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Mountain News: Aspen expects 5-15% decline

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ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen Skiing Co. is expecting business volume to drop 5 to 15 per cent at its four ski areas this winter, but it is hiring just as many people — 3,500 at peak season — as usual.

David Perry, the company’s senior vice president, mountain division, said the circumstances are unprecedented. “It’s really difficult to look historically at the business ups and downs and say, “Oh, it’s just like ’91 or it’s just like after September 11. It’s not. This is different. It’s global, it’s deep, and there’s still big turmoil.”

But with employees easier to find, and housing for them also easier to come by, the company believes it should put its best service foot forward. “We have our opportunity to shine,” said Perry.

 

Felon’s name on arts centre

AVON, Colo. – Alberto Vilar is now officially a crook. A federal jury in New York City last week convicted Vilar of bilking clients of Ameritrade Mutual Funds, the firm he co-founded in 1979, of millions of dollars.

Although Vilar is likely to appeal, he is a convicted felon, which presents a ticklish dilemma for cultural arts leaders at Beaver Creek, where the exquisite 530-seat Vilar Performing Arts Center bears his name. Will the name remain, reflecting his $7 million donation?

Vilar gave that money in the 1990s, when he was still riding high on his prescient investments in Cisco, Microsoft and other high-tech stocks. His worth was once estimated at $950 million.

In turn, Vilar was lavish in donations, not only at Beaver Creek, where he owned several homes, but at performing venues in London, Salzburg, Washington D.C., St. Petersburg and yet other cities. Vilar also gave $2 million for renovation of the Ford Amphitheater, located in Vail.

At one point, he was estimated to have given at least $100 million and pledged another $150 million. In particular, he was fond of opera.

But after the tech market tumbled, Vilar’s financial world collapsed. He failed to make good on various pledges, and in turn cultural arts centres in New York City, London, and Salzburg removed his name from concert halls, programs, and other prominent positions.

He was found guilty of three counts of securities fraud, but acquitted of nine counts. News accounts zeroed in on promises made by Vilar and his partner and co-defendant, Gary Alan Tanaka, to an investor who gave $5 million after being assured of its safety.

"It's very sad," said Harry Frampton, chairman of the Vail Valley Foundation, a key sponsoring non-profit for cultural areas at Vail and Beaver Creek.

The Rocky Mountain News wanted to know if this conviction could provoke a change in the name of the arts centre.

"I don't know what we'll do," said Frampton, who is also managing partner of East West Partners, a real estate development firm. "I feel sure we'll talk about it, but we haven't had discussions yet."

Tony O’Rourke, executive director of the Beaver Creek Resort Co., said he believes that Vilar fulfilled his agreement, so the name should stay. But O’Rourke said he also believes it’s not up to the resort to pass judgment on people.

“They have to meet their makers, and it ain’t going to be us. We all make mistakes and the key is to forgive and forget,” O’Rourke told the newspaper.

In September, at the start of the trial, Vilar was interviewed by the New York Times at his 5,500-square-foot living room in New York City. In that interview, he lashed out at both government prosecutors, who he charged singled him out because of his high-profile philanthropy.

Vilar also said he felt recipients of his aid had turned their backs on him.

“The notion of presumed innocence doesn’t exist,” he added. “I’m disappointed to say that 99-point-X percent of people I knew haven’t had the decency to pick up the telephone and say anything, like, ‘My prayers are with you.’”

 

Empty storefronts a concern

KETCHUM, Idaho – Downtown Ketchum has plenty of empty storefronts, 30 altogether, according to a sidewalk tour by the Idaho Mountain Express.

The story is partly the national economy, but the broader causes are more complex and not necessarily of recent origin. Despite being the nation’s first destination ski resort, Sun Valley has actually lost tourism business through the decades. Other resorts, with better air connections and newer lodging, have gained as Sun Valley has lost.

But Ketchum has also lost residents. There are more part-timers, but the full-timers tend to live down-valley, in Hailey, Bellevue, or even Twin Falls.

As a result, retailers have a tough time of it. “Sales for the general retailer have been diminishing year-in and year-out probably for the last decade,” said George Kirk, of the Kirk Group. “I think a big contributing factor is a change in the nature of our economy coupled with the demographics shift.”

 

Shirts must meet pants

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – Summit County officials project a 5 per cent decline in sales tax collections this year, which means no pay raises for sheriff’s deputies and other county employees for at least the next six months. “The shirt has to meet the pants,” explains Bob French, a county commissioner. The Summit Daily News says library hours may be cut, and training and all overtime pay has been banned.

 

FBI offers reward in eco-arson

VAIL, Colo. – The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now offering a $50,000 reward for four individuals accused of a string of fires in the West. Two of the individuals, who are both now believed to be in Canada, are accused of participating in the planning of the fire that caused the 1998 demolition of Two Elk, a restaurant atop Vail Mountain.

  Denver’s Rocky Mountain News says that FBI agents are calling the suspects terrorists. “Regardless of their political or social message, their actions were criminal and violated federal laws,” said Michael B. Ward, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division.

The FBI says Josephine Overaker and Rebecca J. Rubin were among seven members of a group called The Family — a part of the Earth Liberation Front — that plotted the arson on Vail Mountain. They were living in Oregon at the time. The fire was to protest the expansion of lifts and ski trails into an area previously identified as important lynx habitat.

Rubin and three others built timers they planned to use as handmade explosive devices to start the fires, prosecutors contend. But most of the group — including Overaker and Rubin — decided the arson couldn’t be done.

William Rodgers committed the arson, while another member, Chelsea Gerlach, waited for him in a truck at the base of Vail Mountain. Rogers committed suicide after his arrest, while Gerlach is serving a prison sentence for her participation in that and other crimes.

 

Creepers & droolers abound

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – The ratio of men to women is imbalanced in most ski towns, but some are worse than others. Mammoth claims to be the worst. It is, says The Sheet, a place where a Roseanne Barr could scoff at a Brad Pitt.

The newspaper polled a variety of the local younger folks, who offered the usual complaints about one another. Women, say the men, are haughty. The women say that given their choices, they have good reason to be haughty.

“Most of the guys here think they are slick and smooth, but in reality they are just creepers,” said Melissa Wigs, 19, using a modern term for an age-old lament.

Matt Gushka, who is 25, says if you’re lucky enough to find a girl you dig, you’d better stick with her. “But you know there’s four other dudes droolin’ on your girl,” he adds.

 

Tough times in 1980s recalled

WINTER PARK, Colo. – No doubt about it, times are tough. But they’ve been tough before, and not that long ago. In most destination ski resorts, the real estate market skidded hard in the early 1980s and never fully recovered for the better part of the decade.

Harder hit than most during that decade was Grand County, where foreclosures at and near Winter Park, Fraser and Granby were common. One ski area, SilverCreek, closed altogether. Twenty-one per cent of those ages 21 through 34 left.

All who were there, and some who escaped early, remember the late 1980s as a dark, dark time. It took much of the 1990s to sort through the bankruptcies.

If local conditions this time are no worse, and perhaps better than those of the 1980s, there’s still a sense of broader economic collapse, some of those survivors tell the Sky-Hi Daily News. “Problems now seem to be more systemic, wider,” carpenter Jay Clough tells the newspapers. In particular, he sees it as a difficult time for young families.

 

Swank hotel to open in February

MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Colo. – If sometimes described as the poor man’s Aspen, Telluride is certainly no slouch when it comes to high-end real estate. Now entering that constellation is a new hotel, called the Capella Telluride. “There aren’t enough stars in heaven” to describe the hotel, says Seth Cagin, publisher of The Telluride Watch. It is scheduled to open in February in Mountain Village, the slope-side town near Telluride. The Capella will be operated by Capella Hotels & Resorts, a chain created by Horst Schulze. Schulze achieved considerable success with his role in the 1983 founding and subsequent expansion of another high-end hotel brand, the Ritz-Carlton chain.

 

Real estate review on hold

WOLF CREEK PASS, Colo. – U.S. Forest Service review of plans to build a major real estate development next to the Wolf Creek ski area is on hold. The Rio Grande National Forest officials told the Associated Press they hadn’t received a new or amended application from the developer, Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs. The plans have called for housing that theoretically could accommodate 10,500 people. Currently, there is no residential real estate at the site, which is surrounded by national forest.

 

Time-share developer guilty of fraud

PARK CITY, Utah – Westgate Resorts, a time-share developer, has been found guilty by a jury in Utah of using fraudulent promotional come-ons to get people to visit the project. The visitors to the spa were promised free trips to Anaheim, Calif., worth $500, but the travel vouchers were nearly impossible to redeem. The Park Record says that attorneys for the Florida-based company claim that Westgate was being picked on and plan to appeal the $1 million judgment.

 

Boosters hope to re-tire

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – In Summit County, plans are afoot to remove some of the mud from mud season. Funds are being collected for artificial-turf fields built on a base of recycled tires at Summit County High School.

The most immediate savings will be in time. Currently, participants in lacrosse, soccer and other spring sports miss 26 hours of school while traveling to other venues, because those competitions cannot be held at the high school. Proponents tell the Summit Daily News that the field would also save eight million gallons of water annually while also diverting 30,000 tires away from landfills.

Fundraisers report they’re about halfway to the $1.25 million cost. If they succeed, replacement will be needed in 10 to 15 years, although at a lower cost.

 

Whole Foods to take more time

BASALT, Colo. – Lack of financing has idled construction of a Whole Foods Market at Basalt. The shell of the 44,000-square-foot building had been scheduled for June. Crews had excavated an underground parking garage and poured the concrete foundation before the project came to what The Aspen Times described as an abrupt halt. The newspaper said Whole Foods, a purveyor of organic food, has scrapped plans for eight stores but continues work on several others. The chain, however, is believed to be in relatively good shape, with a $425 million investment by a private equity firm further brightening prospects.

 

Whitebark pine at risk to bark beetles

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – As is the case with the lodgepole pine in Colorado, the whitebark pine of more northerly latitudes is having problems. Some 20 per cent of the trees in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent regions are infected with blister rust, which can make them vulnerable to mountain pine beetles. The warming climate is also making them more vulnerable, researchers said at a recent conference attended by the Jackson Hole News & Guide. Bob Keane, a Forest Service research ecologist, said he believes the stands of whitebark pine can be restored, but wildfires must be allowed more often. “We’re going to have to let some of these controversial fires burn if they’re going to save whitebark pine,” he said. “If we did nothing, whitebark pine would disappear off the landscape.”