Winter Park Grows Up

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

The post-war baby boom and economic good times helped bring thousands of people to skiing, and Winter Park grew quickly. By 1960, it was drawing 115,000 skiers a year. Several expansions followed, with the addition of Mary Jane in 1975 and Vasquez Ridge in 1986. Opening up Mary Jane required the consent of the Arlberg Club, which owned thirty acres at the base of the mountain; Winter Park signed a long-term lease with the club to use that land.

Almost exactly as foreseen by Cranmer, Winter Park became an economic gold mine. The ski area now sprawls over several thousand acres, most of it terrain leased from the U.S. Forest Service. The economy of Grand County is now tied to the resort and the throngs of visitors it attracts. Skier visits hit one million by the 1992-93 season, and in 2000 the resort had revenues of $38.2 million.

However, Winter Park also reported a year 2000 loss of $777,896. That figure, along with a projected loss for 2001, set off alarm bells in both Winter Park and Denver, prompting Webb to appoint the advisory committee and begin the process of looking for a private partner.

Scott Moore witnessed Winter Park's change from a modest ski hill to a resort.
Brett Amole
Scott Moore witnessed Winter Park's change from a modest ski hill to a resort.
Scott Moore witnessed Winter Park's change from a modest ski hill to a resort.
Brett Amole
Scott Moore witnessed Winter Park's change from a modest ski hill to a resort.

All the talk of real estate and big development in Winter Park -- with the decisions being made in Denver -- is a source of anxiety for many people who live near the resort. While many of the residents of Grand County want Winter Park to remain vital, they also fear losing a way of life they cherish.

"I love Winter Park the way it is," says Pat Howlett, a businessman who has lived in the area for thirteen years. "It has a moral fiber you don't find in most communities."

Howlett lives in Fraser, an old ranching and railroad town a few miles north of Winter Park on U.S. Highway 40. Fraser has nearly 1,000 full-time residents, and people who live in the area say there is still a small-town ambience they love.

"There's a sense of community here; it has a little Mayberry in it," says Howlett, who owns the Bear Dance Tavern in Fraser. "It's part of the fiber of Winter Park, but that's on the cusp of change."

During the past few years, the swelling market for vacation homes has pushed housing costs beyond the reach of many locals. Fraser has also faced a bitter zoning battle over the proposed development of some longtime hay meadows on the south side of town. Howlett says that whether or not the base area of Winter Park is developed, Grand County has already begun the same sort of transformation seen in places like Summit County thirty years ago.

"The time capsule that was Grand County has been opened," he says. "It's losing it's specialness."

Teverbaugh also says Winter Park has enjoyed a sense of closeness that's rare in the world of resort towns. "We've been insulated to some extent compared to the other resorts," he says. "It's been more mom-and-pop development. There's a sense of community and friendliness here."

The town of Winter Park is trying to avoid the mistakes made in Vail, where many employees are forced to commute from as far away as Leadville because of the lack of affordable housing. Teverbaugh says Winter Park has already purchased land to build housing for employees who work in local businesses.

He knows that most residents and visitors would be horrified at the prospect of the area becoming a Vail clone, but he doubts that it ever will. "The concept of Vail is more corporate, with a higher level of sophistication," he says. "People here are attracted to a more small-town, down-home kind of atmosphere. Our challenge is to try to find a way to walk that line and try to maintain that atmosphere."

Twenty years ago, Teverbaugh bought Miller's Idlewild Inn, which opened in 1945 and was one of the first hotels in Winter Park (the inn burned down in 1988). According to Teverbaugh, the former owner was 5' 6" and wouldn't install any fixtures higher than that. The hotel staff had to ask men booking a room how tall they were to see if they could fit inside. The bathrooms at the inn were outfitted with miscellaneous items the owner had retrieved from abandoned mobile homes, giving the hotel a homemade feel that charmed many visitors but annoyed people trying to use the plumbing.

Teverbaugh spent $250,000 upgrading the inn, tearing out most of the fixtures and renovating each room.

"We had a guest who came after we'd refurbished it, and he said, 'I love it. You haven't changed a thing.' His experience was of a rustic mountain retreat. The experience was the same, so he thought nothing had changed."

It's Teverbaugh's hope that Winter Park can pull off the same transformation. "People think if you change the physical reality, you change the spirit," he says. "At some point you can lose the spirit, and then people say you've changed. That's the struggle we have."

Howlett believes that the Grand County he loves is slowly disappearing. When he moved to Fraser from Denver in the late 1980s, he felt as if he had stepped into a time machine and been transported to a lost world.

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