Winter Park Grows Up

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

"You might have been able to make that decision twenty years ago," observes John Parr, a Denver planning consultant who served on the committee. "But now there's no turning back."

The committee reached the conclusion that leaving Winter Park as it is would be impossible. Parr says that when Winter Park opened the Mary Jane and Vasquez Ridge additions (bringing total acreage to 2,886), it lost the ability to simply be a small resort serving Front Range skiers.

"Once the decision was made to play in the big leagues, all of a sudden you have maintenance and marketing costs. It's an expensive proposition. Winter Park has become much more than just a Denver city park."

Orr adds that people who think of Winter Park as primarily a place for Denverites to enjoy a day of skiing don't understand how large and expensive the area has become. While the resort may be showing a positive cash flow, it does not generate enough to provide for capital improvements and maintenance. Just replacing a ski lift can cost more than $3 million, even if it only receives heavy use on weekends during a 150-day season.

"When you have an area as big as Winter Park with as much developed area and facilities, that's a big fixed investment," she says. "It costs the same to run a mountain with 700,000 skiers as if you had 1.2 million skiers. It takes the same number of people grooming the trails and taking tickets. The bigger and more complex the ski area, the bigger the expense in terms of staff and infrastructure."

The committee that studied Winter Park looked at several different development scenarios. To serve just day-trippers from Colorado, the group said, Winter Park would have to close parts of the mountain in order to cut expenses and downsize to a Loveland Basin-type ski area.

"The committee's charge was to look at ways to preserve and protect Winter Park as a first-class ski mountain," reads the report submitted to the mayor. "We believe closing portions of the mountain is inconsistent with this charge and would cause a downward spiral for the resort."

The report goes on to paint a grim picture of Winter Park's future without significant new investment. The area's main competitors are Keystone, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. Like Winter Park, each attracts about one million skiers per year. During the past five years, the report says, Keystone and Breckenridge have significantly increased their market share, while Winter Park's share has declined the most of the four resorts.

"Within this five-year period, Keystone and Breckenridge invested heavily in mountain and base-village amenities and gained significant market share. Copper Mountain's new facilities' first real impact will be the 2001 season. Winter Park lags behind, both in on-mountain improvements and base village development."

Adding to this ominous forecast has been the onset of lift-ticket price wars that have seen four-day lift passes going for as little as $49 for some resorts.

"Winter Park is at a severe disadvantage in this price-war environment," says the report. "Copper Mountain, Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek have owners who not only make money from lift tickets, but from condominium sales and rentals as well as restaurant and retail sales. They can offer discounted lift tickets as loss leaders much as the Las Vegas casinos use hotel rooms since they profit from spending in other areas. Winter Park's ability to capture revenue from other sources such as room rentals and food and beverage sales is less than its competitors. Approximately 53 percent of the resort's revenue comes from lift tickets."

While Coloradans often think of Winter Park as a place that caters primarily to locals, in fact, 60 percent of its visitors are people who stay overnight -- almost all of them from out of state. The committee's report describes Winter Park as a ski area that has characteristics of both day areas such as Loveland Basin and larger destination resorts: "Winter Park is at a crossroad today, with characteristics of both. It will not survive straddling the middle -- the competition is too great."

The coveted destination skiers increasingly expect resorts to have a full range of services, notes Orr, and that means Winter Park must somehow come up with millions of dollars to add those facilities. There was discussion in the committee of keeping the operation of the ski resort under city control and spinning off the real-estate development of the base to a private partner, but Orr says that would be too expensive for Denver. Just building a new parking structure, employee housing and a gondola to the town of Winter Park would cost $60 million, and Webb has already ruled out using a city bond issue to fund those improvements.

Besides, says Orr, there are good reasons to have a single operator running both the mountain and the 173-acre ski village. "There's a desirability in having integration between the ski area and the commercial areas. You want a partner with an interest in both being successful. What sells real estate depends on things like traffic, parking, roads and what's happening on the mountain."

The town of Winter Park is about two miles down U.S. Highway 40 from the resort. The 700-person community is largely a collection of shops and restaurants geared to tourists, with hotel and condo projects set back from the highway. Nick Teverbaugh has been mayor of Winter Park for twenty years, and he also serves on the WPRA board. He says most residents' livelihood is dependent on the success of Winter Park, and his constituents want to see more money going into the ski area.

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