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The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game

Travel
By Martin F. Curry
posted: 02/20/2001

Winter Park is still an affordable, low-key mountain town. But now that Denver may sell the city-owned ski resort, locals wonder what the future holds.

The town of Winter Park has a year-round population of 615 residents; 616 if you count the moose that shows up most mornings at town hall. It's a small town, with a small attitude-but a huge resort. Just two miles from downtown, Winter Park Resort's 2,886 skiable acres attract nearly a million skier visits annually. Opened by Denver in January 1940 as a "winter park" and owned by the city ever since, it is the largest and busiest city-owned ski resort in the world and has been the fifth busiest ski resort in the nation for most of the past decade.

Although Winter Park isn't in bad shape, it isn't keeping pace with its corporate-owned Front Range competitors. Resort President Gary DeFrange estimates that it needs an infusion of $62 million over the next five to eight years to remain competitive in an industry fueled by base-area developments, real-estate ventures, terrain expansions and lift and snowmaking upgrades. If the city of Denver isn't willing to forgo dividends (the resort has paid the city $13 million since 1994) and invest some capital, DeFrange says, then it will have to sell or find a partner willing to put up the capital. In a town where tourism is the main industry, the ski resort's future is the main topic of conversation.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Deno's Mountain Bistro, where locals like Connecticut Bill, Little Nick, Singley, Albo and Burley discuss current affairs over the high, copper-sheathed table closest to the bar. Sooner or later, everybody-from roofers to ski-area executives-swings through Deno's. Come the six o'clock bell, you can hardly hear yourself think over the steady din of conversation.

High society, at least the kind that comes with glamour and elitist attitudes, seems to have leap-frogged over this down-to-earth ski town. That suits locals like Town Councilor Vince Turner just fine. A big guy who once played defensive back for the New York Jets, he moved here in 1989. He had been visiting the area since the early Seventies, and finally left a lucrative law practice in Denver to settle at this unpretentious resort, trading in his three-piece suits for a professional patroller's uniform.

"When I first saw this place it looked like a derelict town that time had passed by," he laughs. "It was where the truly hardcore skiers were, and even now it's still the last great bastion for true individuals and highly intelligent underachievers."

Some people feel that if Winter Park Resort is sold, the community dynamic will change for the worse. Others think that a corporate buyout could be the best thing to hit the town since Mary Jane, the most popular of the resort's four mountains, opened in 1976. While residents are divided on whether the city should sell the ski resort, nearly everyone agrees that big capital investments are essential to the future vitality of both the resort and the community. "I'd like to see Denver maintain ownership," says Councilman Turner, "but it needs to take more pride in Winter Park and put up the money to stay competitive."

The town's history has always been tightly linked to the ski area. Around the time Mary Jane opened, the newly incorporated Town of Winter Park started to take off. By the early Eighties, it was booming, with downtown commercial and residential developments like Crestview Place and Pinetree Plaza rising along Highway 40 (Winter Park's main street). But a national recession hit the town especially hard; businesses failed and developments went into receivership. The community finally hit rock bottom on Nov. 12, 1987, when banking regulators, conspicuously out of place in dark suits and ties, seized the Bank of Winter Park.

Since then, growth in the valley has been slow but steady. It hasn't experienced the booming real estate swells of nearby Vail and Aspen, where home pris boast double-digit appreciation annually, but if the city sells the ski resort, that is sure to change. For now, new owners have turned failed projects around. Commercial projects such as Village Center have risen on the downtown strip, and the first traffic light arrived along with sidewalks three years ago. It seems that civilization must be here to stay: The first microbrewery, Moffat Station, started pouring cold ones last season.

Today, the downtown strip is an architectural mish-mash of old and new. The Arapahoe Ski Lodge, a traditional structure built in 1964, sits next to a Pizza Hut. Cooper Creek Square, a sophisticated red-brick shopping center, stands across from a building that's been redone so many times it's known as the Dunover Building. Nearby is the visitors center, its cedar walls and heavy log timbers a nod to contemporary mountain architecture. So it goes for about a mile down the main drag.

Winter Park's real appeal has always been its natural architecture-and that is impressive. Just to the north of town is the Continental Divide, borne on the huge, jagged slabs of the Indian Peaks. It gently undulates past Devil's Thumb, all the way to a horseshoe curve at the head of the valley near the craggy face of 13,339-foot Parry's Peak. Winter Park is only 50 miles as the crow flies from downtown Denver, but this Great Wall puts it in a separate universe.

To get here, skiers coming by car have to navigate Berthoud Pass, a winding, six-mile ascent and equally long descent with hairpin turns and steep dropoffs. "It mentally and physically separates you from the rest of the world. When you get here, you've crested," says local developer Dennis Saffell.

Of course, what makes the journey worthwhile is the skiing. Winter Park is home to Colorado's fourth largest ski area, behind Vail, Steamboat and Snowmass. Four interconnected mountains (Winter Park, Mary Jane, Vasquez Ridge and Parsenn Bowl) draw close to a million skiers annually, 65 percent of whom are destination skiers. While The Jane's well-endowed mogul runs are the resort's most famous asset, the opening of hike-to Vazquez Cirque in 1997 added new backcountry challenges for advanced skiers. Now Winter Park can truly say there's something for everyone. Beginners frolic in Discovery Park. Experts crunch bumps to skier's right on Sleeper while their less intrepid buddies ski the nicely groomed portion on the left. Cruisers such as 1.4-mile-long Hughes and Lower Hughes on the Winter Park side also access harder trails such as Mulligan's Mile or Norwegian. And Parsenn Bowl is hard to beat on a powder day.

The Winter Park ski experience of today is a quantum leap from Winter Park's early days, when rail workers blasted their way through the Continental Divide to complete the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel in 1928. Soon after, trains bound for Salt Lake City were stopping just outside the West Portal of the tunnel at what seemed like the perfect ski hill, allowing hardy souls to hike for their runs.

Today the Ski Train is still a unique Winter Park tradition, but now when people pop out of the tunnel they see a bustling base village complete with new slopeside condominiums, restaurants and shops. While development is booming at the resort base, the town and outlying Fraser Valley have only seen moderate growth. Even though the area's growth has been slow by industry standards, it has still created a shortage of long-term property rentals. That, in turn, has seriously contributed to a shortage of workers to service the 10,000 people who are in Winter Park at the height of ski season. The resort imports 200 employees from as far away as Australia, boarding many of them 40 miles down the road in Grand Lake. The result has been a shift in community dynamics. "It's hard to build a strong sense of community when 90 percent of the housing units are empty much of the year," explains Town Manager Daryl Shrum. Currently Winter Park's build-out stands at only 15 percent-just the tip of what the town fathers will face in the distant future.

Despite such hurdles, locals pull together to maintain Winter Park tradition and create the best home they can. Volunteerism is as integral to the local culture as the mountains. It's the underlying fabric of the community, a way of life that's been around ever since teams of volunteers hand-cut the trails that officially turned Winter Park into a ski area in 1939. Nowadays, locals volunteer for anything and everything: They banded together to build a rodeo arena to attract summer tourists. They saved from certain demise the historic Cozens Ranch House, now a popular museum just north of town. They volunteer as instructors at Winter Park's National Sports Center for the Disabled, and they serve on the mountain search-and-rescue team. "The secret that has made so many things a success up here is the spirit of volunteerism," says Bob Temple, an international livestock consultant who settled at Winter Park in 1975. "Once you start putting effort into a place, it becomes part of your life. You feel ownership."

The new Fraser Valley Library is a shining example: The $1.5-million building is the result of an all-out effort by hundreds of local volunteers who collected 650 individual donations. Out-of-town corporate funders were so impressed, that they chipped in nearly $250,000 toward the project. Hanging on the wall inside the library entrance is a quilt comprised of numerous squares that depict scenes from Winter Park and the Fraser Valley. Images include the ski area, wildlife, a historic ranch house, an old ski lodge, a train headed toward Moffat Tunnel. Each was handmade by a different volunteer as part of the library fund-raising effort. Individually, each piece reflects a slice of the Winter Park environment; combined, they capture the spirit that makes this place special. It speaks volumes about the fabric of this community.

Decisions being made in faraway boardrooms are certain to test the strength of that fabric. Will Denver give up its prized winter park? Would new corporate ownership of the ski resort be a dream come true or a nightmare? These are the questions that loom large over the small community.
ent-just the tip of what the town fathers will face in the distant future.

Despite such hurdles, locals pull together to maintain Winter Park tradition and create the best home they can. Volunteerism is as integral to the local culture as the mountains. It's the underlying fabric of the community, a way of life that's been around ever since teams of volunteers hand-cut the trails that officially turned Winter Park into a ski area in 1939. Nowadays, locals volunteer for anything and everything: They banded together to build a rodeo arena to attract summer tourists. They saved from certain demise the historic Cozens Ranch House, now a popular museum just north of town. They volunteer as instructors at Winter Park's National Sports Center for the Disabled, and they serve on the mountain search-and-rescue team. "The secret that has made so many things a success up here is the spirit of volunteerism," says Bob Temple, an international livestock consultant who settled at Winter Park in 1975. "Once you start putting effort into a place, it becomes part of your life. You feel ownership."

The new Fraser Valley Library is a shining example: The $1.5-million building is the result of an all-out effort by hundreds of local volunteers who collected 650 individual donations. Out-of-town corporate funders were so impressed, that they chipped in nearly $250,000 toward the project. Hanging on the wall inside the library entrance is a quilt comprised of numerous squares that depict scenes from Winter Park and the Fraser Valley. Images include the ski area, wildlife, a historic ranch house, an old ski lodge, a train headed toward Moffat Tunnel. Each was handmade by a different volunteer as part of the library fund-raising effort. Individually, each piece reflects a slice of the Winter Park environment; combined, they capture the spirit that makes this place special. It speaks volumes about the fabric of this community.

Decisions being made in faraway boardrooms are certain to test the strength of that fabric. Will Denver give up its prized winter park? Would new corporate ownership of the ski resort be a dream come true or a nightmare? These are the questions that loom large over the small community.

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