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Winter Park Grows Up

After years as a family-themed ski resort, Denver's mountain tries super-sizing.

In the 1930s, skiing in Colorado was exotic. There were no real ski areas, but that didn't stop a group of wealthy Denverites from driving up dirt roads to the top of Berthoud Pass and strapping on skis. A simple stone cairn was the only guide skiers had to the base of the mountain.

"If people made a wrong turn there, they might wind up in Kremmling," says W. Scott Moore, a Denver businessman who has been involved with Winter Park for decades. "The old-timers would come down through Parsenn Bowl and end up at the bottom of what is now Mary Jane."

With chair lifts just a dream, these early skiers had to hike back up the mountain for each run. Sometimes making four runs in one day, ski pioneers had to be in peak physical condition. Skiing was hard work, but the thrill of gliding through fresh powder under a sparkling blue sky was impossible to resist. In 1929, a group of devoted skiers from Denver was so enamored with the terrain that they formed their own club -- named the Arlberg Club, after the famous Austrian skiing region -- and built a primitive lodge at the bottom of the mountain.

"The lodge had outdoor plumbing, and you had to hike into it," recalls Moore. "But you'd fill up the fireplaces, and it was warm and toasty. Those were wonderful times."

The Arlbergers included prominent citizens such as Allan Phipps, son of local financier Lawrence C. Phipps. The younger Phipps took many of his friends from Denver up to the mountain. One of them, wealthy real-estate developer George Cranmer, became manager of parks for the City of Denver in 1935. One of Cranmer's abiding passions was the creation of a city-owned mountain park devoted to winter sports, much like famous European resorts in the Alps. Denver bluebloods in the Arlberg Club worked with him to make it a reality.

With great fanfare, Denver officially inaugurated the Winter Park ski area just west of the Moffat Tunnel in 1940. "The city will charge $1 for a day's skiing, including any number of rides on the ski tow to the top," read the opening-day story in the Rocky Mountain News, which also announced that the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad would be running special "ski trains" to the new resort.

After Winter Park's successful opening, skiing slowly emerged as a major sport in Colorado. By the late 1940s, ski areas had debuted at Aspen, Arapahoe Basin and Loveland. While other sites were launched with equally humble facilities, over the years Winter Park's competitors became more and more glamorous. As the other resorts created a hedonistic carnival of pleasures beyond mere skiing -- adding elaborate spas, gourmet restaurants, mountaintop espresso bars, and nightclubs that counted movie stars and financial moguls as clientele -- Winter Park was happy to bill itself as a family-oriented ski area.

For years, that appeal bred loyalty. Many Coloradans retain a sentimental affection for Winter Park as the place where they learned to ski, and the resort prides itself on its children's programs. One of its attractions has always been that it is cheaper and less stressful than the ski areas on the other side of Berthoud Pass. Winter Park has none of the flash or pretension of Vail or Aspen. It is less congested than the busy ski areas in Summit County.

But Winter Park, located 67 miles northwest of Denver, has always been a more complicated place than someone grabbing a hamburger in the Balcony House might expect. Despite its patrician roots, the resort is owned by the City of Denver and operated by a nonprofit board, unique in an industry that's become dominated by profit-hungry companies that answer to Wall Street. It has largely avoided building the mass of condos, hotels, shops and restaurants that lie at the bottom of major ski mountains in Colorado.

Until now. The dowdy Winter Park that skiers have known for generations is about to morph, and visitors to the resort in another decade might not even recognize it. The city is negotiating with two large real-estate companies to take over Winter Park and develop approximately eighty acres at the base into a winter wonderland, with hundreds of new condos, several hotels, and plenty of retail shops to draw the wallets out of visitors' parkas. Denver would still own Winter Park, but the day-to-day operation of the resort -- and the ability to exploit the valuable real estate at the base -- would go to a private partner with deep pockets.

City officials insist Winter Park has one choice: Change or slowly die. It costs about $39 million annually to cover all of Winter Park's operating costs; as these continue to rise, they say Winter Park is losing its customers to competing resorts such as Keystone and Copper Mountain, which are busy expanding their own base areas.

"The city's interest is in the ski area being first-rate and first-class," says Elizabeth Orr, director of projects for Mayor Wellington Webb. "Winter Park is packed on weekends, but not during the week. For the most part, the people who ski during the week are destination skiers from Texas, New York and other states. If you can't attract people to fill in those non-weekend days, it's very hard to keep the operation going."

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