Risk-Ski Business

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

It's just after 7 a.m. in late July, but at 9,500 feet the early morning air already has an autumn slap.

Aaron Brill, chief executive officer of Core Mountain Enterprises, the first company to build a new ski area in Colorado in twenty years, skids into work in his 1974 Toyota Corolla and walks stiffly up to his employees. They have been waiting for instructions at the base of the mountain, stomping and milling about to keep warm. In all, the complete workforce of Core Mountain today is eight men, a young woman and six dogs.

As the thirty-year-old Brill gives out instructions for the day's laborers, they turn and begin trudging up the mountain in pairs, leaning on ski poles and carrying backpacks. "Not everybody gets to say they commute 1,500 vertical feet by foot every morning," says Chris Haaland. At forty, he is the old man of the group. The hike takes about an hour.

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

Like all of Core Mountain's workers, Haaland heard about Brill's project through word of mouth -- a friend heard it from a colleague who told someone else. And, like the rest of Brill's crew, he is more believer than employee. He has made the hajj to the isolated mountain town of Silverton not to make money, but because he loves extreme skiing. His work here, Haaland believes, will rekindle the sport's golden era; most of today's riders have only heard about it in stories.

"It's a revisit of Colorado in the '60s, like Pete Siebert at Vail or the Tenth Mountain Division -- guys who had a dream to make a ski area, and that was it," he says. "They loved to ski, and so they built a ski area. This is going to be an area driven by a dream, not money and exploitation."

This morning's job involves final prep work on the holes that will be used to hold the fifteen lift towers, purchased from a California resort and being retrofitted in a metal shop outside of Durango. The holes -- four feet wide and up to nine feet deep -- have all been dug by hand to minimize impact to the mountain. No trees will be felled to make ski runs. For each tree cut down to clear a path for the lift, Brill has promised to plant two new ones in Silverton.

As the sun creeps up the slope, Brill, Haaland and two helpers begin setting rebar tower bases into the dark holes, wrestling the 200-pound steel skeletons into the trenches by hand. The atmosphere is a cross between an early Mickey Rooney movie ("I've got it! We'll put on a show!") and a Berkeley sit-in.

"How often do you see the CEO of a ski company do this?" asks Haaland, who worked as an engineer for a major lift company before quitting to work for Brill. "I mean, George [Gillette, former owner of Vail] used to drive by in a truck and wave, but that was it."

"I may be going out on a limb here," adds Brill, "but that's what's wrong with the industry today. You got guys sitting in offices in suits dictating what the industry should do."

Haaland nods. "People have forgotten what it's all about: Getting out there on a good powder day," he says.

Just forty miles south on Route 550, as the road descends from the high San Juan peaks into Durango, sits the antithesis of Brill's shoestring operation. After 35 years of local family ownership, the Purgatory ski area was sold last year to a Florida real-estate investor. Confirming the worst fears of ski-sprawl opponents, the new owner, Chuck Cobb, actually headed Disney's real-estate development arm before buying Purgatory and immediately renaming it Durango Mountain Resort.

Cobb already has installed a new high-speed "six pack" detachable lift, and he has announced his intention to rename some of the runs. But most of his plans involve not the ski mountain itself, but the ground around it. "At this point," says Nancy Lauro, the La Plata County planner charged with reviewing Cobb's vision, "it's a real-estate project."

The developer -- who was an ambassador to Iceland for the first President Bush -- has proposed building more than 1,600 new housing units on 600 acres of land adjacent to the ski hill in the coming years. "If you assume three or four people for each new housing unit, that would be almost half again Durango's population" of 13,000, says Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, a Durango-based environmental organization. "It's a monstrous proposal that relies on real-estate development for its viability."

Beyond adding to the population, Durango Mountain Resort is almost certain to change the social fabric of the surrounding area. "We need some more exclusive communities that we don't have, that Telluride has," Cobb explained to a local reporter, adding that a cornerstone of his development would include "several hundred" million-dollar homes, needed to attract the clientele necessary to compete with Colorado's best resorts.

Now, Cobb said, "If you want to be associated with that kind of person, you're more inclined to have your second home in Telluride. But with...Durango Mountain Resort and its villages, we are going to be providing the kinds of housing, the kinds of tennis, horseback riding, ice skating, spas that you have at a world-class resort. So some of the elements in competing with Telluride or competing with Vail, we don't have yet. But we're close."

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.

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.

Almost as bad as the loss of employment was the loss of identity. "It was a way of life," says Ernie Kuhlman, Silverton's mayor. "Mining was my life one way or the other since I was born. I loved the camaraderie, the good money. It was hard work, but you felt good about what you did."

To many people who lived in Silverton before the mine closed, letting go has been hard, and the exodus of the mining company is still news. "There are a lot of people who still talk constantly about the mines leaving," says Bill Norman, the San Juan County administrator.

Ten years after it stopped pulling ore out of the mountains, Sunnyside is nearly gone. A half-dozen workers remain to work on reclamation; that project should be complete sometime toward the end of this year. Perino, whose grandfather moved to Silverton from Italy and whose father worked in the mine before him, has been in charge of the job. "It's not likely I'll stay in Silverton when the mine shuts for good," he says. "There's really nothing here for me."

Perino will be one of the last to leave. In the decade since Sunnyside closed, the town has foundered badly. Most of the miners moved away quickly to search for jobs. In 1990, the U.S. Census counted 716 Silverton residents. By last year, the number had dropped to just over 400, making San Juan one of only a couple of Colorado counties that saw a drop in population over the past decade.

Most devastating to the town, though, has been the disappearance of households. In 1990, 191 families called Silverton home. Today, the number is closer to a hundred. "Our families have moved out," says Erickson. "Most held on as long as they could and then reluctantly left."

Naturally, the loss of the town's children has been felt most acutely in the county's only school. Last year, 79 children attended classes in the single, century-old three-story brick building: Elementary students on the first floor, middle school students on the second and high schoolers on the third floor. Nine seniors graduated this past spring.

The numbers continue to fall. "This year we'll be lucky to have 65 to 68 kids," says Superintendent Larry Ranney. A preliminary count identified a potential graduating class of seven. But that's not the worst of it. "All of our big classes are in high school," explains Ranney. "The attendance factor is going to catch up to us soon." The reason can be found on the first and second floors: This year Silverton expects five kindergarteners, two first graders, three second graders, two eighth graders.

The number of teachers is tied to the student population, so in recent years several instructors have been forced to leave. Those who have been kept on double and triple up on their classes so as not to diminish course offerings. One teacher handles English, Spanish and history; another teaches geography and computers and oversees production of the school newspaper and yearbook. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders are taught by a single person. "Each of our teachers prepares for six different subjects a day," says Ranney, who grew up in nearby Gunnison.

The flight of the town's families has had a more subtle, but no less drastic effect: It has altered the feel of Silverton. Many of the single-family homes once occupied by miners and their families have been bought by vacationers looking for a scenic place to have a second home a few weeks out of the year. The town has also seen a half-dozen new vacation homes go up every year.

Residents are grateful for the economic boost. "I think we're recovered to the point where we don't need saving now," says Norman, the county administrator.

Still, most people who have lived in Silverton for more than a decade can't help but notice the change. "We're recovering," acknowledges Willie Tookey, who worked in the mines, as did his father, Vince. "But it's a different community."

Since the day the once-dominant industry shut down, there was little doubt where the community would have to turn in order to survive: Silverton has worked hard to attract more tourists during the summer; mines that were loud with the din of drills and trolleys a decade ago have been turned into mine tours and mine museums. Though the mining hall remains, a number of seasonal antique shops now line Greene Street.

In the summer Silverton appears the very picture of a quaint, bustling mountain community -- the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad can dump several thousand people off each day from June through August -- but the cold months are bleak. Tucked between Red Mountain Pass to the north and Molas Divide and Coal Bank Hill Pass to the south, Silverton often is literally cut off from the world when the heavy snows start. Many businesses go dormant. The town's largest year-round employer is the government.

In the past couple of years Silverton officials have looked hard for ways to goose the economy between October and May. Three years ago, the town opened its checkbook to pay for a new rope tow for the municipal ski area, Kendall Mountain, which had been closed since 1974. And two years ago, Silverton dedicated a brand-new community center near Kendall, the centerpiece of which is an ice-skating rink. "All the work we've been doing has been to bolster our winter economy," says Erickson.

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."


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.

Some Silverton residents oppose the Silverton Mountain area. A handful of backcountry skiers angry over losing their pristine runs have complained, and a few locals fretted about avalanches. A homeowner near Brill's base location filed a lawsuit against San Juan County, contending that county planners had failed to follow proper procedures in approving Brill's plans.

Recently, however, the lawsuit was summarily dismissed. Brill has just completed a two-year avalanche study of the area, in which he concludes the risk is manageable; it is being reviewed by avalanche experts at the U.S. Forest Service. And even in a pro-development climate, Brill has endeared himself to local officials by actually listening to their concerns. "Aaron has been flexible and willing to work with us," says Norman, adding that when officials expressed concern about parking and signs, Brill quickly agreed to changes.

"People are always skeptical when some guy like me shows up in their office saying he's going to do something of this magnitude," he adds. "They've been told so many times a ski area was going to be built they won't believe it until they see it. And if you come into a small town and start telling people, 'This is how I'm going to do it,' they'll show you the door."

Brill has also managed to raise some money through sponsorships, advertising and advance ticket sales. The Triangle Motel (Brill's neighbor) and the T&T Market have purchased space on lift towers. Mad Mama's Pies and the Wyman Hotel have bought space on lift chairs. He has sold about twenty "lifetime ski passes" for $2,500 each. A bigger deal to lease the naming rights of the entire ski area to two dot-com companies for $250,000 fell through when the economy tanked, but Brill says the addition of two additional investors -- hardcore skiers as well as money men -- has kept the project afloat.


"This is going to be one of the steepest lifts in Colorado," says Haaland, staring through his surveyor's lens across an alpine meadow dotted with wildflowers just above tree line. Although it varies, and in some places drops nearly to a 60-degree pitch, the terrain on Brill's mountain will be between 37 and 42 degrees -- twice that of some big resorts' intermediate runs.

From the top of the lift, ambitious skiers might decide to hike east to what Haaland calls "Billboard Peak," named for a radio repeater perched on top. "From there it's a 3,100 vertical feet down to the base," he says. "Even better than Pallavicini at A-Basin" -- the double-diamond, out-of-bounds bowl famous among expert riders. "It'll be the best run in Colorado."

Silverton Mountain definitely won't be for everyone. Brill hopes to cap traffic at 475 skiers a day. Riders will be required to take a test to prove their knowledge of avalanches; those who fail have to take a day-long course before boarding the lift. Each skier and snowboarder will need to rent an avalanche beacon and carry a shovel. A $1 fee will be tacked on to the price of the $25 lift ticket for search-and-rescue insurance.

And, despite his early plans of a rustic mountain that barely makes a dent on the map, Brill has been forced to adjust his dream to accomodate a few economic realities. Plans for a small tow quickly gave way to the need for a real lift -- necessary, he has concluded, to haul enough skiers up the hill to make money. The notion of a few portable toilets at the base of the hill has been replaced by the relative luxury of a 2,000-square-foot lodge, and a cluster of cabins.

At the end of August, the BLM will begin public hearings on Brill's proposal to lease 1,600 acres next to his own land. After that, the BLM will do an environmental assessment -- some of the land is lynx habitat -- and fill out more paperwork. Although skiers should begin riding his lift and negotiating their way down Brill's private land early this winter, it could be another year before they can veer off onto federal land. But so far, Richard Speegle, the BLM recreation manager, has been impressed.

"Aaron came in here green, not a ski developer, no experience with the federal bureaucracy," he says. "This has been a real learning experience for him. His proposal started as a $20,000 one, then $100,000, and now just under $1 million. It's changed a whole lot from when he started."

It's not all downhill from here. More than one local has pointed out that a small group of extreme skiers is hardly likely to lift Silverton out of economic malaise. Moreover, whether a tiny, hand-built ski hill can survive in a corner of the state featuring Telluride on one side and the burgeoning Durango Mountain Resort on the other remains to be seen. "It's noble, and a good idea," says Speegle. "But from an economic feasibility standpoint, well, it's unusual."

Then again, it could work. "Aaron Brill's project will draw more people into the community," says Silverton town administrator Dave Erickson. "Maybe some will stay."

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