Welcome to Winter Park, Denver's Own Ski Area | Westword


Snow Business: Why Denver Has a World-Class Ski Resort

What other city has a ski area?
Getty Images/Zach Dischner
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Gary DeFrange, president of the Winter Park Recreational Association from 1997 to 2017, remembers the day he got a call about a snowcat with tourists aboard that had slipped off the road and fallen sideways down the mountain about twenty yards.

DeFrange immediately assembled a team to help, and ski patrollers, mechanics and environmental specialists rushed to the site. The ski patrol got everyone out. Luckily, there were no injuries — not even to the snowcat.

The driver, who'd caused the accident by coming too close to the edge of a road cutting across the slope, was embarrassed, apologizing to everyone for ruining their day. But rather than being angry, all of the snowcat passengers tried to console him, thanking him for providing an amazing story to tell and handing him tips.

"They get involved in what could have been pretty tragic," DeFrange recalls. "And their big concern was that the guy driving the snowcat felt bad.

"You see the best things come out of people in a resort like that," he adds. "We wear jeans and sweatshirts, and there are no strangers. Everybody's accepted. We don't care what you do in your life, whatever your career is; that's fine. We just want you to have a good time. It's just a great place to be.”

A great place whose history starts with Winter Park's creation by the City and County of Denver 83 years ago.
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Grooming the slopes at Winter Park
Carl Frey / Courtesy of Winter Park and Alterra Mountain Resorts
Back in the late ’30s, George Cranmer, then the director of the Denver Department of Parks and Improvement, had a vision: He wanted to create a winter sports park for Denver, which already owned  parks in the mountains outside of the city.

Skiing had been popular in the state since the Hot Sulpher Springs Winter Sports Carnival debuted in 1912; Howelsen Hill outside of Steamboat Springs became Colorado's first area with a lift in 1915. Cranmer wanted Denver to get in on the game.

As he began looking at options, he studied the Jones Pass area on the east side of Berthoud Pass as well as the West Portal area just west of the Moffat Tunnel, which had been finished in 1928, allowing trains to go through the Continental Divide rather than over it. That site won out because of the easy access through the tunnel.

Cranmer arranged for the city to swap some land that it owned near the tiny town of Parshall farther west in Grand County with the U.S. Forest Service for 88.9 acres adjacent to the West Portal. He also acquired a permit from the Forest Service that secured 6,400 adjacent acres of land for winter sports and recreational development. That permit is still held by the City and County of Denver, and over the years, the permit area has expanded to nearly 7,500 acres, according to Winter Park spokesperson Jen Miller.

In 1938, Bob Balch became the first manager of the in-the-works sports park, whose name was changed from West Portal to Winter Park in December 1939, just one month before it officially opened in January 1940 with two rope tows and ten trails. The grand-opening festivities included a winter carnival, modeled after the one in Hot Sulphur Springs.

World War II slowed interest in Winter Park, though, and in 1947, Cranmer was replaced as parks director. By then, his pet project was generating just $9,000 a year, which wasn't enough to cover needed improvements to infrastructure.

That's when wealthy Denverites, many of them members of the elite Colorado Arlberg Club based at Winter Park, stepped up to help. In 1950, they formed the Winter Park Recreational Association, which took over management of the ski area. As part of the deal, the city gave the WPRA $175,000 — the last money it would ever give Winter Park — to improve the facility, and the WPRA had to look elsewhere for another $200,000 needed for upgrades. People who cared about Cramner's vision, including several WPRA board members, guaranteed the loans for the money needed to maintain the ski area.

Since then, the WPRA has continued to hold the U.S. Forest Service permit as an agent of the city.

“What's nice is that keeps the City of Denver as an ultimate owner,” DeFrange notes.

The WPRA hired Steve Bradley as executive director in 1950, when the park saw 10,000 visitors a year. Even as other ski areas started popping up across Colorado, Winter Park kept growing. In 1969, it obtained the permit for more Forest Service land and also leased land from the Arlberg Club to create Mary Jane, an adjunct to Winter Park that opened in 1975.
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Grooming the slopes, old-style.
Winter Park Resorts

Bradley, who reportedly was not a fan of moguls, had invented the Bradley Packer, a precursor to the snowcats that help smooth the mountain as well as tour visitors around the resort; there's still an old one hanging in a lodge at Winter Park. Still, he pushed the expansion of Mary Jane, known for its bump runs.

The bumps did have many fans, and the number of annual visitors to Winter Park grew from 359,000 in 1974 to 494,700 in 1975. In 1976, the resort introduced another improvement : a $1.2 million snowmaking system that's getting a significant upgrade this year, Miller notes.

“We have done upgrades,” she says, “but a lot of the existing infrastructure is still some from the original snowmaking system in the mid-’70s. We were pretty pioneering; at that time, there weren't a lot of ski areas making snow. But we've lagged a little bit since. We're refocusing and making a big investment in the next, I would say, three to five years.”

Gerald Groswold took over as the WPRA director in 1975 and oversaw more expansions, into Vasquez Ridge and Parsenn Bowl, high-altitude alpine skiing accessed by the highest six-passenger chairlift in North America. By the resort’s fiftieth anniversary, in 1990, Winter Park's 106 trails on 1,325 skiable acres were attracting 924,000 annual skier visits.

But for many ski resorts, the big action was moving off the slopes.
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The old base and Balcony House.
Winter Parks Resorts
In 1994, as other ski areas began focusing on real estate developments, the WPRA started renegotiating the terms of its agreement with the city. The U.S. Forest Service wanted to aggregate land in the area that was held by many owners, and the WPRA was eager to develop some of that property.

The new deal, which Denver City Council approved in 1996, authorized the WPRA to enter into real estate transactions, conveying the ninety acres at the base that the city owned to the WPRA. As part of the agreement, the WPRA agreed to pay the city $2 million annually to be used for capital improvements for the Denver parks system.

The transfer of the resort title was controversial. Denver can’t sell park land without a vote of the people, but a judge in Grand County ruled that Winter Park had never been incorporated as an official city park. Kevin Flynn, now a member of Denver City Council, covered the story for the Rocky Mountain News; he maintains that many councilmembers didn’t realize at the time that they were effectively selling the resort.

That's a slippery slope, though. Other members of Denver City Council argue that the city didn't sell the land at all, and that Denver can take back possession of Winter Park at any time because it retained reversion rights. In fact, under the current agreement, in 2078 any land that the WPRA hasn’t sold will revert back to the city in title.

And in the meantime, according to Liz Orr, chief administrative officer for the WPRA, the city could decide it wants to take back the unsold land at any point. “For a practical, ongoing basis, the WPRA owns the land, but we only own it as an agent for the City and County of Denver,” she explains.

DeFrange took over management of the resort shortly after the new agreement was signed. He recognized that Winter Park would have to change if it was going to keep up with the other ski areas in the state.

Resorts were transitioning from fixed-grip lifts to high-speed detachable lifts that could carry more people, he recalls. And people were looking for more amenities at the base, including retail shops, lodging and vacation homes.

“Frankly, the way we were structured at that time, we didn't have the ability to put together the equity it would take to upgrade the mountain side of the resort with lifts and snowmaking and potentially additional terrain and additional amenities on the mountain, and we didn't have the ability to develop the base area,” DeFrange says.

The WPRA saw what was happening in Vail, where Vail Resorts could bring in private investors and build equity rather than just taking out a loan with the property as collateral. It also noted how Copper Mountain and Steamboat were expanding while owned by private entities. So in late 1999, the WPRA began working with the city to revise its agreement.

Orr was the manager of the city's Office of Projects when the WPRA took its concerns about not being able to make its $2 million annual payments, much less being able to generate enough capital to maintain the resort, to Mayor Wellington Webb. He appointed a task force that looked into possible solutions, including having the city put up some sort of bond issue to fund improvements, or perhaps even selling Winter Park.

But Webb and members of the task force didn’t want to sell the resort or ask taxpayers for money, and they started exploring a third option: finding a partner in the ski industry to run the resort while still maintaining the WPRA’s agency agreement with the city.

Another committee considered possible partnerships, which were narrowed to two frontrunners. Intrawest ultimately got the nod.
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Gary DeFrange oversaw Winter Park during a critical time.
Courtesy of Gary DeFrange
By December 2002, all of the involved parties had landed on a revision of the original deal agreement between the city and the WPRA. Under the Supplement 7 Agency Agreement, Intrawest would run the resort, making improvements and decisions about prices, facilities and day-to-day operations, while the WPRA would serve as asset manager rather than operator, working with the company to ensure that its plans benefited the city.

For the first ten years of the agreement, the city would get $2 million each year from Intrawest. Starting in year eleven, it would get that $2 million plus 3 percent of gross revenues over $33 million. And the payments have come through, totaling more than $78 million through 2022 so far (not all of the information from 2022 has been finalized).

“The city gets much more money than it ever got in the past, and an amount of money that overwhelmingly grows every year,” Orr says. “Because the revenues over and above the $2 million base are based on gross revenues, not net revenues, it doesn’t matter what the expenses are. It matters what the gross revenues are.”

Intrawest also agreed to invest $50 million in the resort in the first ten years; DeFrange says it invested even more than that. Having a partner that deeply understood the ski industry and had the equity to make improvements was key, he adds: Intrawest provided expertise in running resorts that the WPRA didn’t have, and the association gave it discretion on improvements and operations as long as the resort remained competitive with other ski areas.

“We did things every year that would upgrade the resort,” DeFrange recalls. “Before that, we were trying to figure out, what are the things we absolutely have to do to make sure we're still safe, and try to add new things. But we weren't able to keep up until we brought in this new structure.”

"We weren't able to keep up until we brought in this new structure.”

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Visitors and employees immediately noticed the improved experience, he adds. Rather than working to keep old equipment running, new equipment could be brought in.

Orr likens the decision to proceed with the partnership to the origins of the WPRA fifty years earlier: Both times, people stepped up to help the place they love, with the WPRA and the city working to engineer an agreement unique in the country.

“You had people in Denver who cared about the resort so much and wanted it to be a success and continue to be a great asset that they took action and wanted to do whatever needed to be done to assure the resort’s success over time,” she says.

“The words ‘first class' are not in any of the agreements," Orr adds, "but that's generally the sense that we use when we think about how the resort is being managed."

Even as Intrawest was absorbed by Alterra Mountain Company in 2017, the agreement continued. The development side of the operation is governed by a master plan that dictates what kinds of projects can go on which parcels. If development is purely private, such as condos or retail, the WPRA has less oversight. It has more of a say for resort facilities, including approval of improvements.

According to Orr, one of the WPRA’s prime duties is to make sure that if, for some reason, Alterra stops managing Winter Park, the city will still have a financially viable resort; the company can’t load the resort with debt and then leave the city hanging.

DeFrange credits the original 1950 agreement with keeping the resort around, and the new agreement with making it what it is today.

Since 2002, every part of Winter Park has seen some kind of upgrade, DeFrange says. The village at the base was designed to look like it evolved over time rather than being added in the 21st century. There is expanded lodging, restaurant and retail capabilities, as well as more skiable terrain and lifts.

As a side benefit, in 2018 Winter Park became part of the Ikon Pass offered by Alterra, which competes with Vail's Epic Pass.

DeFrange even brought a train back to Winter Park. Since 1940, generations of Coloradans had taken the Ski Train to the resort on weekends. But in 2009, citing insurance costs and uncertain conditions at Union Station, the Anschutz Co., the train's most recent owner, stopped the service and sold the equipment to a subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway Co.

But then an Amtrak conductor contacted DeFrange with a plan to operate passenger service to Winter Park from Union Station during ski season, using unused passenger cars from the Chicago area that typically sat neglected all winter.

DeFrange raised the $3 million needed to upgrade the tracks and platforms to modern safety and comfort standards, and worked with RTD, Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern to get permission from each entity to use its facilities for the project.

To this day, DeFrange encourages everyone traveling from Denver to Winter Park to use the train. Rather than sitting in traffic, people can enjoy a scenic ride. Those who fly into Denver International Airport can even take the A Line to Union Station, then the Winter Park Express to the ski area without ever getting in a car, he notes.

The seventh season of the Amtrak train to Winter Park will start January 12, 2024; the resort has signed a multi-year contract with Amtrak.
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Cheers at the top of Winter Park Resort.
Courtesy of Alterra Mountain Resorts
While Denver skiers benefit from the many improvements at Winter Park, the city itself benefits from the deal because the money from the deal goes into improving Denver parks.

The city decides what to do with that money independent of the WPRA.

Former Denver City Council member Debbie Ortega was on council at the time the original 1994 agreement was renegotiated; she also had been a member of the Winter Park trust, overseeing how funds generated from the resort are used in Denver. She highlights the dirt bike project and the terrain park at Ruby Hill Park as examples of how Winter Park funds were used.

They also helped fund trail enhancements along the South Platte River and the restoration of the electric fountain at City Park. General park maintenance and upgrades get a boost from Winter Park, too. This year, $1.2 million went toward citywide walk improvements and $800,000 to park rehabilitation.

“You had people in Denver who cared about the resort so much and wanted it to be a success."

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Then-mayor Michael Hancock’s 2023 budget indicated that Winter Park payments to the city for 2021 totaled $3,695,143; in 2022, the city collected $5,560,000. The next budget recommends how $3,220,000 in Winter Park funds should be used.

And investments in the resort itself continue under Sky Foulkes, who took over as president of Winter Park
when DeFrange retired. The resort broke ground on an employee housing project that will provide places to stay on the mountain for over 300 employees. DeFrange notes that the prime real estate could have been used for condos, but because of the agreement structure and the community culture at Winter Park, it’s going to help employees instead. While as a private company, Alterra can't share skier numbers, Winter Park remains one of the most popular of the state's thirty-plus ski areas.

Both DeFrange and Orr says they admire how an agreement made in 2002 still works today.

“Everyone who was involved in the process really did a pretty remarkable job of crafting a set of documents that have worked really well,” Orr says. “It’s still very near and dear, I think, to a lot of people, whether they ski there or just the pride in the fact that this is something that the city started and has, through a variety of arrangements, been enabled to keep as a great asset — not just for Denver residents, but for people of Colorado and everybody who comes to Colorado to ski.”

Winter Park's contributions to Denver open space and the fact that it’s been home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled for more than fifty years make it much more than a ski resort, DeFrange suggests.

Ortega agrees that Winter Park’s history is something for Denver residents to be proud of. If people ski there, they’re helping give back while still enjoying some of the best skiing in the country.

"It was a great place for me to be for twenty years, and it's still a great place there," DeFrange says. "They continue to do a great job."

This story has been updated from the original published in November 2022.
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