I just didn't know what."

In Montana, Brill had settled into a job managing property. He'd blown out a knee skiing a year before, so instead of spending every penny he earned on skiing, he actually began a savings account. Still, the idea was to dump the whole wad on a six-month helicopter-ski tour when his leg healed.

But as time went on, he started to wonder if maybe the money could be used for something else. In late 1997 he began buying maps, scouring them to see if he could find a place to start his own version of a New Zealand ski club. He looked at existing ski areas -- small, struggling hills that could be converted into something more. He also looked at pristine mountains, with an eye toward privately owned hills with no development and steep runs.

He didn't buy Colorado maps. He figured the state that was home to Vail, Breckenridge and Telluride was already torched, had already been converted into a Disneyland for those content to spend their days sliding down groomed blue runs. Colorado: Home of the Intermediate Skier and His Condo. But one day a friend brought over a map of the San Juan area and suggested that Brill check out Lake City. "And it was while I was staring at Lake City," Brill says, "that I saw Silverton."

The more he saw, the more he liked. The terrain was intense. A few of the mountains were privately owned -- by people who'd probably long since given up on getting any serious money for their holdings ever since a series of mines had shut down. The area was hardly pristine, but Brill saw that as a positive: After all, anything he did on the hill would look tame compared to a gold mine.

Even better, the town of Silverton itself was hurting. For an aspiring ski mogul, that was a double plus. For one thing, economic-development agencies liked to give out loans to entrepreneurs looking to bring jobs and development to such an area. Even better, locals tended to be receptive to a man with some plans. By 1999, Brill had decided that his new ski mountain would be located in Silverton.

Founded a century ago as a home base for the men who worked underground taking minerals from the earth, Silverton proudly called itself a mining town as recently as 1991, when the Sunnyside Mining Co., the last holdout of the hardrock companies that dominated the local economy, suddenly closed, a victim of rising costs, shrinking demands and environmental constraints.

Despite signs pointing to the mine's demise, many were still disbelieving when it happened. "Right up until the day it closed, people were talking about how it would be staying open," says Larry Perino, who worked at Sunnyside.

In a town built for and dependent on a single industry, Sunnyside's demise was devastating. One day, nearly 300 men were earning up to $30 an hour; the next day, they were unemployed. "The impact was immediate," says Dave Erickson, the town's administrator.

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