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."
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."
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.
"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.
"The consensus is that there's a need to put equity into the mountain," says Teverbaugh. "With Intrawest in Copper Mountain and [with] Vail Associates, the way capital has gone into the mountains has been through real estate. It's the profit from that that allows capital to go into the mountain."
Teverbaugh says he shares the nostalgia many people have for the Winter Park of the 1970s and 1980s, but he insists it's too late for Winter Park to go back to what it once was.
"With the cost of high-speed lifts and on-mountain improvements, you don't go back to being a 500,000-person mountain and amortize those expenses," he says. "When you have a ski area with a million visitors a year, you've passed the point of no return."
At a time when most Coloradans dismissed skiing as an amusement for idle aristocrats, George Cranmer had an uncanny ability to foresee what winter sports could do for Colorado.
In 1937, he lectured a Denver Post reporter on the incredible opportunity the state was missing.
"Colorado has millions of dollars ready for taking, but we sit back and don't attempt to touch it," Cranmer told the paper. "I am not referring to gold, or silver, or water, or anything of that kind. I refer to the magnificent scenery, the snow, the crystal clear streams, the majestic mountain peaks, the wildlife, the sunshine. Directly west of Denver, we have absolutely everything essential to the ideal winter playground. That's what I have in mind -- a winter playground that would be the world's best. Nature has given us everything we need to bring this about, but we haven't done a thing with it. We've been asleep at the switch."
Cranmer went on to extol the area then known as "West Portal" -- the U.S. Forest Service didn't rename it Winter Park until 1939, the year skiing officially began there -- as an ideal spot to make Colorado the center of winter sports. "West Portal may be reached either by highway or train. And within easy reach of West Portal are four valleys offering all that could be desired for winter sports -- numerous ideal locations for bobsled runs, fine country skiing, fine skating and ice for hockey and other games. 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 side of a mountain just to view the scenery."
Cranmer was a controversial figure in Denver. He rubbed many people the wrong way with his autocratic manner and his certainty that he knew what was best for the city. He was widely criticized in the Denver media when he built a new park across the street from his Italian Renaissance-style home in the Hilltop neighborhood. But he had many friends here, too, as well as a way of exciting others about his grand visions.
Scott Moore remembers being summoned to the Denver Country Club one day by Cranmer.
"George was a grand old guy," he says. "There were six or eight of us young guys he adopted; he became a mentor. George had an eye for the girls. We used to meet at the pool of the Denver Country Club so he could keep his eye on the babes."
In chatting about business, Moore recalls Cranmer telling him he should buy land northeast of the city, because one day Denver would have to build a new airport there. (Moore didn't follow his advice.)
From the start, Winter Park was an odd beast. Launched by pleasure-loving plutocrats, it became the most family-oriented resort in Colorado. Much of the construction that allowed for the creation of Winter Park was done by employees of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal government program that was despised by many of Cranmer's country-club friends.
On opening day, Winter Park had a homemade T-bar lift that moved skiers 2,300 feet up the mountain. Above that, a rope tow hauled visitors another 2,700 feet. Although the ski area was run by the city for the first ten years of its existence, Denver never wanted to put major funds into a park so far out of town. (During the past six decades, Denver has put only $240,000 in public funds into the resort.)
After several years, the ski lift needed an overhaul.
"The equipment up there was in a shambles," recalls former Denver mayor Quigg Newton. "It was declared unsafe. We had to make a large investment of city money or turn it over to somebody who could raise money privately. Allan Phipps was an ardent skier who went up there all the time, and we made a contract with him to develop an association and take over management from the city."
Thus was born the WPRA, which began running Winter Park in 1950. The association was able to issue bonds to fund new ski lifts and the development of the ski area. Many of the bonds were sold to members of the Arlberg Club, and Phipps's First National Bank of Denver became Winter Park's chief lender.
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.
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.
"Fraser was a classless community," says Howlett. "The doctor lived next to the plumber and the dirt mover. The doctor knew those people would be his friends. One of the things that's happening now is that the doctor doesn't necessarily live next to the plumber anymore. When you have $500,000 trophy homes, the plumber doesn't live there."
Today Howlett says he knows most of the people who live in the county. His Bear Dance Tavern is a popular gathering place, just off Doc Susie Avenue. With a dance floor and live music, the tavern draws people who live and work in the area.
"One of the things I love about this place is that it doesn't take long to become a local here," says Howlett. "That doesn't happen many places."
Even though Fraser's economy has been tied to Winter Park's for years, the town has managed to keep its own identity. "The restaurants here don't close in the off season, because they're serving Fraserites," says Howlett. "People say, 'Oh, there's something going on in Winter Park, but I don't want to drive there,' even though it's only two miles."
Howlett thinks that Denver's hands-off attitude toward Winter Park probably helped sustain the small-town atmosphere longer than in other places. "You could say the City of Denver's lack of business stewardship allowed us to be a community longer than Steamboat or other mountain towns. Fraser has a history apart from Winter Park. Fraser wants to be Fraser, but if you study history, I think it will become a bedroom community."
After moving to Fraser, Howlett was so thrilled with his new hometown, he couldn't stop talking about it.
"It was like I was told a secret that I couldn't keep," he says with a sad smile.
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For now, Winter Park is enjoying a record season. The resort has received more than eleven feet of snow since November. Skiers have come flocking, and in December, the area posted its highest number of visitors ever, with the total number of skiers up 2.4 percent over the same month last year. So far, the numbers for January have also been strong.
That means thousands of people are schussing down intermediate Cranmer and Allan Phipps runs, named in honor of Winter Park's founding fathers. While some throwbacks to the old days linger -- for example, the Looking Glass lift, built in 1966, is the oldest operating lift in the state -- Cranmer and Phipps would hardly recognize the place where they blazed trails through an isolated mountain on the north side of Berthoud Pass. Yet these men, who both had been involved in real estate, would probably see the growth and development of the area as inevitable. They might feel a tinge of nostalgia, though, for the remote, windswept ridges where they plied through virgin powder on their way to a simple wooden lodge.
"The prophecy is that for a ski area to be successful, you have to be in the real estate business," says Moore. "The traditional ski company was nothing but an elaborate elevator business, but those days are gone."