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Copper Mountain: A Work in Progress

Copper Mountain: A Work in Progress

Features
By Megan Henry
posted: 11/09/1999

If there is a community center at Colorado's Copper Mountain Resort, it's the small post office where 75-year-old postmaster Violet Effinger holds court. Vi knows everyone, and everyone knows Vi. She cheerfully waves to people as they pass her window, and kids regularly stop by for candy while their parents chat and catch up on the mountain gossip. Locals and guests send her postcards from all over the world, which she proudly displays on the post office walls. Her favorite came from Oman in the Middle East, addressed simply to: "Vi, 80443, USA." "Now that's darn good postal service," she beams.

Vi has lived at Copper since 1974 and has seen thousands of people come and go. "Oh, it's so different when you look back and think about it," she reminisces. "You could sit on the balcony and count all the cars back then." When she first moved here, the post office only had 192 mailboxes; today, it has more than three times that to accommodate new residents and businesses. "I'm old enough that I yearn for the good old days, and yet I like the progress," Vi says. Good thing, because, for the past two years, Copper has done nothing but progress.

Located 75 miles west of Denver, Copper Mountain has always been a favorite destination for Colorado's Front Range skiers and is becoming one for Midwest vacationers. It has maintained a loyal clientele despite its unenviable position of being surrounded by Vail Resorts' showcase properties (Vail and Beaver Creek are 20 miles west; Keystone and Breckenridge lie 15 miles east). Despite its lack of marketing muscle in the early Nineties as an independent against the Vail chain, Copper still managed to draw about 850,000 skier visits a year.

The resort's mountain layout¿called "the most nearly perfect ski mountain in the United States" by the U.S. Forest Service¿has won praise from skiers and snowboarders of all ages. It would be hard for Mother Nature to improve on the division of terrain, which is naturally segregated with expert trails on the east side, moderate runs in the center of the mountain and beginner trails to the far west. With 20 lifts crisscrossing 2,433 acres, Copper rightfully¿and quietly¿has earned a spot on the list of North America's elite ski mountains. In fact, many veteran Colorado skiers feel Copper's lift-served backcountry bowls¿Spaulding, Resolution and Copper¿surpass Vail's legendary Back Bowls. Where Copper has fallen short is in its base village, which until this season offered middle-of-the-road accommodations in undistinguished lodges and virtually zero variety in nightlife or dining options.

Enter Intrawest, the developer of such mountain success stories as Canada's Tremblant and Whistler/Blackcomb and, as of two winters ago, new owner of Copper Mountain. Copper's village was the antithesis of everything Intrawest stood for: Instead of a bustling pedestrian village with multi-level buildings anchored at the base by retail shops and restaurants, Copper's condos were scattered across the mile-long valley floor. When famed Intrawest village designer Eldon Beck was first asked how he would fix Copper, he reportedly replied: "Bomb it."

But what had been the resort's major drawback¿its lack of a decent village¿actually worked in its favor in sealing the deal with Intrawest. Because Copper's previous owner, Tony Novelli, had not spent much on recent capital improvements, the resort presented Intrawest a relatively clean development slate¿and the opportunity to dive head first into the incredibly competitive Colorado ski market. On the day Intrawest's takeover was announced, the atmosphere at the mountain was nervous at best. Everyone speculated on how low-key Copper would fare as a corporate cog. At a Q&A session with all employees, the first question asked was "Do we have to wear ties to work now?" But the tone quickly changed, and the meeting turned out to be the first in a series of slick presentions (some would say too slick) that have left most locals wide-eyed with anticipation.

Commanding center stage at many presentations are Dave Hill, Intrawest senior vice president of resort development, and David Barry, Copper chief operating officer. They're part of Intrawest's cadre of young executives lauded for their ability to transform stagnant ski resorts into money-making machines.

In early meetings in the spring of '97, Hill and Barry splashed up glossy photographs of Tremblant and Whistler, the two crown jewels of the Intrawest empire, and talked about village planning in terms of sunlight angles, sight-lines and active pedestrian corridors. Artists' renderings revealed the newly proposed Copper Village. Locals and employees were stunned into silence. Whereas in the past Copper management begrudgingly sprang for new employee uniforms every five years, suddenly here was a high-rolling company talking about spending millions of dollars in the first year alone. Longtime employees who had only dreamed about ways to improve Copper now had a willing corporate partner.

In the summer of 1998, Intrawest installed two new high-speed lifts, including Colorado's first six-passenger chair; began construction of Copper Station, an imposing new 40,000-square-foot day lodge to service the East Village area; and expanded the resort's snowmaking system to include the more challenging east side of the mountain. The transformation continued last summer with the addition of a huge new base lodge to replace the antiquated Center Building in the main village, relocation of the base terminals of the American Eagle and American Flyer high-speed quads and expansion of the Union Creek area into a comprehensive kids' ski school center.

In addition, construction of several new lodging complexes will, in effect, reinvent the resort's main village by early next season. This should deliver what Copper skiers have been yelling about for years: a new base village. Total projected spending: $450 million during the next five to 10 years. Remarkably, only about 15 percent of that money will go to on-mountain improvements¿a resounding testament to the strength of the ski experience.

But while Intrawest doles out hundreds of millions of dollars for base improvements, it's still making money. Its first real estate project, the 108-unit Copper Springs Lodge, sold out during pre-sales in a record six hours in May 1998, generating $33 million in revenue before a hammer hit a nail. Another $53 million was added to the coffers last February when three more real estate projects¿Base One (63 units), The Mill Club (31 units) and Crossroads Inn (51 units)¿were snapped up in seven hours. (All are scheduled for completion next summer.) With the smell of money in the mountain air, Intrawest accelerated a fourth project, the 80-unit Tucker Mountain Lodge, which sold out in an unprecedented 80 minutes to the tune of $25 million. The grand total? Within the last two seasons, real estate sales of $111 million cleared in 14 hours, 20 minutes¿or $129,000 per minute.

When you pull off I-70 and turn into Copper Mountain, it's easy to discern the old from the new. Massive new timber-and-stone edifices stand out among weathered stucco-and-concrete buildings. One of the first things you notice is a huge building looming in what used to be the broad B-Lift parking lot for the East Village. It's the Copper Springs Lodge. Behind it towers Copper Station, the immense day lodge that opens this season and houses retail and rental shops, a slew of full-service and cafeteria-style dining options, the self-proclaimed "largest rest rooms in ski country"¿complete with 30 stalls in the women's bathroom (there are 9 in the men's)¿and a "quiet area" for people looking for a break from the crowds.

Walk past the new lodge and you'll be stunned by the sweeping expanse that greets you. The oft-forgotten B-lift base area, which for years provided relatively easy access to the mountain, now buzzes with skiers¿some stopping for a coffee from one of the kiosks, others congregating near the lift maze to plan their ski day. While the liftline might at first appear daunting, the new six-passenger Super Bee chair makes quick work of it. In fact, the new lift, which replaces the antiquated B and B-1 lifts, cuts the base-to-summit ride time from 30 minutes to a mere 9, making it possible to accumulate 66,000 vertical feet in one day¿the equivalent of skiing down Mt. Everest 2 1/2 times. Add a new state-of-the-art snowmaking system that provides earlier access to some of the best expert terrain on the mountain, and the overall experience on the east side of Copper is as good as can be found on any mountain in the United States.

The far west side of the resort, where the new children's ski school is stationed, has also been reworked to make the arrival experience as hassle-free as possible, particularly for parents. The first 25 rows of parking are designated for families so kids don't have to walk far in their ski boots. In fact, walking isn't required. Stacks of plastic sleds are at your disposal at the end of each parking row so parents can tow kids and equipment more easily. And after checking in at ski school, kids can ignore the stairs and swoosh down a slide to the beginner lifts. Of course, progress does have its price. "We want the old Copper back," grimaces Denver skier Jackie McKee after being separated from her boyfriend in the Super Bee crowd last season. A misunderstanding left her stranded for several hours before the two finally caught up with each other. Barry acknowledges some of the changes, namely construction hassles, will hurt some businesses in the short term¿particularly this season in the main village, where an additional 64,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space is under construction. "But what was the alternative?" he asks. To remain the same old Copper¿a great ski mountain with a lackluster village? "If you're going to reposition a business, you've got to make some investments."

That repositioning includes billing Copper as the place "where the skiers ski." As an outsider resort looking in since it was founded in 1972, Copper relishes its rebel role, something it hopes won't disappear with its glossier, expanded profile.

"We're a pretty youthful place. And we're sort of irreverent. We're less concerned about the fur-coat-wearing jet-setters and more concerned with the skiing experience," Barry says. Indeed, Copper has taken several recent jabs at its high-rolling competition (pointedly Vail, Beaver Creek and Aspen) in its advertising campaign. The copy in one ad reads: "Sorry, no Grey Poupon." But its irreverence seems to be working: Skier visits have neared 1 million in each of the past three seasons under Intrawest's leadership, the sixth best in Colorado and in the top tier of resorts in the nation.

Still, Copper is experiencing growing pains. "We're going from being a teenager to an adult quickly, and a lot of things that have been done in a mediocre fashion (read: the base village) are going to have to turn around," says Tom Malmgren, the owner of Carbonate Real Estate and a Copper resident for 26 years. A community watchdog and political force, Malmgren acknowledges not all is gold with the Copper Renaissance. "The one negative is that we're now under the umbrella of a publicly traded company and there's no question that its primary motivation is making money for its stockholders."

But, as a Realtor, Malmgren has reaped the benefits of Copper's growth. "We've seen 30 to 35 percent and in some cases up to 50 percent increases in property values in the past 24 months," he says, adding that the average price per square foot for re-sales is about $300. For new pre-sale condos, that price ranges from $335 per square foot up to $600.

The downside is that many long-time homeowners are bidding ovided relatively easy access to the mountain, now buzzes with skiers¿some stopping for a coffee from one of the kiosks, others congregating near the lift maze to plan their ski day. While the liftline might at first appear daunting, the new six-passenger Super Bee chair makes quick work of it. In fact, the new lift, which replaces the antiquated B and B-1 lifts, cuts the base-to-summit ride time from 30 minutes to a mere 9, making it possible to accumulate 66,000 vertical feet in one day¿the equivalent of skiing down Mt. Everest 2 1/2 times. Add a new state-of-the-art snowmaking system that provides earlier access to some of the best expert terrain on the mountain, and the overall experience on the east side of Copper is as good as can be found on any mountain in the United States.

The far west side of the resort, where the new children's ski school is stationed, has also been reworked to make the arrival experience as hassle-free as possible, particularly for parents. The first 25 rows of parking are designated for families so kids don't have to walk far in their ski boots. In fact, walking isn't required. Stacks of plastic sleds are at your disposal at the end of each parking row so parents can tow kids and equipment more easily. And after checking in at ski school, kids can ignore the stairs and swoosh down a slide to the beginner lifts. Of course, progress does have its price. "We want the old Copper back," grimaces Denver skier Jackie McKee after being separated from her boyfriend in the Super Bee crowd last season. A misunderstanding left her stranded for several hours before the two finally caught up with each other. Barry acknowledges some of the changes, namely construction hassles, will hurt some businesses in the short term¿particularly this season in the main village, where an additional 64,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space is under construction. "But what was the alternative?" he asks. To remain the same old Copper¿a great ski mountain with a lackluster village? "If you're going to reposition a business, you've got to make some investments."

That repositioning includes billing Copper as the place "where the skiers ski." As an outsider resort looking in since it was founded in 1972, Copper relishes its rebel role, something it hopes won't disappear with its glossier, expanded profile.

"We're a pretty youthful place. And we're sort of irreverent. We're less concerned about the fur-coat-wearing jet-setters and more concerned with the skiing experience," Barry says. Indeed, Copper has taken several recent jabs at its high-rolling competition (pointedly Vail, Beaver Creek and Aspen) in its advertising campaign. The copy in one ad reads: "Sorry, no Grey Poupon." But its irreverence seems to be working: Skier visits have neared 1 million in each of the past three seasons under Intrawest's leadership, the sixth best in Colorado and in the top tier of resorts in the nation.

Still, Copper is experiencing growing pains. "We're going from being a teenager to an adult quickly, and a lot of things that have been done in a mediocre fashion (read: the base village) are going to have to turn around," says Tom Malmgren, the owner of Carbonate Real Estate and a Copper resident for 26 years. A community watchdog and political force, Malmgren acknowledges not all is gold with the Copper Renaissance. "The one negative is that we're now under the umbrella of a publicly traded company and there's no question that its primary motivation is making money for its stockholders."

But, as a Realtor, Malmgren has reaped the benefits of Copper's growth. "We've seen 30 to 35 percent and in some cases up to 50 percent increases in property values in the past 24 months," he says, adding that the average price per square foot for re-sales is about $300. For new pre-sale condos, that price ranges from $335 per square foot up to $600.

The downside is that many long-time homeowners are bidding the resort a fond¿albeit wealthy¿farewell. "Some of the original owners are saying 'If that's what the new units are going for, let's see what we can get,'" Malmgren says. And the elevated prices have created speculation as to how long the resort's economic resurgence will last. "I've lived through two or three downturns, and I certainly think we will have that occur at some point in the future," he admits. "But in terms of pricing at Copper, I think for years and years we were undervalued compared to our neighbors."

If Intrawest has any say, the boom will continue. According to the company's development "formula," a resort's continued success is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on "warm beds," which means maintaining an active rental pool. Here's how it works: "You sell a bunch of real estate, which brings more people to the resort," Barry explains. "That allows you more beds to rent, because most owners put their property into a rental pool. Then you rent those units out, which attracts more guests, which then allows you to sell more real estate. It's a self-driving engine."

However, the formula will only go so far at Copper, for even mighty Intrawest can't move mountains: The little resort that could is indeed surrounded by tall peaks on all sides. To that end, Malmgren is confident Copper will maintain its own identity, noting the resort's shortage of developable land is now proving to be its strength against the sprawling development rampant at other resorts. "Whistler is beautiful, but it's not for me," he says. "It's too big, too commercial. I think Copper will become a miniature version. It's a unique place within Summit County because we're kind of out here on a little island."

Still it's difficult for Vi and other long-time locals to say a final goodbye to the old Copper. When the Center Building was demolished last spring to make way for new construction, she felt pangs of remorse. "That tugs a little at my heart because it's something you've lived with and it's been there so long," Vi says. But she maintains the sagacious attitude that comes with age and wisdom. Take construction of the four-story Copper Springs Lodge, for example. The immense new building blocks views from neighboring Summit House East, irking some homeowners and residents. But Vi, herself a homeowner in that building, has chosen a different tack. "For years I looked out at a parking lot. So, now I look out at a pretty building," she shrugs.

Vi remains contemplative about the valley's future and hopes Copper is able to maintain and nurture its collective soul. "You can't stand still," she says. "It was neat to live at Copper when it wasn't as big and not progressing as much as it's going to, but it hasn't changed my feelings. I think you're lucky if you live here." She has no plans to leave Copper or her social hub, the little post office, which is projected, by the way, to have 2,000 post boxes by the year 2010.ing the resort a fond¿albeit wealthy¿farewell. "Some of the original owners are saying 'If that's what the new units are going for, let's see what we can get,'" Malmgren says. And the elevated prices have created speculation as to how long the resort's economic resurgence will last. "I've lived through two or three downturns, and I certainly think we will have that occur at some point in the future," he admits. "But in terms of pricing at Copper, I think for years and years we were undervalued compared to our neighbors."

If Intrawest has any say, the boom will continue. According to the company's development "formula," a resort's continued success is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on "warm beds," which means maintaining an active rental pool. Here's how it works: "You sell a bunch of real estate, which brings more people to the resort," Barry explains. "That allows you more beds to rent, because most owners put their property into a rental pool. Then you rent those units out, which attracts more guests, which then allows you to sell more real estate. It's a self-driving engine."

However, the formula will only go so far at Copper, for even mighty Intrawest can't move mmountains: The little resort that could is indeed surrounded by tall peaks on all sides. To that end, Malmgren is confident Copper will maintain its own identity, noting the resort's shortage of developable land is now proving to be its strength against the sprawling development rampant at other resorts. "Whistler is beautiful, but it's not for me," he says. "It's too big, too commercial. I think Copper will become a miniature version. It's a unique place within Summit County because we're kind of out here on a little island."

Still it's difficult for Vi and other long-time locals to say a final goodbye to the old Copper. When the Center Building was demolished last spring to make way for new construction, she felt pangs of remorse. "That tugs a little at my heart because it's something you've lived with and it's been there so long," Vi says. But she maintains the sagacious attitude that comes with age and wisdom. Take construction of the four-story Copper Springs Lodge, for example. The immense new building blocks views from neighboring Summit House East, irking some homeowners and residents. But Vi, herself a homeowner in that building, has chosen a different tack. "For years I looked out at a parking lot. So, now I look out at a pretty building," she shrugs.

Vi remains contemplative about the valley's future and hopes Copper is able to maintain and nurture its collective soul. "You can't stand still," she says. "It was neat to live at Copper when it wasn't as big and not progressing as much as it's going to, but it hasn't changed my feelings. I think you're lucky if you live here." She has no plans to leave Copper or her social hub, the little post office, which is projected, by the way, to have 2,000 post boxes by the year 2010.

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