Boom in the Butte |

Boom in the Butte

Paul Andersen

After more than 30 years in a family dynasty, Crested Butte Mountain Resort will soon have new owners. Tim and Diane Mueller, ski resort developers best known for their stellar turnaround of Okemo, a struggling Vermont ski resort, will replace Howard “Bo” Callaway and Ralph “Bubba” Walton at the scheduled Feb. 25 closing. Excitement in the Butte has peaked, as people expect a boom in business and real estate to follow the influx of rich new blood.

But while most of Crested Butte cheers, others are more cautious. A quick glance around town shows a high proportion of banks and real estate offices, harbingers of growth that are poised for action. A big boost of prosperity might seem worthy of celebration for a struggling ski resort, but the traditional values of Crested Butte run contrary to big growth.

With the sale of the ski area, however, the first domino may tip toward a chain reaction of development that could sweep traditional values aside.

Winds of change

In 1969, when Howard “Bo” Callaway first saw Crested Butte, the population was 370. The grid of dirt streets was crowded with quaint Victorian buildings ornate with filigree and worn with time. Coal smoke and accordion music drifted on the night air as men in taverns drank slivovitz and ate kielbasa. Polka dancers stomped their heels on wood plank floors and Serbo-Croatian was spoken by hardy Yugoslavian immigrants, many of whom had fresh memories of the coal mines that built the town in the 1880s and kept it going through the 1950s.

Until a ski area was built in 1961, Crested Butte was a Shangri-La nestled in a mountain redoubt in the heart of the Elk Range. But with skiing came tourism, resort development and the struggle for economic viability. For the past 33 years, since Callaway and Walton bought the 1,058-acre ski resort in 1970, they have taken CBMR as far as their capital and patrician patronage would allow.

Now the winds of change are blowing, and to many it is a refreshing breeze.

“The new owners look like they want to do more than turn around some real estate and flip some properties,” effused a Gunnison businessman. “They are in it for the long haul and they see the magic in the community.”

A Crested Butte construction worker put it bluntly: “You bet it’s a good thing. I’m broke. Something’s got to happen.”

Today, one can hike 20 minutes from the “High Lift” and take in the whole picture from the 12,162-foot peak of Crested Butte Mountain. The stunning panorama has not changed dramatically in the last three decades. The town of Crested Butte still occupies the valley floor, surrounded by pastures flanked by timbered ridges. Mountains rise snow-capped and majestic in every direction.

Change is only evident from a closer perspective, where vacation homes are encroaching on former hay meadows and prospective homesites are staked on former grazing land. Subdivisions and satellite communities range across ridges and are filling in the valley toward Gunnison, where a newly paved highway will lead to newly paved runways by next summer.

A ripening plum

Crested Butte was not Bo Callaway’s first choice. His initial overture was for Aspen Highlands, where owner Whip Jones declined to sell. Jones directed Callaway across the Elk Mountains to Crested Butte, where the defunct ski area was in receivership.

The base area was comprised of sheds and barns from an old ranch. Cattle grazed the ski runs in the summer, and remnants of corrals and fence lines revealed an agrarian past. The main lift, which climbed 2,700 vertical feet, was a three-person gondola imported from Italy. Skiers interlocked their knees inside the tiny, lozenge-shaped cars that swung from welded steel towers.

Still, Callaway recognized a plum that could ripen one day. He saw dramatic ski terrain and world-class vistas. What he and Walton failed to grasp was that the resort’s potential would hinge on friendly relations with the outspoken citizenry of Crested Butte.

Time for a turnaround

Lean times seem to go with Crested Butte. During the mining decades, the struggles were epic, both underground and above. Long, cold winters at 8,800 feet (nearly 1,000 feet higher than Aspen) with 300 inches of snow took a toll, but established a legacy for toughness of body and spirit.

Crested Butte’s resilience is celebrated, but the Spartan life seems no longer appreciated by a new breed of “Crested Butteicians” who hope the end of privation is in sight. Today’s businessmen and tradesmen are banking that the new ski area owners will provide a rebound.

At Okemo, which the Muellers bought in 1982, skier days have climbed steadily from a dismal 95,000 per year to 600,000 last ski season, making it the second-busiest ski area in New England.

Crested Butte hopes one day to match that top figure.

“I’m very excited about the sale,” said former Crested Butte Mayor (1981-85) Thom Cox, now president of Crested Butte and Gunnison Community Banks of Colorado. “We’ve lost a lot of skier days in the last four or five years, and it’s just good to see some new blood coming in. These people are obviously very successful in taking Okemo to 600,000 skier days, which is just what we need here for everybody to be able to make a living.”

Crested Butte’s current mayor, Jim Schmidt, favors the slow growth plan of Okemo, where the Muellers are credited with investing $150 million over 10 years.

“The people familiar with Okemo say there is an improvement every year,” said Schmidt. “There is something new all the time, and gradual building works much better for infrastructure.”

When Callaway and Walton bought Crested Butte in 1970, a similar ray of hope spread across Gunnison County. Big plans were unveiled and $20 million went to new lifts, trails and amenities. Skiing bolstered Gunnison County’s traditional ranching and college economy (Gunnison is home to Western State College), and recreation became the economic engine for the valley. Today, in spite of Crested Butte’s tourism, Gunnison County is Colorado’s fourth-poorest county in per capita income.

Because of economic strife and failed local relations, the Callaway-Walton era ended like a bad marriage, with divorce a necessity. The ski area ownership and the community were hopelessly divided by suspicion and distrust.

“Not only did the owners run out of money,” said Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt, “they ran out of desire. And that permeated through the organization.”

“The timing is right for a change,” allowed Tim Mueller (pronounced Muller), “and that’s not to criticize the Callaways and the Waltons. It was just time for a break, and I think all parties agree with that.”

Ralph Walton reflected sadly: “I really regret the fact that the community perceived us as bad guys and consequently, when we had an issue to put before the public, all was not favorable and neither were the results.”

Some say the Callaway-Walton era was the best growth control Crested Butte and Gunnison County ever had. A shop owner on Elk Avenue put it this way: “Everybody is looking forward to the new ownership because things have been stagnant here for too long. Anything would be better than what we’ve had.”

Old divisions, new alliances

The honeymoon ended in the mid-1970s when Callaway, then secretary of the Army under Gerald Ford, was charged with leveraging his influence with the U.S. Forest Service to win ski area expansion approvals for Snodgrass Mountain. Outspoken critics from Crested Butte joined with then-Sen. Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.) to shower Callaway in disrepute. The charge was later dismissed, but it spawned an atmosphere of ill will.

Snodgrass Mountain, a timbered ridge north of Crested Butte Mountain, has been the linchpin in the resort’s expansion. Snodgrass unfolds in a southern exposure of gently rolling hills, suitable for intermediate ski terrain, and opens into a large, montane meadow proposed as North Village. This is where real estate development and local land ethics have collided for decades.

The issue of ski development on Snodgrass reared up regularly during the Callaway-Walton era, but always with impediments. “Too much too soon” was how plans for 11 chairlifts and 1,800 units of resort development were seen by Crested Butte, which managed to sway the county to withhold approvals.

As if in response, the town of Mt. Crested Butte was incorporated in 1973. Carved out of ranches around the ski area base, the “mountain” approved developments at which Crested Butte sneered, even while its citizens swung the hammers. Condos and second homes sprawled across meadows and valleys. Today, the resort base is a disorganized hodgepodge, but the Muellers will try to change that.

A deeper change is the breaking down of old divisions and the forming of new alliances. Tim and Diane Mueller are viewed in some circles as saviors whose success is assured because they talk the language of reasonable, responsible growth ” values as important to Crested Butte as mountain bikes and telemark skiing.

As a result, the land-use politics of Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte have fused somewhat, forming a new impetus for growth and development that may thaw the glacial pace of the past.

“The sale means a growing economy … both in tourism and the building trades. It also means that townspeople are going to get a boost in their wallets,” projected John Norton.

A former vice president of CBMR, Norton left Crested Butte for Aspen in 1991 to serve as chief operating officer for the Aspen Skiing Company. Norton returned to CBMR in June 2002 to preside as CEO over the faltering ski company.

“When they brought John in, it boosted morale, I think, for the whole county,” said Schmidt. “John has done wonders with smoke and mirrors … and no money.”

Norton acknowledged: “Any buyer is going to be received well, since the current owners don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done, which is plan and build the mountain village and design and build lifts on Snodgrass. The other part is that the Muellers come with a great reputation for understanding the ski business and delivering the goods on the mountain.”

The Muellers’ reputation will be put on the line with Snodgrass. Not only will Crested Butte residents keep a watchful eye on development plans, but so will Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at nearby Gothic, where sensitive biological studies have been ongoing for over 75 years. Diplomacy and compromise will be the key as the Muellers strive to alleviate past fears and cultivate broader support.

“Snodgrass will involve an overall mountain plan and eventually a full-blown [environmental impact statement],” explained Tim Mueller. “Our plans will be different than the last plan. We’ll have fewer lifts and fewer trails, so it won’t be quite as intensive. The economic downturn here has opened people’s eyes and they realize that you need a healthy economy to have a healthy lifestyle and a healthy environment. The community has evolved to a common purpose, to say that growth is OK, that the mountain is an integral part of their environment and their lifestyle, that it impacts everybody here. That’s the first realization, at least from our perspective, that they need.”

Gunnison County Commissioner Jim Starr agrees: “A lot of people were concerned that if Snodgrass were developed as originally envisioned, we’d have more cars than we could deal with. With a scaled-down version, people are beginning to say that maybe we can mitigate these impacts and work together to see something happen up there.”

“There’s nothing like a recession to make everybody willing to take on some more business,” said Thom Cox.

Ralph Walton foresees big changes ahead.

“We think the new owners can take the Gunnison valley to another level. They will be bringing in a lot of capital, and more capital will be coming in. Tim and Diane Mueller are really pros when it comes to operating a ski resort, and Crested Butte is poised and ready to jump. The entire county will benefit. It’s a big deal.”

Mayor Schmidt has witnessed Crested Butte’s economic struggle since he was first elected to the Town Council in 1981. As a potential swing vote on a council divided on growth issues, his perspective may be critical, and he laid out a challenge to himself and the community: “The last few years, we’ve been hurting economically, and there is a hue and cry for economic development. This town has always had such great concern with quality of life, and it’s my job to balance out economic development with quality of life. I hope I can do that.”

Schmidt cautions that isolated resorts like Crested Butte are part of a bigger economic picture. “Like all ski areas,” he said, “we’re controlled by the national economy.” And what’s the bigger picture? A recent news feature in the Rocky Mountain News was headlined “Boom(er) Towns: Affluent second-home owners changing face of mountain counties.” The article described a land rush led by “affluent baby boomers” flocking to the high country for second homes and small-town lifestyles.

County Commissioner Starr sees the writing on the wall for Gunnison County: “We really are going to be taxed by what is about to happen. Our challenges include an infusion of capital, people who want to move here, maintaining the scale of building in town, and dealing with traffic issues and affordable housing. If we can’t deal with those things, I think we’re going to lose it.”

That’s not in the Muellers’ plans. “We don’t want to come in here and over-develop or do things that are out of context,” said Tim Mueller. “We have a reputation of trying to work with local communities. We will have a good rapport, and I think the town is looking forward to working with a new owner and getting something done.”

Paul Andersen is a columnist for The Aspen Times daily and a former newspaper editor in Crested Butte.