Resort lays out its case
“I have a challenge for you,” Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) mountain planner Roark Kiklevich told an audience of over 250 people packed into the Mountaineer Square Conference center on Monday, June 9. They were there to hear the resort’s presentation about its proposed expansion onto Snodgrass Mountain.
“Next winter, spend four days skiing,” challenged Kiklevich. “But you can’t ski in the extremes, you can’t ski the trees. You can’t ski Crystal or Jokerville either. And when you’re going down Upper Keystone, unbuckle your ski boot so you can feel the true terror an intermediate skier feels going down.”
Monday night’s presentation on Snodgrass included a packaged report by CBMR on how the ski industry is changing, how CBMR is failing to keep up, and how the Snodgrass expansion and developments like North Village are meant to put the resort back on track toward gaining market share in the competitive national ski industry.
There were a few members of the public who expressed concern about the plans, and the risk of losing public lands to private interest. But others believed the valley stands to lose more than public land if the expansion is not approved.
The town of Mt. Crested Butte requested the presentation from CBMR, and invited the Mt. Crested Butte Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority, as well as the Crested Butte Town Council to attend and comment as a joint work session.
CBMR vice president and chief marketing officer Ken Stone began the presentation with a quick overview of the resort’s re-branding and how certain aspects of the resort were out of balance.
Stone says when he was brought in from Telluride he noticed that CBMR had been sticking to the same formula for some time. “We’ve been continuing to do the same thing year after year in terms of marketing,” Stone said.
Stone commented on re-tooling the corporate structure, all the way from management teams to vehicles and uniforms to marketing materials. “Right now we’re going through an extensive examination of every aspect to the resort to make sure what we’re offering matches up with our brand promises,” he said.
Stone gave a preview of next winter’s air service, intended to attract more destination visitors from across the country, and how, after having considerable air travel options a decade ago, air service needed to be rebuilt “We lost a lot of air service over the past few years. It’s a re-building process that’s going on,” Stone said.
At the same time, Stone said, CBMR has been losing destination visitors and taking on a different image. “We’ve been the discount leaders in the destination resort service,” Stone said, adding the discount clientele does not stay as long, and they don’t spend as much money on local goods and services.
Stone noted that CBMR was up in skier days over last year, but the town of Crested Butte was down in sales tax revenues. “We’re not getting the visitors we as a community need to survive,” Stone said. “The air service alone isn’t the answer for this.”
Stone then invited CBMR director of planning and permitting John Sale to go into further detail about the need for the Snodgrass expansion.
Sale said they were noticing declining skier trends for CBMR based on National Ski Area Association and Colorado Ski Country data. Sale said while other ski areas were setting records for visits, CBMR has lost market share and has lost 100,000 yearly destination visitors over the past 20 years.
Sale said the national market was changing toward an older, retiring baby boomer generation and it would keep going in that direction. “They’re probably not able to ski the double blacks like they used to,” he said of the major clientele. Sale said the number one desired feature in CBMR guest surveys was more intermediate terrain.
CBMR is also struggling to keep repeat visitors. While nearby Vail and Aspen hold close to an 80 percent return rate, Sale said CBMR was closer to 54 percent.
Referring to CBMR’s goal of attracting 600,000 skier days, Sale said the resort would need 32,000 additional skiers each season. If each skier spends $221 a day on lodging, food and gifts (but not lift tickets or ski school), the extra skier days would generate $35 million for the local economy.
Sale said the ski industry as a whole is doing fairly well, with more than 60 million ski visits in 2007, up from 54 million in 1997.
State visits also increased 5.9 percent from 1997, he said, but during same time skier visits at CBMR have declined 32 percent. Sale said, “This is not a good business model.”
By type of skier, Sale said, advanced and beginner skiers have remained steady customers at CBMR, yet intermediate skiers were dropping considerably.
“Why is it we’re able to retain the advanced skier, but we’re losing this market of intermediate skiers?” he asked.
Sale said one question CBMR gets in regards to Snodgrass is if existing terrain on the main mountain can be utilized for more intermediate skiing. Sale said it had been studied, and there were 45 more acres of terrain in the works, but none of the new acres would create quality ski runs like those currently available in the East River area.
He said the Forest Service asked CBMR to develop and improve the main mountain before pursuing Snodgrass. “Tim and Diane (Mueller, owners of CBMR) have spent close to $20 million bringing it back up to standards.” But, Sale said, “While other ski areas have expanded terrain, CBMR has not.”
Sale showed a graph of different ski areas, and how their recent terrain expansions impacted skier visits. He noted that Winter Park resort has the most new terrain, but has seen a marginal increase in skier visits. Beaver Creek has added much less terrain than Winter Park over the last 10 years, but their skier visits have increased quite a bit.
At the other end of the graph were ski areas that have not expanded terrain, such as CBMR and Taos Ski Area. These resorts have not seen any increase in skier visits, and in most cases were losing skiers. “What is clear is that people who have done nothing are consistent across the board—they’re losing,” Sale said.
Sale then invited Kiklevich to discuss the details of the Snodgrass expansion plan.
Kiklevich said CBMR was asking that the special use permit for Snodgrass be reduced from 1,475 acres approved in 1982, to 1,102 acres in the new plan.
The mountain is now planned to hold 263 acres of skiable terrain, 121 acres of snowmaking, three main lifts, a small surface lift, and two small restaurants. A gondola is also planned to connect the main mountain, the proposed North Village, and Snodgrass.
A large section of expert terrain in the previous Snodgrass plan has been eliminated, leaving the “Glory Hole” terrain on the north slope of the mountain open for backcountry access, Kiklevich said. “We’re trying to keep the backcountry access into the Glory Hole as it is today,” he said. There will be a 300-meter buffer between the planned ski runs and the permit boundary leading to the north side.
Kiklevich said they were planning braided ski runs incorporating as much existing tree clearings and meadows as possible, to minimize tree cutting.
If approved, the mountain will be divided into three separate skiing “pods,” including one section of terrain that dips into Washington Gulch. Kiklevich said the Washington Gulch pod “will be some of the best true intermediate skiing we’d have on either mountain.” He noted that the bottom of the lift will be on a tall bench of land, and would be very difficult to access from Washington Gulch. There would also be no road crossings on the ski runs, and lift installation and tree removal would be performed with helicopters, he said.
In response to comments that the majority of skiable terrain on Snodgrass is south-facing, Kiklevich said the terrain is actually mostly northeast- or northwest-facing, and the Washington Gulch runs will face directly east. “The skiing is there, folks. I believed it in 1982, again in ’94, and I believe it today,” he said.
Kiklevich then presented a diagram showing the length and vertical gain comparison of several lifts currently on the main mountain, and the proposed lifts on Snodgrass. Kiklevich said while the Red Lady Express is a good beginner lift, it’s almost too flat for intermediate skiers. The Painter Boy hill terrain is intermediate in nature, but too short to enjoy, he said.
Snodgrass Lift A, the currently unnamed lift that would serve as the main access up the mountain, is projected to have a vertical gain of 1,451 feet, and will be 7,469 feet long, approximately 1,500 feet longer than the Red Lady Express, and 500 feet higher. Snodgrass Lift C, for the Washington Gulch skiing terrain, would be 4,841 feet long and almost 1,500 feet in vertical gain.
CBMR is proposing 16 ski trails with snowmaking on Snodgrass, requiring an additional 40 to 50 million gallons of water, Kiklevich said. CBMR currently uses 80 to 85 million gallons for snowmaking on the main mountain. He said snowmaking is said to have a consumptive use of 25 percent. “What that means is eight months later 75 percent of our snow is going back in the river,” he said.
To accommodate the snowmaking, Kiklevich said CBMR would need a 60-million-gallon reservoir in the North Village. He said the resort’s proposed reservoir was different from one proposed by the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District.
The North Village reservoir would be filled with a spring runoff water right, allowing water accumulation during a time when local waterways are not at risk of drying up.
Kiklevich also described how 60 million gallons of water flows through the East River in the spring in approximately one hour, at 2,500 cubic feet of water per second.
Sale then came back to the podium to discuss the relationship between Snodgrass and North Village. Sale said CBMR currently has entitlements to build 1,800 units in the North Village. He said when the Muellers purchased the resort, they wanted to change the plans to reflect more of a small town community. “We wanted something that is really tied into smart growth principals,” Sale said.
The new plans call for only 1,100 units, 200 of which will be designated affordable housing, Sale said. He said that was more than the town’s affordable housing regulations required, and the Muellers were considering adding even more. “Most of these houses will be the same size if not smaller than most of the homes you seen in downtown Crested Butte,” Sale said.
“One thing we hear is that Snodgrass is all about real estate,” Sale said. He said if real estate was really the driving factor, then the North Village plans would not have been downsized, there would not be as much community housing, and home sizes would not be limited.
Sale also said the North Village will contain little, if any ski-in, ski-out housing. He said there is a large buffer between the edge of the North Village and the beginning of ski terrain on Snodgrass. Sale said to utilize the Snodgrass terrain, skiers would need to take the gondola up from North Village before skiing down to the first Snodgrass lift. The gondola is also necessary to get back to North Village.
And if Snodgrass does not get approved, Sale said, the resort still intended on building the North Village. “We feel that the North Village as a community works on its own,” Sale said.
However, Sale said Snodgrass was “critical to provide the terrain to become competitive with other destination ski areas.”
The floor was then opened for questions from the town
Crested Butte Town Council member and mayor pro-tem Leah Williams asked when CBMR anticipated hearing from the Forest Service on the status of the pre-NEPA conditions. Before the Forest Service accepts CBMR’s official proposal and enters the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, they agreed to explore potential “deal breakers,” including weighing community support, mitigating impacts to nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and studying the mountain’s geology.
Kiklevich said the key pre-NEPA issue was the mountain’s geology, and CBMR was still waiting to hear back from the Forest Service regarding a United States Geological Review. He anticipated hearing from the Forest Service by the end of August.
Moderator and Mt. Crested Butte mayor William Buck asked if there were any other comments or questions from the council member. Seeing none, he opened the floor to public comments and question.
Mt. Crested Butte resident Ken Preston asked about the land under the proposed lift on the Washington Gulch side of Snodgrass. “Who owns it, and could it ever be developed?” he asked.
Sale said it was mostly Forest Service land, and the lift was being proposed as a no-access lift similar to the East River lift. He said people would be unable to develop on the Forest Service land, and if there were other landowners nearby, “That’s up to the county and their (planning) process. We don’t own any land on that side of Washington Gulch.”
Considering the no access policy on the proposed lift, Sale said there wouldn’t be much incentive to build a house farther up Washington Gulch, as the area below the lift would be equidistant, or perhaps farther than driving from Skyland to get to the base area.
Crested Butte South resident and DDA board member Al Smith asked if the Snodgrass expansion had been analyzed for countywide impacts or county review.
Sale said the county was still working to finalize their 1041 special review regulations for large projects. Sale agreed that the Forest Service does not always look at off-site impacts. “We’ll be working with Gunnison County to do a thorough evaluation,” he said.
Buck asked if there were any other comments, and then thanked the audience for attending. But as people began to leave their chairs, Buck announced that there were more comments.
County resident Michele Simpson asked if the resort felt that sacrificing public lands for resort business was part of a good business model, citing Sale’s comments from earlier in the presentation. She also asked how the public would benefit from the expansion.
Sale said CBMR felt that Snodgrass was part of a good business model.
“It’s really about creating a new product here in Crested Butte and changing that model,” he said. Sale said that the public could stand to see better amenities at the resort, and an improved economy if the ski area is successful at sustaining year-round business. “Certainly some people will probably not agree with all that, but it depends on your point of view,” Sale said.
Mt. Crested Butte resident Sanders Hickey said he believed in CBMR’s business model. “The minute something stops growing is the minute something starts to die,” Hickey said. He added, “It’s going to take a lot of brave leadership to do it right.”
Mt. Crested Butte resident Susan Eskew said the county approved a lot of high-density developments in the 1970s, and referring to North Village, said she didn’t feel the concept of “new urbanism” and a dense town center was appropriate for the area. Eskew also said she didn’t know if Snodgrass mountain was geologically stable for skiing. “I’m waiting for the science to see if this kind of growth can be supported in that area,” Eskew said.
CBMR consultant John Norton said the resort hired “world renowned” geologist Jim McCalpin to study the geology of the mountain and investigate mitigating practices. He said parts of the plan had been changed based on McCalpin’s findings. “That report is now in USGS hands for review. As a ski area we had almost no input on McCalpin’s report. If he had serious heartburn about this project as a scientist, we wouldn’t be here today. It would already be over,” Norton said.
Meridian Lake Park resident Melanie Rees asked about the connection time between the main mountain and Snodgrass, and if there were similar examples at other ski areas.
Kiklevich said a recent expansion at Telluride was nearly identical in terms of distance and connection strategy. He said the Painter Boy Hill lifts would be upgraded to high-speed quads. “Probably the shortest in the world.” Kiklevich said getting to Snodgrass was meant to be an adventurous experience.
Crested Butte resident David Gray asked how CBMR would determine the success of Snodgrass, and what would happen if it were unsuccessful.
CBMR owner Tim Mueller said Snodgrass would take a minimum of seven years to develop as ski terrain. He said, “Economically it will be pretty obvious,” but seeing economic success from Snodgrass would likely take three or four more years from its completion to be effective. “When you put in an improvement at a ski area you don’t have immediate payback,” he said.
“We are assuming we will be successful. Any community has to take that leap of faith,” Mueller said. He said if lifts were put on Snodgrass, they would probably not be taken down any time soon.
Mueller said if Snodgrass is a failure, after many years the Forest Service might decide to eliminate the special area permit and restore the land. “I suppose you could take the lifts out and eventually the forest would grow back,” Mueller said.
Gray also inquired about sacrificing public lands for private benefit.
Sale said public lands were used for many things, including mining and oil and gas development. But for a ski area, Sale said, “We’re left with better skiing for all of us.”
Crested Butte resident Chuck Cliggett said ever since he arrived in the valley in 1968, making a living has been tough, but rewarding because of the beautiful area. “I love this place but it has to have a viable economy… I’m not telling anybody anything new when I say wages are low, cost of living is high. I am absolutely totally against the mine, and I am absolutely totally for the ski area expansion,” Cliggett said.
Crested Butte resident David McKay cited several audience members’ questions about risking public lands for private benefit. He said the true risk “is if we continue to go the way we’ve been going. We have got to give the Muellers the chance to finish their business plan, and run their business.”
Crested Butte resident Vicki Shaw said the ski industry data CBMR was using was flawed. She said based on more conservative data CBMR could only expect to grow at a rate of 1 percent a year. “It will take 41 years for us to get to 600,000 skier days,” she said. “The ski areas are all losing skiers, not just Crested Butte.”
Norton repeated that CBMR was down more than 100,000 skiers from the mid-’90s.
Shaw said, “550,000 skier days was during the height of Ski Free. If you take that out we haven’t dropped as precipitously.”
Stone said regardless of the growth of the ski industry and CBMR’s goals for skier traffic, “It’s about capturing more market share. We’ve lost market share at a much greater rate than anyone else.”
Crested Butte resident Janet Martin asked if there were any way to get more extreme skiers to come to Crested Butte, or if there were a teaching strategy to improve intermediate skiers’ ability.
Stone said CBMR was working on improving its ski school programs to give visitors a feeling of accomplishment and skiing progression. But, he said, unless people are able to ski a difficult mountain consistently, it is very hard to progress past the intermediate level.
Regarding the progress of approving Snodgrass, Sale said they were waiting for the USGS and Forest Service to review two geology reports about Snodgrass. Sale said, “We hope to have that sign-off from the Forest Service around August 22.” He said CBMR hoped to formalize their proposal and enter the NEPA process in September.
Sale also suggested visiting www.snodgrassfacts.com for more information, or for a copy of the presentation.