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By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
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Somewhere down the slope was my father, happily unaware that I'd wrapped myself around one of Winter Park's historic trail signs.
We were carving out our own piece of history. Forty years before, my father had introduced me to Colorado, and skiing (not that the two can be separated), on this same mountain. Back then, Winter Park was just 25 years old; on this bone-chilling day, we were all showing our age.
Still, Winter Park has always been Denver's most glamorous asset -- who needs a beach when you own a ski area? -- and I'd just slid into the sign commemorating the man we have to thank for it. George Cranmer was already a wealthy real-estate developer when he became the city's Manager of Parks in 1935, and he wasn't content with watching Denver's justly famous flowers grow. He looked toward the mountains, to a choice spot known as the West Portal, on the far side of the recently completed Moffat Tunnel, and saw a winter wonderland. A winter park.
"Directly west of Denver, we have absolutely everything essential to the ideal winter playground," he told a reporter back in 1937. "The new high speed trains make it possible for easterners to come out here Saturday, spend a weekend in the mountains and be home again on Monday. But to get them out here we must have something to offer in the way of accommodations and some kind of winter program. We can't expect them to come out to sit on the site of a mountain just to view the scenery."
Two years later, Winter Park opened with a T-bar and a rope tow to haul hardy skiers 5,000 feet up that mountain. Two decades after that, when Denver's ski area was racking up more than 100,000 skier visits a year, my family joined the club. Just as Cranmer envisioned (although the process wasn't quite as high-speed), we'd hop on the Denver Zephyr in Chicago, sit up all night and arrive in Union Station early the next morning, just in time to tumble onto the milk/mail train that chugged its way up to the Fraser Valley and Winter Park.
By the time my father had laced me into my boots and set me loose, I realized there was no greater freedom than schussing down a slope.
In Colorado, you could fly.
Sixty years after the city opened Winter Park, keeping the area going became an uphill battle. The ski industry had changed a great deal, and the money was no longer in the sport itself, but in the commercial and residential real-estate deals that were sprouting at the bases of other resorts.
In 1993, two years after he was first elected mayor, Wellington Webb had proposed that the city sell Winter Park -- which was now logging a million skier visits a year -- to the nonprofit Winter Park Recreation Association, which had been running the ski area for the city since 1950. Of the $53 million sale price, half would go toward paying off the resort's debts, the rest into new parks for the city.
Denver residents didn't fall for that snow job. They were rightfully proud of their ski area, with its world-renowned disabled and children's programs, and they were rightfully suspicious of a sweetheart deal that would hand Winter Park over to the power brokers who served on the WPRA board. Instead, the city renegotiated its deal with the WPRA, which ultimately agreed to pay Denver $2 million a year for the right to operate the area rather than the $7,000 it had been paying.
But in 2000, the WPRA announced that because of poor snowfall that season, it wouldn't be able to make that $2 million payment to the city. On revenues of about $38 million, it had lost some $777,000.
Winter Park wasn't going to be able to make its payment the next year, either, despite the fact that new development had finally come to the base of the ski area, in a deal that allowed the Houston-based Hines company to build some shops and slopeside condos.
"There was a lot of concern up here three years ago when we recognized the way we were doing things just wasn't going to work," remembers Gary DeFrange, CEO of the WPRA. "Without capital, we'd been working with one and a half hands tied behind our backs."
So the city charged a 23-member committee with exploring ways to "preserve and protect Winter Park as a first-class ski mountain." The committee compared the financial forecast for Winter Park with those of other resorts, and it looked bleak. "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," the committee noted. "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."
Committee members held meetings in Grand County -- where they were lambasted for Denver's "benign neglect" of Winter Park for a half-century (over the years, the city had put only $240,000 back into the resort). They held meetings in Denver -- where they were accused of giving away this city's heritage and history. And finally last April, the committee decided that things must change: Denver had to either sell Winter Park or find a private operator/developer willing to partner up.
Much to the annoyance of many committee members, Webb announced that he would not be known as the mayor who sold Winter Park (even if he was more than willing to wear that label eight years earlier). "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," he said.
And much to the shocked delight of almost everyone, a half-dozen entities were interested in pursuing a partnership, a list of suitors eventually whittled down to Intrawest, the Canadian corporation that owns Copper Mountain and Whistler/Blackcomb, and East West Partners, a company that's not only done an estimated $1 billion in mountain real-estate development, but is currently changing the landscape of Denver's Central Platte Valley.
In January, Intrawest was proclaimed the winner.
Late last month, Intrawest officials skied the mountain and enjoyed a lovefest with the same Fraser Valley residents who'd been so hostile a year before. "There's a lot of relief in both the local community and Denver," says DeFrange, who recognizes that the deal could put the WPRA (not to mention him) out of business. "Some people complain that the character is going to change and that it will never be the same. One of the things that's going to change is we're going to go into the parking lots and build condos and shops. Is the character the parking lot? It's the mountain. The mountain is the same. If anything, we have the ability to enhance the mountain."
"I don't know another ski area in North America that has the kind of mountain Winter Park does," says Liz Orr, the city's project manager. "I think Intrawest is great. It's as strong on the operations side as its is on the real-estate side. We really thought we needed both." According to Orr, the first draft of the city's agreement with Intrawest may be ready next week.
Still, there are bumps ahead. While Intrawest will be able to develop the Winter Park base, it will have to work around the Hines projects that take up close to half of the 172-acre site. It will also have to work around a possible lawsuit: An outstanding agreement between Vail and Intrawest (which developed River Run at Keystone, now owned by Vail) could prohibit either company from getting involved in Grand County real-estate projects.
And then there's the Denver Auditor's Office, which has taken a strong interest in Winter Park business dealings -- and even filed suit under the Colorado Open Records Act demanding access to WPRA records. In December, Grand County District Judge Richard Doucette ruled that Auditor Don Mares was not authorized to obtain those records, since he didn't qualify as a "natural person" under CORA. On March 1, Mares asked the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn that decision; last week, the court gave the WPRA until March 25 to show why the judge made the proper ruling.
That won't be an easy argument. Because now, more than ever, public officials need access to public information concerning a public asset -- Denver's most glamorous asset. This family should have no secrets.