Mountain Town News: Vail expects growth at Whistler. But can it? (column) | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Town News: Vail expects growth at Whistler. But can it? (column)

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

WHISTLER, B.C. –The price Vail Resorts has agreed to pay for Whistler Blackcomb is substantially higher than the industry average. It reflects an assumption of growth. In Whistler, there's a range of opinions about whether that's good.

Last week in Whistler, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden pointed out that Whistler was built to be a destination resort. "We're hovering around 60 percent occupancy levels, and we're certainly built to handle more," she said.

Even before the purchase, Whistler Blackcomb had unveiled plans for a $345 million investment plan called Renaissance to upgrade the mountain infrastructure, expand the mountain bike park and build real estate. The centerpiece, though, is a year-round water park to provide a non-skiing alternative — and draw more visitors.

When that announcement was made, Pique newsmagazine pointed to the need for housing to keep up with the expanded commercial activity. And the plan, the newspaper pointed out, exceeded the community's growth cap.

Of particular concern is whether the workforce housing will be sufficient. Unlike so many resorts, there is very little down-valley commuting. About 80 percent of people who work in Whistler live in Whistler.

Will Vail meet its end of the deal? From Colorado come reports that the company has sometimes fallen short in delivering workforce housing to its I-70 resorts.

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"Considering the real challenges we have had with getting employees here, finding them a place to live, keeping them here on a living wage, traffic woes and even just the perception that we are out-of-control busy, some hard questions need to be asked about our future," editor Clare Ogilvie wrote in Pique.

Vail Resorts, she noted, has recently committed $30 million to workforce housing across its properties in Colorado, California and Utah. She wondered, "could we see the same commitment here?"

Roger McCarthy knows Vail Resorts inside and out. He ran Breckenridge Ski Resort for Vail early in the last decade and helped advise the Russians on creating Sochi. He has also been on the municipal council in Whistler.

"I would tell you that Vail Resorts is not afraid to reinvest," he told Pique. "They're not afraid to put the money into the operation, and that's different from some other big conglomerates I've seen where they're trying to suck it dry and the money keeps going down the road and out of the valley."

A key component to this deal is Whistler's opportunity to become a destination-of-choice for the growing number of Chinese skiers. Bob Falle, ski resort management expert and chair of Selkirk College's School of Hospitality and Tourism, told Pique that the domestic markets in the United States and Canada have plateaued. Ski areas must look off-shore if they seek to grow their volume. He sees synergy between Whistler, already the continent's busiest resort, and the resources of Vail Resorts.

"I think this is an opportunity that is going to put Whistler Blackcomb, but by extension Western Canada, into new markets," he said. "The growth of the industry is dependent on generating and attracting new skiers into Western Canada."

Not everybody in Whistler is happy. A columnist for Pique had nothing nice to say about Vail, the town, the interstate that goes through it, or the intermediate-heavy terrain of Vail Mountain. But more, he rejects the idea of growth. "There are tangible limits to growth based on the carrying capacity of this valley," said G.D. Maxwell.

For students of history, Whistler should perhaps best be understood as a creation of Colorado ski areas. Yes, there were skiers there before, but key figures from Vail had a seminal influence in the design of Whistler base area in the 1970s and 1980s. In a sense, they took the successes — and failures — of Vail and tried to do it better at Whistler.

Then, there's Blackcomb, which was created by the Aspen Skiing Co.

And finally, there's the current ownership of the ski area, KSL Capital Partners, which is made up of former Vail executives, and owns 24 percent of Whistler Blackcomb.

The reaction in ski towns of the Rocky Mountains

VAIL, Colo. – How will the Vail Resorts purchase of Whistler Blackcomb affect ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains?

One obvious answer is that it puts even greater importance on the Mountain Collective. Launched by the Aspen Skiing Co. in 2013 in response to the Epic Pass, the Mountain Collective now includes Jackson Hole, Lake Louise, Squaw Valley and a bunch of others. Last week, it was expanded to include Telluride and Revelstoke.

How will Vail's purchase of Whistler affect Aspen? John Norton, a former No. 2 at Aspen Skiing, sees little impact. About 20 percent of skiers at Aspen/Snowmass originate from outside the United States. Norton said he doesn't think the Vail-Whistler alliance will threaten Aspen's international "sex appeal."

However, resorts such as Aspen, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley are going to have to hammer home the qualities that make them distinctive in ways that the "big mountains are not," he told The Aspen Times.

Without naming names, he said that the ski areas that are really hurt by Vail's move are big ski areas that don't have a lot of character and that don't rely on a well-rounded experience.

Mike Kaplan, chief executive of Aspen Skiing, said the purchase won't affect pass prices this year, but it could next season, because of the need to be competitive. "We're not just going to sit back," he said.

In Park City, Chamber chief Bill Malone said the deal will put Canadians on the local slopes. There haven't been many. There are, however, a lot more Australians at Park City following Vail's acquisition of Perisher, the largest ski resort in Australia.

In Vail, die-hard skiers greeted heartily the prospect of their Epic passes now including Whistler. "Finally, they bought a real mountain," Pete Seibert Jr. son of the resort's cofounder, told the Vail Daily. "There's nothing like it," said another local of Whistler Blackcomb.

But one of Vail's longest-tenured residents found little to like. Byron Brown, a resident since the 1960s, said that the company "should spend some of their money to solve the parking here. And housing, too."

Republicans in Aspen blame politicians, media

ASPEN, Colo. – You think that Aspen has only Democrats? You're wrong. The Lincoln Day Dinner was held there recently, and it drew Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president.

She lost to Donald Trump of course, and Trump is none too fond of Fiorina's looks. Rolling Stone accompanied Trump on a flight last year, and when Fiorina came on a TV news report, he was recorded saying: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"

Republicans at the meeting in Aspen talked their usual lines: personal responsibility, freedom, liberty, allowing government to do only what it has do to and only be as big as it needs to be to serve the people, in the words of one local Republican office-seeker.

Messengers were blamed for the Republic disarray. "Don't believe the noise or the polls," said Darryl Glenn, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Colorado this year.

Fiorina urged the bums be tossed. "Politics is way too important to leave to the politicians, no matter how good they are."

Laura Glendenning, who covered the event for The Aspen Times, noted one curiosity at this very Republican affair: the name Trump was rarely mentioned.

But Trump himself will be in Aspen later this month, if only to meet with those who pay $2,700 for the privilege. Photos cost $10,000, and couples "donating" $25,000 will get personal meetings. All of this will be held at a new home capable of holding hundreds of people.

The Aspen Daily News quizzed the local Republican Party leader, Bob Jenkins, about Trump's propensity to say outrageous things. Jenkins admitted that he wished Trump would have his wife, Melania, or daughter Ivanka standing close by and kick him in the leg when he "mis-speaks."

The local Democratic Party leader was all too happy to have Trump speaking unfiltered. "I think (Trump) is doing fine by himself," said Howie Wallach.

Trump used to be a regular visitor to Aspen. In the 1980s, he tried to gain control of the slope-side land that eventually became the five-star St. Regis hotel. "He was outfoxed by another real estate developer," the Daily News says.

But then there was that nasty confrontation at Christmas 1989 that made the cover of People magazine. Trump's then-wife, Ivana, clashed with Trump girlfriend Marla Maples at an on-mountain restaurant. Marla Maples became wife No. 2, but now has been replaced by No. 3.

Wolves look for food in all the wrong places

BANFF, Alberta – Parks Canada officials are worried about the sloppiness of residents living within the park and are contemplating filing charges against a resident in Banff, the town within the park of the same name, for leaving food that has been drawing a gray wolf.

"Wolves, like many animals in Banff National Park, have learned how to exist in and around humans," Parks spokeswoman Christina Tricomi told the Outlook. "However, we need to help them retain their natural fear of people so that they do not become used to human contact that puts ourselves and them at risk."

A wolf that had made a habit of approaching campers to get food was killed earlier this month. That was the second such case this year. This is in addition to six wolves whose deaths have been documented from other causes. Among them were four young-of-year pups that were struck and killed by trains.

Ice at Icebox to get boost of artificial refrigeration

FRASER, Colo. – This story out of Fraser rather drips, shall we say, with irony. The town where President Dwight Eisenhower camped out in the 1950s while trout fishing is known for its extreme cold during winter. For a long time, it sat secure in its claim of being "icebox of the nation."

Of late, the town has become site of an ice rink suitable for organized hockey. It's called the Icebox Ice Rink. But the cold just isn't reliable enough for this icebox. The Sky-Hi News explains that the recreation district that sponsors the ice rink plans to install a refrigeration system. The fundraising is expected to take some time, organizers tell the newspaper.

Grizzly bears nabbed in Montana town

WHITEFISH, Mont. –Wildlife managers captured two grizzly bears in Whitefish last week, prompting agency specialists to remind residents to pick their fruit trees and secure other attractants like garbage and pet food. Both bears were outfitted with GPS devices and then released. One of the bears, a 158-pound 2-year-old, was nabbed in a cherry tree.

Domestic chickens have been a particularly serious problem the past few years, wildlife managers tell the Flathead Beacon.

Tiny homes force you to pick your possessions

ÇRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – There's some interest in tiny homes in Crested Butte. The town has been hammered by the absence of affordable housing and, like virtually every other place, is questioning the need to put limits on internet-based short-term rentals of homes.

But can tiny homes help meet a need? They're defined as places of less than 1,000 square feet, with many much smaller. Even after the recession, the average size of homes in the United States has continued to increase, reaching 2,662 square feet in 2013. This is despite a decrease in the size of the average family.

The Crested Butte News tells of several residents in Crested Butte that have pursued tiny homes. One of them belongs to Tessa Jonson and Callum Curley. "We travel a lot and have moved to a lot of different countries, so we are used to keeping our belongings to a minimum," explained Jonson. "I think everyone could do it, but I don't know if everyone would enjoy it. It's a great experience. The less clutter you have in your life the more focused and intentional you can be."

Jonson's tiny house has 160 square feet and cost $12,613 to build.

Idaho county considers Robin Hood recipients

HAILEY, Idaho — The Blaine County commissioners are toying with the idea of giving up to $5,000 per eligible resident to undertake energy efficiency in their homes.

Copying a program that originated in Aspen and Pitkin County in 1999, Blaine County in 2011 created the Exterior Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. The program collects fees from people in unincorporated Blaine County who install exterior energy hogs such as swimming pools and heated driveways. The county includes Ketchum and Sun Valley.

Aspen's program has sometimes been called a Robin Hood program, because it transfers money from wealthy homeowners to community members for energy improvement projects. With some modifications, it has been adopted in Eagle County (Vail), Crested Butte, Telluride and San Miguel County, and Teton County (i.e. Jackson Hole), among probably many others.