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In the Big Rock Candy Mountains (2)

What's in store for the remote, powder-laden resort of Eagle Point in southern Utah?
By Tim Sohn, with photographs by Kevin Winzeler
posted: 12/17/2012
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains Opener

[part two of four]

The Tushars run north-south and are shaped, in the words of one Eagle Point employee, “like a big catcher’s mitt.” They rise abruptly from the flatlands, sitting at the dividing line between the Colorado plateau and the Great Basin, and they catch any storm system that gets over or around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, which means periodic dumps of gloriously light powder. The snow is one reason why, over decades of faltering development schemes, people kept coming back with big plans. The mountains are substantial—three peaks in the volcanic Tushars, the remains of a massive collapsed caldera, top 12,000 feet—and there’s a paved road up to nearly 10,000 feet. Couple that with its proximity to Vegas and you can understand why people are so taken with the ski area’s “potential.”

But for a long time, the place’s primary bounty was disappointment. The Mount Holly Club was a boom-times fantasy, right down to its planned Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course and its intention to bring in Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety as director of skiing. When Gadbaw and his partners invested $20 million in late 2006 for 50 percent of the Mount Holly Club, they thought they were buying into what would be the next Yellowstone Club. They soon grew disillusioned with their partners, who turned out to be more than a little shady (Gadbaw now calls the Mount Holly scheme a “platform for committing fraud”), and with the prospects for the project. When the economy went south, the Mount Holly Club concept crashed along with it. Their fund shut down, but they still saw value in the little ski area. “We were like, well, we’re going to auction this, but who’s going to buy it? We knew it was going to go for a really good price.”

It ended up selling for just $1.5 million, partly because of its substantial baggage, including outstanding lawsuits and unpaid taxes, but Gadbaw and his three partners, like so many before them, still saw a silver lining. While it was not a turnkey operation, it was a ski area with many of the necessary pieces—lifts, condos, infrastructure, the lodge building—already in place, not to mention 1,200 acres and hundreds of building lots. “Somebody else did all of this—the buildings, the lifts—I just had to bring it back up to speed,” said Gadbaw.

Gadbaw grew up in Detroit and didn’t start skiing until he was 16. He was telling me the story of how he ended up as Utah’s unlikeliest ski-resort owner while sitting on a stool at the granite-topped bar in the Canyonside Lodge, Eagle Point’s main hub. Dressed in a cardigan, a plaid shirt, Diesel jeans, and new-looking hiking boots, he looked like a New York banker on a Park City ski vacation. 

But while he flashed vestiges of his old New York persona, he’s embraced local life over the past two years. He moved with his wife and three kids to Beaver and coaches his kids’ football, basketball, and T-ball teams. He knows the town cops. He hadn’t been back to Manhattan in nearly a year. And the resort itself has become a family affair. Gadbaw’s father, John, a general contractor, oversaw the renovation of the lodges in 2010 and now spends his winters at Eagle Point with his wife, serving as a sort of do-it-all fixer while she helps around the mountain (she has been known to launder guest sheets and towels in her own condo’s washer/dryer). Gadbaw’s wife is the Saturday restaurant manager. His three kids, who each have a run named after them, are around often, eating in the lodge or testing out its two newly installed hot tubs.

So while Gadbaw remains an investor looking to turn a profit off of an underperforming asset, it doesn’t take long to realize that, for him, it’s evolved into something more than that. His localism has proven a boon to cementing relations with a community still feeling burned by the Mount Holly Club debacle. “I was very aggravated with the Mount Holly guys,” said Bob Tone, 68, a retired F-4 fighter pilot from Las Vegas who has owned a condo here since 1980. He would have sold his condo, he said, except that there weren’t any buyers. “They were just not good guys, and really rude about the whole thing. Which is why when Shane came along, people were really gun-shy.”

Gadbaw and his partners went in knowing that the private-club model wouldn’t work, “but we didn’t have a definite plan,” he told me at the bar. The first year was a steep learning curve, as they saw some of their grander plans grind up against the quotidian headaches of running a small ski hill. “It was a bit of a fantasy, really, when we first started thinking about it.”

What plans they had weren’t always the most practical. “That was back when they were still New York hedge-fund guys and brought their New York attitudes out here,” said Gadbaw’s father, John, of their initial grandiosity. Gadbaw had hired a staff that, he now says, was twice the size of what they needed, and the credentialed Vegas chef he brought in to run the restaurant (he’d beaten Bobby Flay on an episode of the cooking-challenge show Iron Chef) proved ill-suited to both the task and life in a tiny mountain community.

They had troubles with their rookie grooming crew. There were days without a single skier. There were also unforeseen problems, like the massive storm before Christmas 2010 that dumped eight feet of snow over four days, knocking out power for three days, shutting down the resort, and leaving a group of South American employees stranded in a condo with no heat or electricity and little food. “It’s a learning process,” John Gadbaw said, “and at 10,000 feet, running a ski resort, there are a lot of things to learn.”

But they persisted, and old-timers began to warm to the new owners. “People who have been coming here for years walk into this lodge and say, ‘Where has this been?’” said Alec Hornstein, 47, owner and guide at the only local backcountry operator, Tushar Mountain Tours. Hornstein, who was in his 15th season in the Tushars, had spent the day guiding a group of eight fit skiers from Salt Lake City out to one of the two backcountry yurts he operates and then up a nearby 12,000-foot peak, starting at 7 a.m. “It’s just a huge, huge improvement.”

Of course, they also benefited from epic snow that first season, which may have led to outsize expectations as they looked toward year two. “They went from asking, ‘Is this going to make it?’ to just being overwhelmed by the amount of snow,” said Tone. “But the snow also papered over a lot of problems. This year, without the snow, is the struggle year.”

Part 1   -   Part 2   -   Part 3   -   Part 4

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