Can a ski resort be sustainably developed? In a world where massive corporations like Vail Resorts and even larger real-estate trusts like KSL continue to snatch up ski areas, it seems that capitol-driven development isn’t just norm, it’s necessary. But a Utah-based organization known as Summit believes otherwise, so much so, that it bought Powder Mountain, Utah, last week.
Started in 2008 as a forum for young entrepreneurs, non-profit workers, musicians, artists, adventurers, and educators called Summit Series, Summit has grown into a strong, dedicated community of people from countless backgrounds, including noted outdoor-industry names like Jimmy Chin and Kevin Pierce. Summit events have grown from 19 participants in 2008 to 1,200.
“We saw momentum in what we were doing with Summit Series,” says 27-year-old Summit co-founder Brett Leve, a life-long skier that cut his teeth at Gunstock Mountain, New Hampshire. “Powder Mountain provides an opportunity to create our home base, the place to promote our vision of collaboration, wellness, arts, culture, and sustainable growth.”
To do that, Summit has joined forces with Greg Mauro, a Series participant, five-year resident of Eden, Utah, and PowMow skier with a background in venture capital. Mauro is helping create a development plan for Powder’s 10,000 acres of skiable—and buildable—land rooted in responsible and sustainable practices.
“Our goal is to preserve the mountain, its unbelievable powder skiing, and its character,” says Thayer Walker, partner and Chief Reconnaissance Officer of Summit. “We want to approach this with authenticity and stay as transparent with all of the stakeholders through the process."
But make no mistake: The organization has plans for Powder. Roads and houses will be built. The purchase of the mountain is being funded in part by investments from Summit community members. However, homes will be limited to 4,000 livable square feet.
There is also tentative discussion for a few new and updated lifts. However, “We won’t build a lift to the top of James Peak, and we won’t build a lift in Powder Country,” says Leve of PowMow’s two most storied sections of terrain. Maintaining these unique parts of Powder’s experience is paramount to the organization’s mission.
Before Summit does any major infrastructure upgrades it wants to understand how to better run a ski resort. The only short-term plans involve updates to lodge interiors and a new food and beverage program focused on locally sourced products.
As of now, the group has assumed the management and operations of Powder Mountain. The final transaction is scheduled to occur in early 2013 with the earliest road construction and home-site development beginning next spring.
Summit has no plans to privatize Powder Mountain. All operations will continue as PowMow locals have known them. Though both Leve and Walker did mention the possibility of capping the total per-day skier visits if overcrowding were to ever become a problem at the resort.
Leve sees Summit Series and Powder Mountain following the trend of social entrepreneurship like Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, and Patagonia. “We didn’t take on huge debt with this project and we don’t have to pay back a ton of equity,” says Leve. “The threshold of success isn’t the same as capitol-based projects. We just want to be profitable enough.” He thinks that the greater good of the community shouldn’t be sacrificed for larger bottom line.
PowMow has been for sale for some time, and prospective buyers have shown up with plans calling for upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Summit envisions much more modest development. The organization's first order of business upon purchasing the resort was to reverse the highly unpopular incorporation of Powder Mountain into its own town. “Powderville is dead,” says Walker.
“Up until now, so much of the resort experience has been about affluence and luxury,” says Leve. “We don’t want that here. Our goal is to celebrate culture and build a community around shared ethos and a shared value system rather than economic status.”
Idealistic? Certainly. Realistic? Maybe, time will tell. Skiers are a skeptical bunch, especially when it comes to resort development. But if successful as envisioned by its big-idea organizers, Summit’s approach to Powder Mountain could be an incredible model for healthy communities and economies within the ski industry.