Aspen Skiing Co. stoked about Snowmass, despite uncertainty | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Skiing Co. stoked about Snowmass, despite uncertainty

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The Aspen Skiing Co. is prepared to make additional investments in Snowmass Ski Area despite the uncertainty clouding the fate of the massive, partially completed village at the base, officials said Monday.

The company hopes to break ground in spring 2011 on a new, multimillion-dollar restaurant at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola, Skico Senior Vice President David Perry told the Snowmass Village Town Council. The restaurant needs approvals from the town and the U.S. Forest Service.

If approved, the addition of a modern restaurant would complete the Skico’s vision for turning the eastern half of the upper mountain into a focal point of the ski area. The Elk Camp Gondola was added a couple of seasons ago, along with a unique, upper mountain teaching area with a dedicated chairlift for beginning skiers and riders.

Perry said Cafe Suzanne, at the base of the Elk Camp quad chairlift, will remain in place for the two years required to build the new restaurant a short distance to the west.

The Skico is also investing marketing efforts and operations into developing the Elk Camp side of the mountain into a summer attraction. The gondola operated for the first time this summer, hauling roughly 13,000 passengers after opening the third week in June, according to Steve Sewell, Snowmass general manager. The Burlingame chairlift on a different section of the mountain provided the only summer access in 2009. It attracted 5,400 riders.

“We’re off to a great start,” Sewell said. “We committed to building a very strong business up there.”

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The Skico plans to add three trails between the top of the Elk Camp Gondola and Base Village next summer, assuming approval from the Forest Service. An additional downhill cycling trail was added from the top of the Elk Camp quad.

As many as 25 percent of the passengers on the gondola last summer made the trip with their bicycles. The Skico expects the popularity with cyclists to continue to grow, but it’s also courting hikers with dedicated trails and families with a playground, climbing wall and trout fishing pond.

Snowmass Village Councilman Reed Lewis encouraged Skico officials to open even more of the mountain and promote it as a leading summer destination.

“I feel like we’re getting in the right direction but we’re not quite there,” he said.

Sewell said the Elk Camp operations must turn profitable before the Skico spends additional money opening other parts of the mountain in the summer.

Snowmass Mayor Bill Boineau asked if the Skico has considered erecting a alpine slide as a summer attraction at Snowmass. The discussion is a bit premature, Skico officials responded, until the fate of a bill introduce by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D.-Colo, is resolved. Udall’s bill would make it easier for ski area operators to use federal lands for summer activities as part of their permits.

“If that hurdle gets cleared, that’s one of the discussions should have,” Perry told the council.

Despite the progress with on-mountain amenities, even the biggest Snowmass booster can’t avoid getting saturnine over the unfinished business at the base. About 1 million in residential and commercial space was approved by town voters at Base Village in February 2005. Three years later the project stalled when financing dried up. Lenders claimed developer Related Westpac defaulted on loans with $386 million remaining on the principal. A receiver was appointed to run the operations when the banks started foreclosure proceedings. A foreclosure sale is scheduled Nov. 17.

Related Westpac officials have estimated that about 400,000 square feet of the project has been completed, or about 40 percent.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said Monday a benefit of the foreclosure will be straightening out the complex ownership and, hopefully, getting it consolidated into the hands of one party. He was noncommittal about the Skico’s role in the future of Base Village, simply saying the company is looking at all its options.

Two improvements have been made at Base Village for winter operations. An arrival center will open that will whisk bus passengers and people parking their vehicles at an underground garage up to the base area chairlifts via escalator and elevator. In addition, a walkway has been established from the Viceroy Hotel to the base lifts.

scondon@aspentimes.com