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A Tale of Two Ski Villages

Roger Marolt

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …Ah yes, simply beautiful. I wonder where Charles Dickens would invest the royalties he would earn from such sublime prose today. Perchance he would like to own a getaway in the mountains – a place wrought with inspiration and tax-deferred appreciation.So where would it be, Vail? It’s too phony. Telluride? It’s full of dilettantes. How about Steamboat? That’s a little too … well, rustic. Aspen? Nope. His strong opinions would get him bogged down at der Wienerstube stamtisch and he’d never get anything accomplished.That pretty much leaves Crested Butte and Snowmass Village then. Wow, that’s a difficult choice. Which would I recommend he sink his hard-earned dollars into?Well, that’s a tale of two cities. It might be worthwhile to visit both and find out where the smart money is going.Let’s first head south, over Coffee Pot Pass and down East Brush Creek. Last March, Mt. Crested Butte ski area was sold to Triple Peak, LLC. An owner of the company, Tim Mueller, told Crested Butte Weekly, “We have plans to do a lot of things that skiers will see but also provide improvements that guests won’t necessarily notice right away.” The biggest part of the plan is to eventually expand ski area operations onto adjacent Snodgrass Mountain.I like it! They are going to make subtle changes while retaining the character of the town. It doesn’t sound like they want to copy the ubiquitous, fashionable-today Las Disney effect. They are focused on creating a better skiing experience. That’s novel.How did the market respond to this news? Let’s just say it went more nuts than a squirrel coming off a two-week soup diet. Crested Butte has plans, grand plans. And people are buying into them, literally. Folks can’t shake money off the branches fast enough to invest there. Home values are going through their own roofs. Gary Garland of Crested Butte Real Estate Inc. was quoted in The Denver Post as saying, “The frenzy of the 1979-1981 market was pretty crazy, and this eclipses that fivefold. We are seeing two or three full-price offers the first day a property comes out, and oftentimes, people are offering more than asking prices. That has never, ever happened in Crested Butte.”Builder Marc Schellhorn told that paper, “You can’t even find a hammer to hire right now. I could work eight days a week.” All this is happening in a town that looks forward to change as much as a Little Nell waiter during Christmas week. They have a history of managing growth like Dr. Scholls manages warts. It must be an incredible plan! On the other hand, on the other side of the mountain range, near the headwaters of the other Brush Creek, things couldn’t be more somber. The excitement generated from the announcement of a new base village project in Snowmass by Aspen Skiing Co. and Intrawest Corp. was akin to what an old hockey player feels when a new Sonicare attachment comes out. Half the town is adamant that the new plan is absolutely wrong. A good many in the other half support it despite its gargantuan size and numerous flaws because they actually believe that this will be the only opportunity in all of eternity to write a needed new chapter for the town. Even Copper Mountain, the Sprawl in the Draw that never met a developer it wouldn’t ignore the land-use code for, shot down a similar proposal from Intrawest earlier this year.A recent news release from the developers in response to the, ehm, lukewarm reception to the plan first announced in 2002 quotes Aspen Skiing Co. owner Jim Crown as saying, “Our issue here is communication. Conversations have been long, complicated and hard for many to understand what this project means to them.” Hmm … After almost three years in front of the public, many people still aren’t able to see the potential? It took about three seconds to see it in Crested Butte.Lately, more and more appreciation in Snowmass Village is being expressed than realized by former property owners. Sellers are grateful to be getting out from underneath properties that have been on the market for many months, and sometimes even years. The possibility of the town becoming a 10-year construction zone is too much. In 2003 when details of the Base Village plan were unveiled, sales of Snowmass Village real estate dropped 6 percent. Eight miles away in Aspen, they rose nearly 22 percent. In the first nine months of 2004, excluding three huge sales in outlying rural areas, real estate sales in Snowmass Village are up 22 percent over the previous down year. Not bad. But in Aspen, sales are up an astonishing 50 percent from the previous good year. For crying out loud, Basalt is up 48 percent!Some claim that the recent upturn in Snowmass Village is due to mounting excitement over Base Village. If not wholly due to stellar regional economic conditions, I would say that the meager uptick is due to a large group of Snowmass Village residents finally getting fed up and mounting serious opposition to the project this past year. They have generated hope for the future. A citizen-spawned referendum election in early 2005 may quash the project yet. Needless to say, Snowmass real estate remains tepid compared to the sales records being shattered in nearby Aspen. A cross-eyed table-saw operator with ADD could count all of the current speculative building projects in Snowmass Village on his bad hand.A few brokers I spoke with suggested that speculative buying is on hold until after Base Village is ratified. But, if that’s true, wouldn’t you see a lot of properties under contract now with approval of Base Village as a contingency to be met before closing? After all, isn’t that how speculators make money? Don’t they flock to places where they think great things are going to happen? … It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way … It seems that Dickens was familiar with this tale of two cities.Skico tells us that all boats rise with a rising tide. But, through 42 years of living here, Roger Marolt has finally learned that if the tide rises too high, those close to the shore get smashed on the rocks. Throw him a line at roger@maroltllp.com.