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Will Intrawest revive or ravage Snowmass Village?

Steve Benson

“Phony as hell” and “perfectly beautiful” – they’re both phrases used to describe Intrawest developments. The split perception is a common symptom, especially in mountain towns, where the attitude toward development and change is as varied as the seasons. Some see development as a savior that can revitalize a struggling local economy; others view it as highway robbery, almost as though their beloved town is being stolen by outsiders with no emotional connection to the place. Like them or hate them, new base villages are the rave of the ski industry. In fact, some claim a new base village is essential for survival in an increasingly competitive market. All around the world, new ski-area developments are sprouting up like flowers – or noxious weeds, depending on who you talk to – as resorts scurry to stay in the game. So it is in Snowmass Village, where the Aspen Skiing Co. and resort developer Intrawest have joined forces to propose a large development – simply called Base Village – at the bottom of the ski area. The project was passed unanimously by the Snowmass Village Town Council in October. But a referendum, which will draw a final yes/no vote from the community, was launched by an opposition group in December. The vote will take place this Thursday.Before the vote, The Aspen Times wanted to take a look at some other Intrawest projects and how they’ve affected their host communities.

Intrawest has villages in 13 ski areas in North America and one in France. They include Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia; Mammoth Mountain, Calif.; Squaw Valley, Calif.; and Keystone Resort and Copper Mountain in Colorado. (Keystone is now owned by Vail Resorts.)Of all of Intrawest’s villages, the one at Copper Mountain, just off Interstate 70 in Summit County, has been deemed the least successful. But even at Copper, annual skier visits have climbed from below 800,000 in 1999 to 1.058 million in 2003. The resort was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in 1997 before being purchased by Intrawest.Some of those opposed to Base Village point to the massive and often empty structures at Copper as a reason to reject Base Village.But David Barry, the chief operating officer for Intrawest Colorado, said Copper is in the midst of a banner year. Where Copper had nothing but scattered condominiums and huge parking lots before, now it has a cohesive base village that has helped boost skier visits.”People can say it failed this or that or whatever, but what exists today is remarkably different than what existed before,” Barry said. “We did decline in skier visits in the 2004 season after a peak in 2003, but the way we’re tracking now, Copper is on pace to have a record year.”Still, Base Village supporters say it’s apples and oranges to compare Snowmass Village and Copper.First, the village at Copper is significantly larger than Base Village, which would include 610 residential units and about 65,000 square feet of commercial space. Copper currently has 1,031 residential units and 160,000 square feet of commercial in its village (combination of Intrawest development and independent structures). Once complete, Copper will include 1,641 units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. Copper is also located directly off I-70, which means it’s not exactly a secluded mountain getaway like Snowmass Village, and it attracts a different crowd – primarily day-trippers from the Front Range, along with a growing number of destination tourists. Snowmass, on the other hand, is a destination resort.

Second, Base Village would include two major hotel properties – The Westin and The Little Nell. Copper has a similar short-term lodging program, but no branded hotels. However, both Copper and Snowmass Village are located in the mountains. And in virtually every mountain town there is a seasoned population of locals who are wary of big developments. The Snowmass Village opposition claims that Base Village is too big for the intimate town, and it lacks character, originality and authenticity.”If you’re the first Intrawest village, then that’s fine,” said Jeff Tippett, a former Snowmass Village mayor and chairman of Citizens for Responsible Growth, which launched the referendum. “The problem is we’ll be the 14th Intrawest base village in North America.” Tippett added that he believes Intrawest’s villages are “contrived.” “I don’t think it’s going to be unique or distinct enough to attract business away from other resorts, which is what it has to do to be successful,” he added.

Some Snowmass Village business owners, particularly on the mall, are concerned that the additional 64,000 square feet of retail that will accompany Base Village will sap their business. Non-Intrawest business owners at Copper, most of whom occupy some of the older buildings at the Copper Mountain base, say the Snowmass Villagers are rightly concerned.”So many independent people will go out of business,” said one business owner in Copper who wished to remain anonymous. “Intrawest doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. The retailers should be nervous. If they can put a stop to it, they should.” Frank Johnson, who owns the independently operated ABSki shop in Copper, said if you can cope with the added competition, Intrawest can do wonders for a local business. But he added that several of his fellow merchants at Copper have had to relocate due to the increased competition.At Mammoth Mountain in California, where a new Intrawest village has been erected, most independent businesses are faring well.One local restaurant owner who asked to remain anonymous said, “You can’t get a seat in my restaurant on the weekends unless you make a reservation in advance. Intrawest has just brought in so many people. They’ve been good to the businesses.” Skier visits at Mammoth have rocketed from 884,000 in 1997 to 1.374 million in 2003. Michael O’Connor, Intrawest’s vice president of development overseeing Base Village, said the partnership will do everything possible to ensure the vitality of the independent businesses in Snowmass Village. Many of those businesses already struggle in Snowmass Village’s acutely seasonal economy.”We’re not trying to kill them off,” O’Connor said. “We need the mall. We want it to succeed.” In fact, Intrawest’s planned mix of restaurants and retail is designed to complement the town’s existing mix. Currently, Snowmass Village’s food and beverage/retail mix is out of whack, with 23 percent food and beverage and 65 percent retail. Base Village plans to bring in about 65 percent food and beverage and 30 percent retail.

“We’re going to counter it and balance it out, so it’s closer to 50-50 [overall],” O’Connor said. “That’s a lot better than where it is today.”And with the additional visitors Base Village aims to attract, O’Connor said the food and beverage sector won’t suffer.”Their future is a hell of a lot more secure with Base Village than it is today,” he said.Snowmass Village Mayor Doug Mercatoris has owned the Mountain Dragon restaurant on the mall for 20 years. He’s so confident that Base Village will fuel his business that he recently extended his lease on the mall for an additional 15 years. “I’m a firm believer in the old adage that all ships rise on the rising tide, except for the ships that are tied too closely to the mooring and the ships that aren’t seaworthy,” he said. “Anybody who’s afraid of Base Village is not seaworthy and tied too close to the moorings.”If you do a good job, there will be more than enough business to go around. I believe that about the restaurants and the retail.” One of the Town Council’s first requirements of the Base Village partnership was the installation of a people-mover between Base Village and the mall, which is perched halfway up Fanny Hill. The partnership provided a Cabriolet connector, sort of a mini-gondola, that will transport riders between Base Village and the mall in 90 seconds. But even without that, Mercatoris said there will be more than enough people in the upper village (near the mall) to support business. “There are twice as many rooms in the upper village than Base Village,” he said.

Base Village may revive Snowmass Village as a resort town, but it’s uncertain what kind of impact it will have on those who call the area home. Guests visiting Intrawest villages seem to adore the developments, while seasoned mountain locals shake their heads in disgust. In June Lake, Calif. – near Mammoth Lakes – Intrawest has proposed another village. In response, a local citizens group has designed a bumper sticker of a figure urinating on an Intrawest sign. But visitors interviewed at Copper Mountain were ecstatic about the development and said they planned to return.”It’s everything you would imagine a vacation to be,” said Chris Torwirt, of Nebraska, who was vacationing with his family at Copper in mid-January. “There’s so much to do – it’s too perfect to be real. It’s breathtaking.” “Yeah, it’s like a brochure cover,” added his 12-year-old daughter Hannah. Andrea Mead Lawrence, a former Olympic gold medal ski racer who has lived in Mammoth for the past 36 years, referred to Intrawest guests like the Torwirts as “people who don’t know any better.”In the few short years since Intrawest arrived and erected a new village, she has seen her world turn upside down.”It’s a tremendous distortion of the economic base, and it completely dislocates the community,” she said. “People who I’ve known for years can’t afford to live here anymore. We’ve paid a tremendous social price.”

The Mammoth Lakes restaurant owner who raved about the increased business spoke in less glowing terms about the impact Intrawest has had on the local lifestyle. Mammoth’s real estate prices have skyrocketed, he said, and several of his friends have been forced to move to Bishop – about an hour’s drive south – or out of the area completely. Most of Mammoth’s visitors and investors come from Los Angeles, an enormous ski market about five hours away. He added that, even with 27 lifts and 3,500 skiable acres, Mammoth’s facilities are occasionally overwhelmed by the growing onslaught of guests.”It’s a double-edged sword, because [employees from Intrawest] are my friends but they’re changing the face of the east side of the Sierra,” he said. “And I don’t mean a little change, I mean radical change.”Lawrence, who won two gold medals in slalom and giant slalom in the 1952 Winter Olympics, comes from a family of ski pioneers who developed Pico Mountain in Vermont. In her eyes, Intrawest has no connection to Mammoth’s flavor and history and its village is, well, less than inspiring. “It’s all hype and phony as hell. It’s absurd,” she said. Lawrence said she understands the ski industry trend to expand and improve base areas, but there are alternatives to opening the door to a major resort-development corporation.”We have to keep things to scale, and keep them authentic to who we are and the quality of the mountains, and Intrawest hasn’t done any of that,” Lawrence continued. “You can’t say no to change, but you can give it direction.”And that’s what the opposition in Snowmass Village has maintained all along. “We’re asking people right now ‘Is this the right project for Snowmass Village?'” Tippett said. “We think it isn’t, we think we deserve better … it’s so fake-looking. We need something smaller and more creative, something that doesn’t try to be something that it isn’t.”Jim Heywood, another Snowmass Village resident opposed to Base Village, said the development would fit in Vail Valley, but not in the narrow confines of Snowmass Village. He’d like to see a village about half the size that includes a hotel with more conference space.”I’d like to see a major hotel that is really a hotel as opposed to these that are condos,” he said. “You can’t count on availability from the owners of condos.” All of the Base Village hotel units will be for sale. But buyers will understand that, when they’re not using their units, the rooms will be treated as hotel rooms. The developers stress that selling hotel units is now a standard practice in the industry, and enough rooms will be available to accommodate non-owner guests.

David Perry, the senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co., said there are a few enormous differences between Base Village and most of Intrawest’s other projects. First, Base Village will be operated by the Skico, not Intrawest, he said. Second, four separate architecture firms have been hired to design Base Village – more than any other Intrawest development in the world.”We insisted on high-quality architectural variation and uniqueness, and sound environmental principles,” Perry said. Perry said that since the Skico will operate Base Village, the project will have a genuine local flavor.

“The people at the [Skico] are your neighbors,” he said. “Our lead [planner] on Base Village is Bill Kane, a 30-year local and renowned planner. He’s acknowledged as being a great ski resort planner and he has been for decades … and he’s our guy.” Perry said those factors combined with the dedication of the Crown family – full owners of the Skico since 1993 – make Base Village a “very grounded development.”T. Michael Manchester, who was mayor in Snowmass Village when the council approved Base Village, agrees. Manchester has seen other Intrawest projects and insists Snowmass is getting a better one.”I think this is the highest quality architecture you will see anywhere,” said Manchester, an architect himself, during a Base Village debate last week. “The stuff we saw at Copper Mountain, for example, would not fly.”Several months ago, managing partner Jim Crown warned that if Base Village is rejected by local voters, a similar proposal will not follow in the future. Project supporters have taken the message to heart, but opponents believe it’s a scare tactic. As for who’s expected to win the election, both sides say it’s to close to call. But both claim if all of their supporters get out and vote, they’ll win.”People keep asking me what’s going to happen on election day, and I don’t know what will happen,” Tippett said. “But I can tell you the day after the election, somewhere between 46 and 49 percent of the town will be unhappy.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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