SolVista offers wide open spaces and plenty to do all year-round-at two-thirds the price of other Colorado resorts. That may not last long.
You could easily mistake it for heaven on earth. At least that's what happened to Marise Cipriani in 1994 when she stumbled across a forgotten ski area called Silver Creek in an overlooked part of Colorado called Grand County.
Grand County is a bit of an anomaly. When people think of Colorado, particularly if they're thinking of investing in recreational property, they tend to think of busy Summit County, which does triple the skier traffic of Grand County, or the pricey international destinations of Aspen and Vail. Other than Winter Park Resort, Grand County is a largely vacant spot on the map, a no-man's land of ranches and sagebrush, lonely peaks and lush valleys.
But there's more to Grand County than most realize, and with a new project called SolVista Golf and Ski Ranch, there's a lot more to the story than a forgotten hill that used to be called Silver Creek. Before Cipriani's arrival, Silver Creek had languished. In 15 years, no capital improvements of any type had occurred at the modest area, which is situated on rolling, mellow terrain that offers excellent beginner and family skiing. The area lacks expert trails, but does have 1,000 feet of vertical, four lifts and 287 acres of skiable terrain.
While Cipriani has plans to improve the mountain, installing new lifts and expanding terrain, the feel of the skiing won't change much. Instead, it's the action at the base village that's getting noticed. SolVista could be the last major four-season resort development of its kind in Colorado. The history of the state is littered with those who dreamed big only to get shut down by a litany of ills; environmental roadblocks, skeptical county officials and the complexities of doing business in a state chock full of competing ski areas and golf courses. What makes SolVista different isn't just the fact that it's actually happening, but that it's happening big time.
As CEO of SolVista and a member of a prominent Brazilian family that owns, among other holdings, TransBrazil airlines, Cipriani is no stranger to wheeling and dealing. She consolidated her Silver Creek real estate with a shrewd $7 million land exchange with the Bureau of Land Management, giving the BLM 2,800 acres of land across Colorado for approximately 1,000 acres of land in and around Silver Creek. The exchange, coupled with a relatively sympathetic county planning board, set the stage for the massive base development.At buildout in 20 years, SolVista could house some 5,000 single-family homes and condominiums. "That's more than an acre per unit," Cipriani says, "but you have to consider that development will be clustered, to protect the natural resources as much as possible." By having high-density areas surrounded by open space, Cipriani hopes to preserve a feeling of freedom and wilderness.
The first phase of SolVista's development is a 650-plus-unit village community that includes two resort lodges. Last April, SolVista sold 97 of 115 units in a pre-sale for the Kicking Horse Lodge, which is located just above the proposed village proper. SolVista is now taking reservations for a second development, Twin Saddles Lodge, and sales will begin in late April. One-bedroom luxury condominium units start at $198,000; proposed three-bedroom units with a loft would be $550,000. Other developers have also been busy: Two-hundred townhome units are being planned for a private 30-acre parcel inside SolVista and a 650-unit development is slated for property adjacent to the entrance of the resort.
With highly competitive prices of about $300-per-square foot for ski-in, ski-out properties, compared to $500 to $1,000 at properties from Summit County to Vail to Aspen, the SolVista market has been understandably hot. Construction is also expected to be topnotch; Kicking Horse is being handled by the award-winning Ironwood Buildders, while Twin Saddles is being built by Cipriani's SolVista crew.
"When it comes to pricing, we are not dealing with a huge corporation," notes Mark West, the director of marketing and sales for Twin Saddles Lodge. "This is a personal dream for Marise. She realizes that for the long term they will have to cut profit margins to see this move forward. She sees the bigger picture. They want to maintain a high level of quality, offered at a good value."
Besides value, SolVista offers a down-home, Western feel that is 180 degrees away from the glitz of an Aspen or Vail. Two nearby towns, Grand Lake and Granby, have economies based on ranching and a thriving summer business as the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand County is also home to two beautiful lakes, Lake Granby and Grand Lake, where Cipriani operates a marina. This is the kind of place where you see a lot of Winnebagos in summer, but few of them stick around when the snow starts to fly.
Another key to the region is that it sits in what is considered a banana belt. The regions outside of the state's major ski resort towns have always been more affordable, have less snow, an earlier spring and easier living than the resort towns themselves. In Vail and Aspen, it's too late to get lucky and score big in banana-belt places such as Edwards or Basalt. But no one is mistaking Winter Park for a gallon of gas on a campfire-at least not yet. Thus, SolVista represents the first serious effort to develop the banana belt north of that mountain and ski town.
Even better, at SolVista there are already lifts. Most people who live in the banana belt areas outside of ski resorts have to drive to the lifts. And for those who want to scare themselves, Cipriani has also purchased the wild, backcountry ski area of Berthoud Pass. It's located 30 miles from SolVista and provides one of the most unique skiing experiences in the state.
"SolVista is not a traditional ski area and we are proud of the fact," says West. "We are one of the smaller ski areas in Colorado, and because we are not positioning our development as a ski resort, we can take the line of a family-oriented four-season resort with a Western feel."
To complement skiing, SolVista will offer golf, fishing, mountain biking, an equestrian center, a spa and a wellness center. But of these, golf will most likely be the prime summer recreational opportunity. The first nine holes of the Michael Asmundson-designed championship course are expected to open for play this June, with the entire 7,200-yard, par-72 course slated for play in the summer of 2002.
Despite these amenities, the focus, according to Cipriani, will remain on the land. "The connection with nature is very important to us," she says. "We as human beings all need that to rejuvenate, to go back to ourselves. Sometimes when we go to resorts, they are like little Manhattans. This isn't bad, but we are trying to establish something here where people will be comfortable in their jeans."