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Breckenridge: On The Brink

Breckenridge: On The Brink

Features
By Charlie Meyers
posted: 03/10/2002

The wind curls, with a banshee's wail, over the crest of the ridge, then blows downslope to sculpt fresh powder like frosting beneath a baker's knife. In an age when skiing perfection is hard to find, this comes close enough: plenty of new snow and just enough weather to keep the skiing masses at the bottom of the mountain.

Moving quickly away from the wind, skiers dive over the lip of the ridge in search of that perfect line down a massive snowfield whose symmetry set its name: Horseshoe Bowl. Other skiers, more ambitious, climb even higher to find the hidden slots and chutes that have prompted generations of serious skiers to call this resort home.

In addition to a love of steep, wild places, these skiers share another common bond. They all arrived in this lofty slice of the mountain, well above 12,000 feet, on the same antiquated T-bar that has ferried skiers for almost as long as some of them have been alive. Such is the enigma of Breckenridge, which for two out of the past three seasons has been the most popular resort in the U.S. Outrageously successful, wildly loved, Breckenridge still suffers from the same malady as many an aging grande dame. Wrinkles appear, and a face lift is needed.

Like the banshee, Roger McCarthy is Irish. Unlike the mythical spirit, he has been dispatched to the most venerable ski town in the Rockies to preside over renewal rather than death. A 51-year-old native of New Zealand who speaks both English and French with a Kiwi accent, McCarthy was chosen by Intrawest a decade ago to supervise the revival of near-bankrupt Tremblant resort in Quebec, which had often been derided as one of the worst ski areas on the East Coast. Within five years, Tremblant become the model of success, earning the No. 1 East ranking in SKI's annual Reader Survey for five years running.

Hired by rival Vail Resorts two years ago to be chief operating officer at Breckenridge, McCarthy now directs a similar, if less comprehensive, resort renovation. So he again finds himself on a hot seat. How hot depends upon his skill reconciling the financial needs of America's largest ski conglomerate with the quality-of-life demands of a historic mining town.

With a manner that is easy and direct, McCarthy seems capable of charming the horns off the mountain goats that roam above the slopes. Already he has earned the loyalty of employees who two years ago hosted nearly 1.5 million skiers days—the most for any single resort, including parent Vail (a source of embarrassment to some Vail executives).

McCarthy is an uncommon man with a common touch. On a freezing night with a full crew repairing a gear box high on the mountain, McCarthy leaves his home on a mission of mercy. Lashed to his snowmobile is cold beer. So what's not to love?

Whether he can cast a similar spell over a community wary of its new corporate parent's commercialism is another matter. In the 40 years since a Kansas lumber company installed a chairlift on a slope above town, Breckenridge has experienced a revolving door of owners whose tactics sometimes resembled visits from Attila the Hun. When Vail Resorts (VR) added Breckenridge and Keystone to its empire four years ago, the first order of business was to convince a skeptical populace it hadn't come to pillage.

To the delight of civic leaders, VR spent $18 million on improvements in its first season and $14 million the next—more than all the owners combined in the previous decade. But when Vail bought the Hilton Hotel for $18 million and a year later paid $24 million for The Village at Breckenridge—a diverse property that includes a hotel, lodge, 360 condos and 58,000 square feet of retail and convention space—local merchants started to worry the resort would dominate the retail scene. McCarthy downplays any conflict. "We'd be foolish to attempt to be involved in 40 different kinds of businesses in competition with the town. It just doesn't work." At the same time, he concedes the reality thatR won't be able to pay $70 million for the next round of improvements solely on lift-ticket sales.

"In the VR model, this revenue comes largely from real estate and commercial profits—mostly real estate. In the Breckenridge mix, our development is but a drop in the bucket. We can't compete with the existing 340,000 square feet of commercial space along Main Street."Sam Mamula, whose tenure as Breckenridge mayor coincides with McCarthy's arrival, isn't so sure. How the pie gets sliced is central to negotiations between McCarthy and the Breckenridge Town Council, even as the clock ticks on next season's improvements. For a place whose infrastructure lags behind the other three stars in the VR galaxy (Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone), the need for improvements looms supreme. As so often is the case in the modern ski industry, the focus of a resort remake centers on a gondola. In Breckenridge, the proposed lift is designed to connect the town to new ski terrain and real-estate development on Peak 7 and a totally revamped skier-services complex at the base of Peak 8. The rub comes in determining how much retail space VR is allowed. VR plans for 27,000 square feet; local merchants, wary of competition, want less than half of that, no more than 12,000 square feet.

"We're analyzing this huge project purely on the impact it has on our town," says Mamula, a Pennsylvania transplant who opened Eric's Down Under restaurant 16 years ago. "We must be careful we don't lose the character of a place where people feel a powerful sense of community, which they in turn convey to our guests. That's perhaps our most attractive quality."

The two leaders, corporate and civic, have developed a strong trust, along with the realization that even if mountain and town aren't joined at the hip, they are at the wallet.

"I deeply respect the town's concerns. I've come to love this place," McCarthy says."VR has given us real, caring people," Mamula returns. "We're going to work this out."

The lone certainty in all of this is that whatever the rhetoric, Breckenridge will change dramatically over the next few years, as it often has throughout the more than 140 years since gold-seekers made it Colorado's oldest continuously occupied mountain town. When I first came here in the winter of 1967, I found an odd collection of Victorian and slab-sided buildings, mostly in need of paint. Ghosts sometimes outnumbered guests.

From a lookout post 75 miles away in Denver, I've watched it grow in fits and starts: the expansion to Peak 9 with the world's first high-speed detachable quad in 1982, then on to Peak 10 and, finally, Peak 7. The result is a massive network of 25 lifts spreading across 2,043 acres, including some of the finest high-alpine skiing on the continent.

Skiing at Breckenridge keeps everyone involved. The difference here is that the terrain tilts heavily to both ends of the scale. Most of the lower slopes are beginner or lower intermediate. At the other extreme, the trail map shows enough double-black to drain an inkwell. Summit enclaves such as Lake Chutes, Imperial Bowl, Peak 9 Chutes, Horseshoe Bowl and Peak 7 Bowl provide controlled mayhem. Toss in legendary bump runs with names like Psychopath Gully and you'll understand why so many adventure skiers call this home.

Below, the town has sprouted every imaginable amenity, with pillows for 25,000 visitors (one of the largest bedbases in North American skiing) and plenty of action past bedtime.

More recently, Breckenridge assumed a different tenor, one of civic and environmental concern. Fueled by a bulging sales-tax base, the town added a $7 million recreation complex, a river walk, a performing arts center, two ice rinks, stream restoration and the only Jack Nicklaus-designed public golf course in the world. In a landmark move, a town that once cheered as giant dredge boats churned up miles of stream bed searching for gold nuggets spent $5 million to preserve a wetland that now becomes a zone of contention for a gondola that must cross it.

For all its qualities, Breckenridge doesn't represent the finest example of skiing, dining, lodging, entertainment or public well-being in the industry. But stir all this together with an element of affordable pricing and you have a mix that few resorts can match. More than anything, Breckenridge is an informal resort—and community—that appeals to people of all ages, income brackets and turning radiuses. Still, as McCarthy insists, it can—and will—become a great deal more. At stake is a plan involving far more than mere lifts and lodges. When the current upgrades are finished—perhaps within the next five years—Breckenridge skiing will have a different face, and the way visitors approach the town may be changed forever. A $16 million gondola with 12-passenger cabins forms the central link in a plan to add both lodging and terrain while replacing the dated skier-services and administration facilities at the base of Peak 8. A new Peak 8 village will feature a lodge with 148 condominium hotel units, a fitness center, year-round ice rink, 12,000-foot conference center and shops. The plan also includes 430 small condos and 12 single-family homesites.

From his corner office in the doomed administration building, McCarthy gazes up at a second development site at the base of Peak 7, which will incorporate a variety of condos into a more intimate new village with complete skier services. The Peak 7 plan also adds 165 acres of intermediate terrain that will form a bookend with Peak 10 on the opposite end of the resort.

Much anticipated, the gondola forms the critical link to it all. Snaking around the mountain in three stages, the lift will connect the main public parking lot in town to both Peaks 7 and 8, complementing the existing bus system to diminish dependence upon automobiles. Soon, visitors may also find a cabriolet shuttle running down historic Main Street, removing more wheels from the mix. A sprawling community, Breckenridge never can make the transition to pedestrian village. But the morning and evening traffic jam may go the way of the mining boom.

So, too, will the disjunctive nature of a lift system long on capacity, short on efficiency. The most immediate fix will transform the No. 4 chair to a quad, then extend it up to ease the commute from the base of Peak 9 to the top of Peak 8, condensing the trip from three lifts to one. A chairlift climbing high into that expert's preserve above timberline, now served by the infamous T-bar, also waits near the top of McCarthy's wish list.

The civic debate over sweeping change continues. Townspeople who decried the fiscal timidity of previous operators aren't certain how to react, like caged lions when the door finally opens. Mamula worries such changes might alter the iconoclastic community, which revels in its status as a National Historic District and cherishes its Victorian architecture, no matter how recently the structure was built. "Everyone knows people come here because they love this town," Mamula says. "Part of the problem with the proposed new development is that it moves the focus of the ski area farther north, away from Peaks 9 and 10. How will that impact the core of the town?"

For the mayor and members of the city council, many issues seem far from settled. "We're in a difficult period with negotiations," Mamula says. "I think Roger McCarthy has come to understand Breckenridge, but the VR owners do not. They wonder why anyone would even question building 500 condos and a tidy little village up on the mountain. For us, it's a matter of making decisions that ensure the uniqueness of the place rather than winding up with something we'll be eternally embarrassed about." McCarthy hopes to cut through the blue haze of bureaucracy in a matter of a few months so construction trucks can roll. Mamula believes agreement is at least a year away.

This translates into an uncertain timetable on which the nezone of contention for a gondola that must cross it.

For all its qualities, Breckenridge doesn't represent the finest example of skiing, dining, lodging, entertainment or public well-being in the industry. But stir all this together with an element of affordable pricing and you have a mix that few resorts can match. More than anything, Breckenridge is an informal resort—and community—that appeals to people of all ages, income brackets and turning radiuses. Still, as McCarthy insists, it can—and will—become a great deal more. At stake is a plan involving far more than mere lifts and lodges. When the current upgrades are finished—perhaps within the next five years—Breckenridge skiing will have a different face, and the way visitors approach the town may be changed forever. A $16 million gondola with 12-passenger cabins forms the central link in a plan to add both lodging and terrain while replacing the dated skier-services and administration facilities at the base of Peak 8. A new Peak 8 village will feature a lodge with 148 condominium hotel units, a fitness center, year-round ice rink, 12,000-foot conference center and shops. The plan also includes 430 small condos and 12 single-family homesites.

From his corner office in the doomed administration building, McCarthy gazes up at a second development site at the base of Peak 7, which will incorporate a variety of condos into a more intimate new village with complete skier services. The Peak 7 plan also adds 165 acres of intermediate terrain that will form a bookend with Peak 10 on the opposite end of the resort.

Much anticipated, the gondola forms the critical link to it all. Snaking around the mountain in three stages, the lift will connect the main public parking lot in town to both Peaks 7 and 8, complementing the existing bus system to diminish dependence upon automobiles. Soon, visitors may also find a cabriolet shuttle running down historic Main Street, removing more wheels from the mix. A sprawling community, Breckenridge never can make the transition to pedestrian village. But the morning and evening traffic jam may go the way of the mining boom.

So, too, will the disjunctive nature of a lift system long on capacity, short on efficiency. The most immediate fix will transform the No. 4 chair to a quad, then extend it up to ease the commute from the base of Peak 9 to the top of Peak 8, condensing the trip from three lifts to one. A chairlift climbing high into that expert's preserve above timberline, now served by the infamous T-bar, also waits near the top of McCarthy's wish list.

The civic debate over sweeping change continues. Townspeople who decried the fiscal timidity of previous operators aren't certain how to react, like caged lions when the door finally opens. Mamula worries such changes might alter the iconoclastic community, which revels in its status as a National Historic District and cherishes its Victorian architecture, no matter how recently the structure was built. "Everyone knows people come here because they love this town," Mamula says. "Part of the problem with the proposed new development is that it moves the focus of the ski area farther north, away from Peaks 9 and 10. How will that impact the core of the town?"

For the mayor and members of the city council, many issues seem far from settled. "We're in a difficult period with negotiations," Mamula says. "I think Roger McCarthy has come to understand Breckenridge, but the VR owners do not. They wonder why anyone would even question building 500 condos and a tidy little village up on the mountain. For us, it's a matter of making decisions that ensure the uniqueness of the place rather than winding up with something we'll be eternally embarrassed about." McCarthy hopes to cut through the blue haze of bureaucracy in a matter of a few months so construction trucks can roll. Mamula believes agreement is at least a year away.

This translates into an uncertain timetable on which the new intermediate terrain on Peak 7 becomes the only certainty. The six-pack chair and the Chair 4 upgrade will shake out somewhere in the three-year plan, along with the gondola and construction of both villages. Don't expect a ride in a gondola car before 2003-04, perhaps even a year later. Whatever the resolution of the VR plan, Breckenridge continues to change. Along the margins of town, gingerbread increasingly loses out to glass and stone, as more lavish lodges and homes march steadfastly uphill.

Breckenridge recorded its first million-dollar home sale just five years ago. In 2000, the number climbed to 57, including 13 in the $2 million range. No matter how fervently some residents wish it, this isn't your grandfather's Breckenridge, and never will be again. Like powder snow, change is blowing in the wind. Unless discussions between mountain and town fall apart, visitors will discover a very different Breckenridge over the next few years. If not, they'll just have to make do with the same old fun.e new intermediate terrain on Peak 7 becomes the only certainty. The six-pack chair and the Chair 4 upgrade will shake out somewhere in the three-year plan, along with the gondola and construction of both villages. Don't expect a ride in a gondola car before 2003-04, perhaps even a year later. Whatever the resolution of the VR plan, Breckenridge continues to change. Along the margins of town, gingerbread increasingly loses out to glass and stone, as more lavish lodges and homes march steadfastly uphill.

Breckenridge recorded its first million-dollar home sale just five years ago. In 2000, the number climbed to 57, including 13 in the $2 million range. No matter how fervently some residents wish it, this isn't your grandfather's Breckenridge, and never will be again. Like powder snow, change is blowing in the wind. Unless discussions between mountain and town fall apart, visitors will discover a very different Breckenridge over the next few years. If not, they'll just have to make do with the same old fun.

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