X marks Buttermilk as the spot | AspenTimes.com

X marks Buttermilk as the spot

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Aspen, Co ColoradoASPEN By the end of this week, Buttermilk will shed its sleepy image and take over as the center of Aspen’s universe as the host of the Winter X Games.Thousands of spectators will pack the sides of the superpipe and base area to check out sick tricks by skiers and riders, marvel at the snowmobile races, groove to loud music and score a bunch of swag.For the sixth straight year, Buttermilk will enjoy its days in the sun. Its operator, the Aspen Skiing Co., has the X Games locked up through 2010, so the limelight will continue.Not bad for a ski hill that once had Skico officials so frustrated they changed the name of the entire area to Tiehack to entice more customers. Buttermilk conveyed too soft and easy of an image, company officials decided before the 1993-94 season. Locals ignored the name change, so the Skico switched it back to Buttermilk in March 1995 and wrote off the whole experience as a blunder.

But the root problem persisted. Skico officials flirted with the idea of closing the ski area later in the ’90s. It cost a lot to operate and didn’t produce many skier visits.Buttermilk’s golden years were in the late 1970s. The most business it has ever logged was 250,239 skier visits in 1979-80. In the last decade, its high-water mark was in 1997-98 when it had 180,006 visits. Business over the last decade would best be described as stagnant.David Perry, senior vice president of the Skico’s mountain division, said discussions about closure took place before he joined the company. He doesn’t think it ever would have come to that.So it might be a little too strong to say the X Games saved Buttermilk, but it certainly helped the little ski area find its niche. The Skico’s unique situation of owning so many ski areas so close to one another really boosts its ability to host the ESPN event, Perry said.The Skico essentially sacrifices Buttermilk for one month. Although the games themselves last less than one week, preparation and tear-down tie up most of Buttermilk’s parking lot for nearly a month. Buttermilk continues to lose business during January compared to pre-X Games days.

“The amount of the drop has lessened over the years,” Perry said.But the beauty of the situation is Skico has three other ski areas nearby to absorb customers. Most other resorts would take a bigger hit on their season business by devoting such a large part of their ski area to the games. The Skico can just shuffle the business elsewhere.Skico officials believe the direct and indirect business benefits make it well worth sacrificing Buttermilk for a short time. The Skico’s business on the four mountains dropped the first two years of the X Games. Although the event drew increasing hordes to town each year, they watched the events and didn’t ski.That’s changed the last three years for a couple of reasons. More people are coming to town, Perry said, and more events take place in late afternoon or at night, giving spectators a chance to hit the slopes first.The longer-term benefits to the Skico and Aspen/Snowmass are harder to gauge, Perry said, simply because there hasn’t been a comprehensive study. But Skico officials, as well as a lot of people in town, feel the event is a major economic driver for the winter.

More importantly, it has helped restore Aspen’s place at or near the center of skiing universe. It helped change the image of Aspen from a stodgy resort for rich, old folks to one that also caters and appeals to a younger crowd.”It has an aura about it of turning around Aspen,” Perry acknowledged. The Skico has a demonstrable demographic shift to a younger customer base in recent years, he said.Just how many skiers and riders Aspen attracts over the course of the winter because it hosts the X Games is tough to tell, Perry said. But the Skico will happily continue to surrender Buttermilk for a month per season on the hunch that it’s a bunch.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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