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Crested Butte, Colo.

Crested Butte fairly limped into the new millennium—hamstrung by dry winters, an ailing, increasingly outdated ski area and a wilting local economy. The southern Colorado mining town was more bust than boom, and most outside investors who came to scope out opportunities quickly left, complaining about the area's resistance to development. "Things went from glum to desperate," says Karl Walter, 51, a retired residential and commercial builder who lives in Crested Butte. "There was no money being put into capital improvements on the mountain, real estate wasn't selling and the future was pointing to the bottom."

That such a grim future would befall one of Colorado's idyllic mountain destinations seemed like a waste. Surrounded by the Elk Mountains—Crested Butte is south of the famous Maroon Bells that tower over Aspen, just 40 miles away—the town has always represented the down-to-earth, friendlier counterpart to its high-profile neighbor. Locals ride their bikes to the bar, walk to outstanding fishing and hunting, and ski some of the country's best terrain.

In March 2004, Tim and Diane Mueller, the New England couple who famously resuscitated Vermont's Okemo resort and, later, New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee, bought remote Crested Butte, aiming for another remake. Hopeful residents guardedly asked: Could the Muellers work the same magic out West?

Signs are promising. Last season's big snow year, the best in a decade, pushed skier-days up. Meticulous grooming earned rave reviews. Something of a real estate frenzy took hold, and now both the town and the resort have ambitious plans. A new lift last year and three new intermediate trails—a significant addition at a resort renowned for radical terrain—were the first improvements. This season, the Muellers will embark on a $57.3 million project to revamp the resort's base village, which will revolve around the new Lodge at Mountaineer Square. The Lodge's 93 condos sold in July to buyers selected during a lottery party at the Muellers' home. Sales ranged from $310,000 for a studio to $5 million-plus for a six-bedroom penthouse. The Lodge will also include a conference center, shops, spa and restaurants.

Another property, West Wall Lodge, located at the base of the new West Wall Quad, pre-sold 40 of its 44 luxury condos last year. A remodeled Sheraton Hotel, now known as the Grand Lodge Crested Butte, sells former rooms as apartments. Just north of the lodge, the Muellers hope to build another hotel, possibly with private condos, on about six acres of land. Existing real estate is also on the rise. Some of the resort's 1980s-era condos, which sold in the '90s for $90,000 to $125,000, now fetch more than $500,000, says Doug Kroft, owner of Red Lady Realty. "What's happening here is just amazing," he says. "The market has been strengthening from the bottom up." The vacant land market is equally strong. Lot prices in some developments have jumped from $120,000 in 2003 to nearly $400,000.

New residential subdivisions are also booming. Prospect, a scenic community of 298 ski-in/ski-out single-family homes and condos, has sold all 38 of its first-phase properties. Future plans call for 44 additional homes, a 31-unit townhouse development at the base of Gold Link Lift and a luxury hotel at the top of Prospect Lift. Developers of West Wall Lodge have also launched Wildhorse at Prospect, which will comprise 55 ski homes.

Existing downtown real estate offers a mix of cabins and vintage Victorians, many of which are protected by National Historic District designation. Several miles south of town, Skyland, home to the Club at Crested Butte and the Robert Trent Jones championship golf course, offers million-dollar estates. Even Crested Butte South, a modest working-class neighborhood, has a second-home building influx.

Development could eventually head to neighboring Snodgrass Mountain, where the Muellers have said they want to develop skiing and real estate opportunitiees. Local opposition may thwart those efforts. Still, the mood in town is upbeat. "People are full of optimism, but they're also nervous about being priced out," says Walter. "One thing's for sure: This is probably the last big development opportunity in Colorado."

[NEXT "Snapshot"]

Snapshot

Population: Town of Crested Butte, 1,529; Mount Crested Butte, two miles north of town, 759

Median home price: (July 2005) $581,000 for single-family homes, $285,000 for condos

Annual taxes on a median-priced home: Approximately $2,800

Number of properties sold in 2004: 721, representing nearly $212 million in sales and a 133 percent increase over 2003 Listings at press time 565, not including new projects at the resort.

Access: Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, 30 minutes east

Information: Crested Butte Mountain Resort Real Estate, 877-805-6109, cbliving.com; Eagle Resort Development (Wildhorse at Prospect and West Wall Lodge), 888-349-1349, eagleresortdevelopment.com; Doug Kroft, Red Lady Realty, 970-349-5007, redladyrealty.com

November 2005

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