It’s just another day in your average ski resort

Roger Marolt

It’s official. We are no longer leaders.Last week, with a lack of foresight that makes the three blind mice look like a pack of shitsu Seeing Eye dogs, the Snowmass Village Town Council voted unanimously in favor of placing us on the long list of followers, also-rans and wannabes of resort areas. Within six years, you won’t be able to tell Snowmass Village from Whistler Mountain from Copper Mountain, or even Magic Mountain, for that matter. Hello, Vail and Beaver Creek. You’ve got a new cousin. The new Snowmass Base Village project is all systems go.Oh, where have you gone, Walter Paepcke? We had so much potential. It is difficult to strive for greatness because it is so hard to define before it exists. That’s why it’s rare. That’s why it’s precious. That’s why not everyone can achieve it. But, that’s not a good excuse for why we didn’t even try.I don’t pretend to know greatness before it stares me in the face. Spotting it early is a job for prophets and poets. But, I can sense it leaving. And, along with the masses, I can see mediocrity rising up on the horizon. A visionary surely could have sketched something better for us.I don’t blame the Aspen Skiing Company or Intrawest for putting this plan together. They were doing a job. They did it well. They convinced us that greatness is beyond our reach. The practical alternative is cash in the bank. I understand. I graduated from B-school. I studied the model. It’s a brilliant model, too. It is one that was born in France, then adopted and raised right here in the good ol’ U.S.A., by a man named Sam Walton. The idea is to create a self-contained market with enough “critical mass” to sustain itself. Think Super Wal-Mart. Under a single roof they offer the consumer every good and service imaginable. Where else can you buy a Big Mac to fill out your buns and a new pair of underwear to hold them? The idea is to offer customers everything so they don’t go anywhere else. That “leakage” is bad. Wal-Mart has learned to seal off their stores so completely that entire small towns suffocate in the vacuums they create. Even grocery stores operating on measly 2 percent margins can’t compete with them. To accomplish this the operation has to be big. It has to be synergistic. It has to draw large numbers of customers to buy all kinds of different products, and it has to offer all kinds of different products to draw in the large number of customers. Size gives them control over vendors. It feeds off of itself. It’s self-sustaining. It doesn’t rely on anyone or anything else for success. It’s a virtual merchandising perpetual-motion machine. It’s brilliant!And, the numbers speak for themselves. Wherever Wal-Mart shows up, the economy thrives and shareholders get richer. Sure, Main Street storefronts might all be boarded up, but just outside of town a giant parking lot is full and shoppers are getting good deals. Employment rates for the town are high. Everybody is working.You can’t blame the Skiing Company and Intrawest for using this model for Snowmass. It works.The economies of scale they will achieve in building the massive project alone will amount to a small fortune in construction costs saved. They’ll have their own sales office to cut their real estate commission costs in half. When it’s finished, they’ll set commercial rents for the town and possibly beyond. They’ll corral business dollars that were formally “leaked” to outside shops, restaurants and hotels in Snowmass and Aspen. Can you imagine the management fees they will extract on an ongoing basis? Yes, they are in it for the long haul.It’s good work, if you can get it. They got it. Congratulations!And it only gets better, for them. They don’t even need to attract more visitors to the area to succeed. Snowmass is their biggest draw for skier numbers. In the past, most of those skiers left for Aspen to shop and dine after 3:30 p.m. The problem for SkiCo is that they couldn’t capture any of those dollars. With Base Village, they will put their large Snowmass land holdings to work to keep the tourists there. Beautiful!Like I said, SkiCo has done their homework with this. It is a good deal for them. But I’m not them. And I’m left to look at this proposal from the other side. SkiCo is constantly reminding us of the huge risks they are taking with Base Village. I learned about risk and reward at B-school, too. You don’t take big risks without the possibility of big rewards. SkiCo is not leaving anything on the table other than what is absolutely necessary. For every big winner, there is a big loser. Not all deals are win-win situations. There will undoubtedly be a strong local economy in new Snowmass, but there will also be a lot more people around wearing red Ralph Lauren parkas and gray wind pants. Just as with Wal-Mart, the lady who would own her own flower shop now waters petunias in the garden center. The would-be goldsmith is replacing Timex watch batteries in aisle five. The town’s best chef is handing out samples of microwaved tempura-fried shrimp over by the vinyl-weave lawn furniture. And, the former real estate broker is dropping brochures for Acapulco timeshares into shopping carts at the checkout. But everybody at Wal-Mart appears to be happy. Nobody likes the idea of the “big box,” but everybody shops there anyway because these are different times. We can’t go backward. It’s progress. It’s inevitable. It’s the American way. And as soon as you buy into that mentality, you deservedly relinquish your role as a leader. Get used to the dust. On the average day, Roger Marolt can be contacted at