To the misinformed, Winter Park is a local's ski area (it's owned by the City and County of Denver) with no shopping, no nightlife, no big-name hotels and no airport to host direct commercial flights. To those in the know, Winter Park is a skier's mountain with an unpretentious town (two miles from the slopes), innovative learn-to-ski programs and the closest proximity to Denver—67 miles—of any major resort in Colorado. Although it's blessed with big-league terrain—including the vaunted Mary Jane peak—and has been known to log more than a million skier visits a season,Winter Park has suffered from a minor-league reputation among out-of-state skiers.
A few years from now, those same skiers might wonder why they didn't tap into local wisdom and invest when real-estate prices hovered around $300 a square foot. Prices, while steadily appreciating at around 15 percent a year, are still reasonable enough to include a decent selection of properties under $500,000. Today's skeptics might soon be marveling at the upgraded base village, with its new restaurants and boutiques, along with mountain improvements expected to reach $50 million, including the Eagle Wind triple chair and seven advanced to expert trails that opened this season in Parsenn Bowl.
On the heels of the November 2006 completion of the Berthoud Pass Mountain Access Project—which widened the once-dizzying switchbacks on the route from Denver—Winter Park unveiled the first phase of its 10- to 15-year build-out. Intrawest, which manages Winter Park, is spearheading the project.
Though Intrawest recently changed hands, new owner Fortress Investment Group is bullish on Winter Park's future, according to resort vice president and general manager Gary DeFrange. "We have 162 acres of undeveloped land at the base, and Winter Park is the last world-class mountain in North America to get a village," he says. "As a result, this village will reflect the lessons learned at other resorts. It will have a lower profile with a smaller, more sustainable mix of restaurant and retail spaces." Also, says DeFrange, the ski area and the town are considering future collaborations, such as a town-to-mountain gondola.
Two residential offerings now under construction are Fraser Crossing and Founders Pointe, together representing 194 units, from studios to one-, two- and three-bedroom condos, expected to open for the 2007-08 season. The buildings are already more than 80 percent presold, with a handful of units remaining. But given the preference among buyers for larger floor plans, the predominance of small units in these projects is not what the market is demanding right now.
What Winter Park needs, says local realtor Dennis Saffell, are more single-family homes. To that end, developers are building communities like Bridger's Cache. Lots for estate-sized homes start at $1.2 million, and owners have access to a posh, exclusive alpine club with spa, pool and bowling alley. More than half of the 20 lots, which can be accessed from the Mary Jane face, have been sold. More village projects are coming soon and could be announced this winter. Outside the base area, options range from ranch properties and golf course estates to fractional-ownership townhouses. Manyof the newer housing developments are located near Granby, a half-hour drive from the ski area.
Ron Williams, 59, a pilot from Montgomery, Texas, and his wife, Sandy, bought a two-story, 2,500-square-foot home in The Cabins at Porcupine Ridge (a few miles north of the ski area on U.S.40), after owning a condo at nearby Meadow Ridge. A homeowners' association maintains the exterior of the new single-family home, making it an ideal investment/rental property.
"Winter Park may be a little hard to get to, since you have to drive over Berthoud Pass," Williams says. "But for people who want world-class skiing without crowds and traffic, it's a great alternative."
The "Winter"" part of its name can be a misnomer. The town and the resort offer activities year-round, making this a four-season destination that attracts visitors for its four (soon to be five) golf courses, its flyfishing streams, Colorado's largest lake (Grand Lake), festivals and events. Investors should look at the big picture, says local realtor Lance Gutersohn.
That picture is growing ever bigger, and optimism abounds that the resort and the town are finally ready, if not long overdue, for the national limelight.