Risk-Ski Business

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

Some of the work has been paid for by state grants; however, much of it has not. "Last year during our budget process we discovered that our year-end money was down a lot," Erickson says. "We considered all these things investments. But we spent more than we should have."

In short, when Aaron Brill approached Silverton with his plan to build a ski area to the north of town -- Silverton Mountain, also known as the Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center -- the town was ready. "The winter economy is less than 10 percent that of the summer economy, and the community has experienced, and continues to experience, the highest winter unemployment rates and highest average annual unemployment rates in the entire state of Colorado since 1992," Mayor Kuhlman wrote to the Bureau of Land Management last winter, in a letter supporting Brill's proposal.

Silverton, he continued, "is taking steps to try and address the problems it faces, but with our limited resources we can do little. We proffer you assurance that this project is viewed by the community as not only desirable, but necessary to the future well-being of the community, to the quality of life in the community and to the health of the residents of the community."

Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.
Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.

Despite their enthusiasm over a new ski area that would be compact enough to preserve the character of the town but big enough to make a difference, Silverton officials were cautious, even skeptical, when Brill first told them of his plan in 1999. They had been flirted with before, although apparently not very well.

Jim Jackson says he first spied Storm Peak while flying over Silverton in an airplane in 1979. Four years later, while organizing a speed-skiing competition, he remembered the mountain, as well as another 13,325-foot peak just to the north. The other mountain came to be known as Velocity Peak and, using helicopters and snow cats, Jackson ended up holding the 1983 competition there.

Later, convinced the place was a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered, Jackson quietly began buying up mining claims in the hopes of someday developing a premier ski area on Velocity Peak. Occasionally, word of his plans would leak out, and talk among the locals would start. But then the rumors would fade.

Jackson has never filed a formal proposal with either the town of Silverton or the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land adjacent to his. Still, he insists he was proceeding apace with plans to develop Velocity Peak into a world-class ski area when he suddenly got a letter from Brill in 1999, asking whether Jackson was interested in selling his mining claims on land he held to the north of town. Jackson declined to sell. (As a result, the two men hold land next to each other. Without careful direction, some of Brill's skiers could easily end up on Jackson's property.)

Where Jackson has moved slowly, Brill worked quickly. By the end of 1999, Brill had already moved into town, bought a house and gotten himself elected to the county planning commission. His girlfriend, Jenny, has organized community cleanups.

"Aaron didn't come in and appeal to us like he was going to save our community from all its woes," says Norman. "He became a part of it."

Then, last year, town officials suddenly came into possession of a conceptual drawing of Jackson's vision for Silverton. It was not a pretty sight. Jackson's drawing showed a project that would utterly transform the town.

According to Jackson's blueprint, the Velocity Peak ski area would feature a tram leaving from the middle of the Silverton's Memorial Park. A dozen more lifts would crisscross the mountain. At the base of the tram was to be a luxury 150-room "five-star" hotel with valet parking, the "Silverton Station Spa and Health Club," and an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- all on public land. "I got the feeling Jim Jackson would be happier if Silverton would just disappear," says one official.

"It's all on city property, and he's never talked to us," says Erickson. "To propose this -- in an area zoned residential and public open space and all of which would have to be supported by town water and sewer -- without even talking to the town, has been a bit disconcerting to people here."

Meanwhile, Brill has been plowing ahead. In his first two years in the town, he concentrated on buying up mining land and eventually accumulated some three dozen adjacent ten-acre claims, at about $400 per acre. Pieced together, they form a long, narrow rectangle on the north face of the mountain -- the swath for the lift, as well as some cushion on either side. Brill has also applied for a permit to use 1,600 acres of adjacent land owned by the BLM. (The bureau already has granted him a permit to guide backcountry skiers there.)

Brill also began raising money, initially relying on Silverton's status as an economically depressed area. His project has secured a $10,000 loan from the San Juan 2000 Economic Development District and another $130,000 commitment from the Region 9 Economic Development District. This spring, the federal Small Business Association agreed to insure a $580,000 loan from the Bank of Durango.

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