Winter Park Grows Up

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

Trying to lure free-spending destination skiers has become a common strategy in the skiing industry. Lift tickets alone rarely cover all of a resort's expenses; most large ski areas have responded to this situation by trying to build up commercial and real-estate ventures at the base of the mountain, in the hopes of attracting people who will stay several days. The large national companies that own most big ski resorts -- including those in Colorado -- have convinced Wall Street analysts and shareholders that this strategy can save the industry. Winter Park is following a popular business model for ski resorts around the country.

Not everyone accepts that blueprint. Moore, who learned to ski in Winter Park as a child, has been on the board of the Winter Park Recreation Association -- the nonprofit board that runs the ski area on behalf of the city -- since 1975. He says he wants to see Winter Park prosper, but he wonders if the resort really has to follow in the footsteps of its Colorado counterparts.

"Whether or not Winter Park has to become a real-estate development owner and operator on the model of Vail or Aspen and Keystone is, to me, arguable," says Moore. "I've heard the argument that we have to change or these other ski areas are going to drive us out of business. But what's trendy on Wall Street isn't necessarily good business."

The old Arlberg Club lodge, where Denver's elite schussed.
Chas Grover
The old Arlberg Club lodge, where Denver's elite schussed.
The old Arlberg Club lodge, where Denver's elite schussed.
Chas Grover
The old Arlberg Club lodge, where Denver's elite schussed.

What to do with Winter Park is a question that's bedeviled the City of Denver for the past ten years.

In 1993 Webb announced an agreement to sell Winter Park to the Winter Park Recreation Association (WPRA) for $53 million. About half of that cost would have gone to pay off Winter Park's debt, leaving Denver with about $25 million that Webb wanted to use for new parks inside the city limits.

An uproar followed as critics accused the city of negotiating a sweetheart deal with a politically well-connected board. Webb backed off the proposal and instead renegotiated the city's lease with the association. The previous lease gave the WPRA the right to run the resort through 2078, with annual payments to Denver of $7,000. The mayor pressured Winter Park into upping its annual payment to the city to $2 million and earmarked that money for city parks.

For several years, Winter Park made those payments, and the issue faded from view. Then two years of disappointing snowfall dealt Colorado ski areas a blow. In 2000, the resort announced that it would exercise an option in its contract with the city and pass on its annual payment, citing poor snow conditions. In 2001, it again said it couldn't make the payment, this time pointing to a loss of market share to rival resorts.

The mayor appointed a 23-member committee to study the future of Winter Park and recommend a course of action. Last April, the committee said that Denver should either sell the resort or find a partner willing to invest millions into upgrading it. Remembering the controversy that followed the proposed 1993 sale -- and also undoubtedly aware of the public's anger as Mile High Stadium became Invesco Field -- Webb announced that he would not be known as the mayor who sold Winter Park.

"I believe very strongly that in cities in the West, we have to preserve our history, and we also have to preserve some of our assets," the mayor told the press.

And so Denver began soliciting proposals for a joint-venture partner. Webb made it clear that the city would not put any public funds into Winter Park. Some thought that might scare away potential partners, but instead the city attracted proposals from many of the big names in the ski industry (with the exception of Vail Resorts, which already owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone and would probably face anti-trust problems with the federal government if it tried to add Winter Park to its stable).

In September, the city announced two finalists: Avon-based East West Partners, which has done an estimated $1 billion in mountain real-estate development at a half-dozen Colorado resorts, and the Canadian firm Intrawest Corporation, which owns Copper Mountain as well as the famous Whistler Blackcomb resort in British Columbia.

The city won't disclose the proposals it has received from the two companies while it reviews them, and both firms have been told not to talk with the media. Even though Intrawest has more experience running ski areas, some believe East West might have an upper hand with Denver since the firm has worked extensively with the city in developing new residential high-rises going up next to Commons Park in the Central Platte Valley. Sources say the final deal may be structured in a fashion similar to what the city has done at the former Stapleton Airport site -- turning over control to a partner but retaining some oversight. A decision is expected by the end of this month.

The mayor's committee held several public hearings as they weighed the future of Winter Park; its members often heard pleas from Denver residents to leave the resort just as it is. Many asked why Winter Park couldn't primarily serve Front Range residents and avoid building a ski village at the base.

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