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Mountain News: Snowmass Base Village gets across the finish line

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SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo.—Base Village, a 1.1-million square-foot real estate development at the base of the Snowmass ski area that was conceived 20 years ago, is finally a wrap.

The project gives the Aspen Skiing Co. substantial new lodging product comparable with the upper-scale hotels of Beaver Creek, Vail, and other newer and refurbished ski areas in the West. For Snowmass Village, the project allows it a shot at retaining more visitors. They'll inevitably go to Aspen to get wined and dined, but the new mass may persuade them to stay at Snowmass for at least an evening.

"We certainly see the Aspen experience as a cornerstone for us, but we now have the opportunity to build on the Snowmass Village experience as well," said Clint Kinney, the town manager of Snowmass Village.

The ski company has a similar view. Spokesman Jeff Hanle described a critical mass that may cause people from Aspen to actually want to spend time in Snowmass for more than just skiing. It will become more of a stand-alone resort.

Snowmass is Aspen's money-machine mountain. The resort does roughly 750,000 skier days a year, more than the three other ski mountains nearby operated by the Aspen Skiing Co., including the original Aspen Mountain.

Aspen Skiing Co. took the first step toward achieving the vision in 1999 with the purchase of 202 hectares at the ski area base. Two years later, it partnered with Intrawest, the former ski company and real estate developer, to create the new real-estate product. Snowmass Village voters in 2004 approved the project.

Construction started in 2005 but two years later, Aspen Skiing Co. and Intrawest sold the project off to a different company, Related. For Related, it was terrible timing. Construction stopped in early 2009 just before the recession formally ended. Related dove into bankruptcy. Aspen Skiing Co. got the half-completed project back for $56.5 million. It had sold it to Related for $169 million.

In late 2016, Aspen Skiing announced a new partnership with KSL Capital Partners and East West Partners. A frantic 18-month construction schedule headed by Andy Gunion of East West finished the project for the 2018-19 season.

The principal achievement before the recession hit was the Viceroy Hotel. Now also open for business as part of the just-wrapped project is a 99-room Limelight Hotel, the third of that name owned and operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. The other two are in Aspen and Ketchum, Idaho. The architectural motif for this new hotel, as with the others, is of "mountain materials and modern elements," said the Aspen Daily News.

The new hotel has a five-storey rock-climbing wall and will be home to a new and members-only "Snowmass Mountain Club."

Aspen Skiing Co. has pumped more than US$100 million into on-mountain improvements at Snowmass during the past 13 years. Among the latest investments was the $20-million Lost Forest adventure centre. With this, Aspen Skiing hopes to make Snowmass livelier—and more profitable—on a year-round basis even as a warming climate nibbles at the ski season.

Plans are underway for a significant remodel and expansion of the Snowmass Center, the town's other major base-area commercial node, reported The Aspen Times.Both had key personnel participating in the revamp from Vail Resorts and its predecessor, Vail Associates. Harry Frampton was president and Mark Smith the chief marketing executive of Vail Associates in the early 1980s. In the mid to late 1980s, they developed the key real estate parcels at Beaver Creek before moving on to develop real estate in the Truckee-Tahoe area of California, Park City, and elsewhere, including Union Station in Denver. KSL Capital Partners is also headed by former Vail Resorts executives.

Zinke's exit tied to real estate deal

WHITEFISH, Mont.—Ryan Zinke is leaving the cabinet of President Donald Trump, and The New York Times said that a real-estate deal in a ski town figures into his departure.

Zinke, a former U.S. Navy seal, was Interior Secretary, in charge of the national parks and Bureau of Land Management lands, as well as other agencies, in the United States. He led Trump's efforts to allow more drilling on public lands and to downsize a national monument in Utah created during the Obama administration.

The most damaging allegation may involve the real-estate deal involving Zinke's family in Whitefish, Mont., his hometown. Politico earlier this year wrote that David J. Lesar, the chairman of Halliburton, the giant energy services company, was lending financial support to a large hotel and shopping development in Whitefish. That project would make property owned by Zinke significantly more valuable. Zinke's wife had pledged in writing to allow the developer to build a parking lot that would help make the project possible.

"Because Halliburton is the nation's largest oil services company and Mr. Zinke regulates the oil industry on public land, the deal raises questions about conflict of interest," said the Times.

New wildlife overpass bridges interstate

PARK CITY, Utah—A wildlife overpass, the largest in Utah, has been completed across Interstate 80 between Park City and Salt Lake City. And work continues on a wildlife overpass across Interstate 90 near Ski the Summit at Snoqualmie, east of Seattle.

The 98-metre-long overpass was built at a cost of US$22 million with the intent of allowing deer, elk, and moose to cross the highway without danger of hooves ending up on hoods. That segment of highway at Parley's Summit has been called Slaughter Row.

Is it wide enough? Lorelei Combs, a member of a group called Save People Save Wildlife, said that the overpass needed to be wider and more natural looking, with grasses, trees, and shrubs. "We were hoping for something bigger and better, but something is better than nothing," she told The Park Record.

In Washington, a US$6.2 million crossing of I-90 has largely been completed, connecting the north Cascades with the south Cascades. The Seattle Times reported that dirt had been spread, the equivalent of 1.5 million bags such as you buy at Home Depot. More than two-dozen wildlife crossings or underpasses are either completed or planned along a 24-kilometre stretch of the highway.

Salt Lake gets nod as U.S. nominee for 2030 Games

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Salt Lake City has been chosen as the U.S. nominee to host the 2030 Olympics, getting the nod over an effort by Denver.

The Denver Post noted that Denver and Salt Lake City were the final two U.S. competitors after Reno-Tahoe withdrew from the running earlier this year. Salt Lake City proposed to run the Games for US$1.3 billion by reusing facilities from its 2002 Olympics.

A poll found 83-per-cent support for the Olympic bid among Utah residents. Denver's bid faced stronger skepticism among Colorado residents.

But will Utah be asked to step up to host the 2026 Olympics? There's some conjecture to that. Calgary withdrew from bidding in November, leaving only Stockholm and a joint Italian bid of Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo as candidates. But there's some shakiness to both bids.

Park City figures prominently in Utah's plans. It hosted several of the events in 2002. Both Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resorts are possible venues, noted The Park Record. Other events would be held at the Utah Olympic Park, located near the turnoff from I-80.

"Park City could host the Games nearly any time," Park City Mayor Andy Beerman said. "We've kept all the infrastructure in place."

Could a tiny ski area be something bigger?

SILVERTON, Colo.—In the 1950s, while searching for where to build the ski area that he had dreamed about as a boy growing up in New England, Pete Seibert spent a summer as a hotel night clerk in Silverton, scouting potential locations by day.

Seibert found much to like about the ski terrain around Silverton, but concluded it was too remote to make his ski area work. Soon after a friend from Aspen introduced him to Vail Mountain. Seibert had trained during the Second World War at Camp Hale, just a few kilometres away, but somehow had not become familiar with that mountain. Within a few decades, Vail was doing 1.6 million skiers a season and, after an expansion in the late 20th century, had 5,289 acres (2,140 ha) and 33 lifts, for a time tops in North America.

Silverton has two ski areas, anyway. About 16 kilometres outside town, Silverton Mountain has terrain about as extreme as it gets. But on the edge of downtown, Kendall Mountain has 16 acres (6.47 hectares) of terrain as mild as it gets, the perfect beginner ski area.

Kendall is what has Silverton officials at work, thinking it might become something bigger, more economically powerful and hence allow the community to become less dependent on summertime steam trains chugging into town from Durango. A wildfire last summer stopped those trains for several weeks.

On a good day, Kendall does 120 skiers. A study by ski industry consultant SE Group concluded that the ski area would need to do 1,000 skiers a day over a three- to four-month winter to justify the expansion to about 800 acres (323.75 hectares). That would put it somewhat on par with Wolf Creek and Monarch, two other ski areas in southwest Colorado, reported the Durango Telegraph.

Where will those skiers come from? That's the big question, and the market fundamentals have changed little since Pete Seibert was sniffing around the San Juans soon after the Second World War. It's many hours of driving from Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix. There are flights into Montrose, 90 minutes to the north across Red Mountain Pass. The highway there edges along a canyon scary enough to some that they choose wide detours.

On the other hand, Silverton is at 2,835 metres in elevation, high and cold. San Juan County is unique among Colorado's 64 counties in having zero tilled agricultural acres. Given what climate scientists say about warming temperatures, maybe that bodes well for an expanded Kendall Mountain. On the other hand, climate models tend to indicate more drought for southwestern Colorado. So cold enough, maybe, but snowy enough?

A chairlift unlike any other

BIG SKY, Mont.—Big Sky Resort now has a chairlift unlike any other, at least in the Western Hemisphere. The lift carries eight people with ergonomically-shaped, extra-wide, heated seats, and a weather-proof bubble overhead. "There simply isn't another chair like it in North America," said Mike Unruh, vice president of mountain operations.

Composting program turns profit, lengthens landfill life

ASPEN, Colo.—The composting program operated in conjunction with the Pitkin County Landfill, has not only been reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, it's actually turning a profit.

The Aspen Times reported the composting operation in 2017 made almost $371,000 from sales of soil and other composted byproducts. This is in stark contrast to another composting operation at a landfill about 80 kilometres west that loses more than $329,000 a year.

Cathy Hall, the landfill director in Pitkin County, credits a program called SCRAPS as a primary reason for the success of the composting program. The joint Aspen-Pitkin County program has put bear-proof bins at various locations where the compost can be deposited. It was launched with aid of a $200,000 grant from the Colorado state government.

Rates also matter. Regular landfill trash costs US$86 a ton. Compostable material costs US$15 a ton. That has induced businesses to participate in composting.

City Market, the dominant grocery retailer in Western Colorado, began composting in January. It's a subsidiary of Kroger, one of the nation's major grocery retailers, which began a "Zero Hunger-Zero Waste" initiative in January. In Aspen, this has meant that the grocery store fills three commercial-sized dumpsters with compostable material thrice weekly. City Market stores also operate in Vail, Avon, Carbondale, and other towns along I-70 and in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Fires that burn hotter and larger

KETCHUM, Idaho—As snow piled higher and cold deepened, deep-thinkers from Ketchum and Sun Valley gathered to ponder various futures, including one of more wildfires.

If natural, fire was rare when skiing came of age as a sport and industry in the mid-20th century. As of 1985, in Blaine County—where Ketchum is located—no wildfire had occurred in decades.

Now, there's more woody material with higher energy and less moisture. That produces more energy out of any given square metre of fuels now as compared to 1985-94. This contributes to the quick spread and extreme nature of wildfires burning across the West.

"What used to be high is now simply average," said Matt Filbert, a wildfire expert with the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho. "Consequently, if there's a fire, it grows quickly."

Fires are getting bigger. Relatively close to Ketchum, the Beaver Creek fire in 2013 burned 111,000 acres (44,920 hectares). Filbert said conditions have ripened for a 200,000-acre fire.

Think also of the sagebrush steppes. Historically, sagebrush-covered terrain in the Wood River Valley would burn every 30 to 100 years, he said. Now, it's burning every five to 15 years.

At mid-elevation forests, the fire interval used to be 120-plus years.

What does it mean if wildfire season lasts seven months a year instead of five, as in the 1970s, asked Katherine Himes, director of the McClure Center for Public Policy. Wildfires have quadrupled in the western United States since 1986, she said.

Plenty of places to buy bud, but where can you toke it?

ASPEN, Colo.—Aspen began allowing sale of marijuana in January 2014, hesitating not at all after Colorado voters opened the door. But allowing consumption in public in other than private events? City officials aren't willing to go there yet. But they are talking about it.

The Aspen Times reported that elected officials have been urged to consider designating smoking areas or clubs in Aspen, similar to what Denver is doing. Denver voters in 2016 passed an ordinance that allows designated consumption areas. No smoking is allowed, however. The psychoactive agent THC can be absorbed only through vaporizers, dabbing, and edibles. Too, those consuming must bring their own goods. Also, no alcohol can be sold.

Colorado legislators last year passed a law that would allow cannabis dispensaries to have tasting rooms, but Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed it.

From the discussion reported by the Times, it appears this idea in Aspen will face two challenges. First, while Aspen is notably liberal, as reflected in the decision to treat pot shops little differently from liquor dispensaries, there are also limits. Mayor Steve Skadron noted that a sizable minority opposed the legalization of marijuana in the town.

A second challenge to such enterprises is a purely business one. How does a club make money when it offers so little? "Surviving on a door fee to consume a product, I'm not sure how that will work in the Aspen market," said Phil Golden, who is a member of the Local Licensing Authority.

For now, users will find other ways to partake in public: firing up a bowl in a downtown alley, or by using odourless vaporizers or ingesting edibles.

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