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Gondola a front for Hines’ pocketbook?

Jeremy Heiman

Aspen Wilderness Workshop has accused the Aspen Skiing Co. of proposing a gondola between Buttermilk and Highlands in order to boost the profits of the new Highlands Village real estate development.

In a May 3 letter to the Aspen Ranger District of the White River National Forest, Workshop director Sloan Shoemaker called the gondola an amenity to increase the profitability of the real estate development at the base of Highlands. He said that approving it will fuel an ongoing “capital investment arms race” between the Skico and its rivals.

Gerald Hines, developer of the Highlands project, has offered to put up money for a large portion of the gondola project, according to Shoemaker. He appealed to Forest Service officials to critically analyze whether the Skico proposal is simply a front for Hines, who stands to gain tremendous value for his property as a result of development on public land.

“It is wholly inappropriate to use public land to make Hines’ real estate holdings more attractive and profitable,” Shoemaker wrote. “Use of public land should be to benefit the public.” Shoemaker wrote. He added that allowing the gondola on public lands smacks of corporate welfare.

The Skico sees it another way. “I think that’s clearly not true,” said Lisa McManigal, the Skico’s project manager for Buttermilk.

The Skico and Hines are partners in the gondola because it would be advantageous to both, she said, and the Skico would not embark on a project like this simply to benefit another business interest.

“Our goal is to boost the experience for skiers,” McManigal said. “What the gondola emphasizes is improving the experience for families.”

Shoemaker suggested the Forest Service take note of its own precedent in the agency’s 1997 rejection of the proposed Adam’s Rib ski resort near Eagle. It was passed over on the grounds that skiing appeared to be secondary to real estate development.

The Skico has said one of its reasons for building the gondola would be to provide skier transportation to Highlands. But Shoemaker argued that the reasoning is flawed.

According to Shoemaker, a skier would need to take a 5-minute bus ride to Buttermilk, walk 560 feet to the chairlift, spend nine minutes riding to the top, walk 250 feet to the gondola and, finally, take a 5-minute ride to Highlands. Why would someone do that when they could simply take a 6-minute bus ride to Highlands? he asked.

The Wilderness Workshop also called on the Forest Service to complete an environmental impact statement on gondola connections between all the Skico’s areas. An environmental assessment, the much less extensive analysis that the ranger district has proposed, would analyze the impacts of the proposed Buttermilk-Highlands gondola.

An analysis needs to be done on the cumulative effect of building gondola connections between all the Skico mountains, Shoemaker said. If the Skico builds connectors one at a time, the overall environmental costs would then be understood, he wrote.

Forest Service officials Jim Stark and Art Bauer, who will analyze the gondola proposal, were unavailable for comment Monday.


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