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September 30, 2014
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Will the King Continue to Reign?

After hitting a monetary mogul field, town icon balances on the block

Standing strong as a community icon, the snow-covered slopes of Snow King Mountain rise abruptly above the edge of Jackson.

Standing strong as a community icon, the snow-covered slopes of Snow King Mountain rise abruptly above the edge of Jackson.

Some call it the best ski racing hill in America. Its slopes provide a backdrop to the town of Jackson. You can’t quantify its economic benefit.

Snow King has been the town babysitter, youth coach, Olympic training ground. Hundreds hike up it on summer days. On winter powder mornings you’ll see a dozen ski tracks down the mountain before the lifts begin to run.

With a storied ski history that dates back more than eighty years, the Town Hill would seem to be everlasting. Which is why 10,000 denizens of the alpine town at its foot stopped in their tracks last spring when the resort manager said he wouldn’t run the lifts this winter.

The math was simple to general manager and partner Manuel Lopez; in a troubled real estate market with the Snow King Resort hotel on the hook for loans financing hotel and condominium expansion, it was time for somebody else to lose money on the recreational amenities—the three-lift ski hill and ice rink.

Since his announcement, Lopez has negotiated a course with as many twists and turns as the Alpine Slide he installed on the side of the mountain. He surrendered operation of the ice rink to the town of Jackson, far in arrears in rent. He negotiated with the nonprofit Friends of Snow King for a takeover. At the eleventh hour of those talks, he left the group at the altar and the community in the dark, saying he would indeed run the ski area this winter.

 

At the end of summer, Lopez and his partners put the complex—ski area and all—up for sale as a package. The rapid changes whipsawed the community’s consciousness, leaving residents uneasy about what might happen to their Town Hill.

There’s so much at stake. The Jackson Hole Ski Club and a wide variety of youth and adult racers count on Snow King for training and races. The World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb draws thousands of sledheads to Jackson in spring to watch a four-day competition. And scores of townies use the conveniently located hill to get in a few turns during their lunch break or on a good powder morning when they don’t have time for a full day’s journey to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Lopez, a native of Cuba whose charm and savvy earned him a cornerstone place in the business community over the past thirty-five years, laments some of the changes he’s seen. A different economic climate has changed the role of Snow King Mountain. Patterns of tourism that created the environment in which Snow King flourished in the 1970s shifted with the maturation of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the development of Teton Village at its base, and a revolution in air travel. For years, Lopez has bemoaned his unprofitable albatross, telling friends he’d be better off if he gave everybody who shows up to ski Snow King a $10 bill and directions to Teton Village.

While his critics—remember those at the altar?—might suggest solutions, the Lopez lament can be convincing.

Even back in the early years, the 1940s and ’50s, ski area pioneer Neal Rafferty had a hard time, the plight goes. “At the end of the year, he was always short money,” Lopez says. “People, Doc Macleod, would buy shares,” he adds, referring to one of the valley’s prominent citizens who used to chip in. And even in the 1970s, when there was only one lift to run and people would line up to buy passes at $150 apiece, Snow King Mountain was a gamble.

“On a good year, it would make $10,000; in a bad year, it lost $10,000,” Lopez says. “A big percentage of people lived within walking distance. The school [now moved] was here. On the weekends, the kids would wake up and go to Snow King. Now, within walking distance, there are very few kids. If they go skiing on the weekend, their parents will take them to the village.”

 

It’s not just a shift of families to the Rafter J subdivision a few miles outside of town, or the relocation of the high school to west Jackson. Lopez doesn’t have to look far to see other harbingers of changing times. Jackson skiers are mountaineers who hike the hill for a run before going to work.

“Now I come in the morning and I see at least ten tracks down the mountain,” Lopez says. “The exercise [has become] more important than the convenience of the lift.”

Snow King’s base of regional visitors is drawn elsewhere, too. The days of families booking suites for a Christmas ski vacation in town are waning. Today, annual losses from the ski operations run up to $500,000, Lopez has said. County records show the business borrowing $10 million in the first part of 2011.

“Nobody’s going to come from even Casper,” Lopez says; “it’s easier to go to Steamboat [Colorado].” Plus, modern and steep Jackson Hole Mountain Resort beckons people to Teton Village, now the center of the valley’s winter universe.

“All you have to do is look at the geography,” Lopez says. “Barry Corbet”—the late alpinist after whom a famous Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski couloir is named—“what’s he going to do here?”

In fact, Corbet found plenty to do at Snow King. A climber on the groundbreaking American Mount Everest expedition of 1963, he made Jackson Hole his home base. Jake Breitenbach, another climber who was killed in the Kumbu Icefall on that trip, was a partner before his death. Corbet, Breitenbach, and their wives spun mountain lifestyles around an axle at the base of Snow King. They built an A-frame lodge and restaurant, investing in what they saw as a burgeoning mountain town.

 

Breitenbach’s death and Corbet’s paralysis in a helicopter crash while working on a ski movie ended those dreams. Development of the Jackson Hole Ski Area and Teton Village, a resort with more than twice the vertical drop of Snow King, also drew attention and energy from the Town Hill starting in the 1960s.

Yet Snow King’s cadre of boosters persisted in pushing boundaries and making news. In 1971, Snow King ski instructor and mountain guide Bill Briggs blew the minds of the ski world when he made the first descent of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, alone and unroped. Ironically, Jackson Hole Ski Area co-founder Paul McCollister sought Olympic gold medalist Pepi Stiegler to carry his brand and run the ski school at the new resort. The big, gnarly mountain that would come to represent extreme skiing in radical, cliff-studded terrain had as its ambassador a skier who made his fame whacking bamboo on groomed runs. In contrast, Snow King, a natural amphitheater for ski racing, had Briggs, who taught a method of progressive improvement and control—rather than a way for kids to compete with and beat one another.

Snow King’s rich heritage is what prompted a group of valley residents to form Friends of Snow King in 2010 to take on the Lopez challenge and offer to run the mountain as a nonprofit group. Among the members was Steve Sullivan, co-founder of Cloudveil, makers of “inspired outdoor apparel,” who rocketed to success starting out in 1994. Sullivan matured quickly from selling $20 fleece T-shirts in a Jackson sports store to making million-dollar deals for Cloudveil, so his perspective offers insight across a broad business range. He speaks with an easy authority earned from years split among the retail floor, development conference room, and backcountry.

“I think what drew us in is we all viewed Snow King as an integral part of not only the Jackson community, but a huge part of American alpine skiing history,” Sullivan says. “The fact this rough-hewn western community decided skiing was important in the 1940s—that it’s become so much a part of the fabric of Jackson Hole and the West—that to me was key.

“It’s up there with the Aspens and Sun Valleys,” he says of Snow King’s stature. “It’s one of the oldest ski mountains in the U.S. Snow King’s the best racing hill in America, arguably.”

Why? It’s steep. Its slopes end at the curb of a town street. Spectators can see almost the entire hill and race courses from the base. Access for racers is quick, simple, and direct.

 

Those qualities have lured international teams to train before key North American events. French, Americans, and others brought their Olympic hopefuls to train on Snow King before the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, extending a pattern that began years before when the World Cup circuit opted to open its season in North America.

Snow King, of course, has generated its own talent. Jackson Hole’s giant slalom specialist Karen Budge climbed the World Cup podium twice and skied to thirty top-ten finishes in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Fifteen years later Andy Chambers, who grew up at Snow King’s base, raced downhill on the U.S. team, neck-and-neck for years with gold medal winner Bill Johnson. As the snow-sports world grew to encompass snowboarding, Robbie Kingwill, another Snow King kid who grew up in a slopeside home, became an influential name in that world.

“All these Olympians, U.S. Ski Team members, have trained and learned to ski on that hill,” Sullivan says. “It’s the perfect kids-sized mountain—they love it.” Yet when the annual Town Downill is staged, it draws the attention of the best adults. Olympic downhill gold medalist and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ambassador Tommy Moe knows he has to be in top form to enter. If he’s not, he’ll be smoked by the regional talent attracted by the “Mini Hahnenkamm” (the course has such challenging features and steepness that racers nicknamed it after the notorious Austrian downhill in Kitzbuehel).

Snow King’s significance runs deep among those in the Friends of Snow King. “To let it die on the vine was an untenable proposition,” Sullivan says of the ski area. With enthusiasm, the group surveyed the Lopez offer.

Members raised money to commission a study by a leading consultant in ski area management and development that outlined how the mountain could be operated successfully. That initial investment was key, because the Friends group was willing to raise “a significant amount of money” to launch a nonprofit ski area, Sullivan says. That amount, $2.5 million, was “the tip of the iceberg,” in what Friends wanted to be a restructuring and revitalization of the Town Hill. There would be a new lift, completion of deferred maintenance, and a variety of new summer amenities. And marketing.

 

Also among the Friends group was Bob McLaurin, Jackson’s town administrator, whose fiscal year 2011–12 budget document has a picture of Snow King Mountain on its cover. In his job, he also oversees the town’s lease to Snow King Resort for operation of the Snow King Center ice rink, which serves double duty as a convention center. Among the Friends, McLaurin was likely the member with the greatest stake.

In addition to the ice rink and adjacent ski shelter, the town owns a significant block of land on the lower slopes of the ski hill. The resort, too, has several valuable tracts that are ski runs. When Lopez sought to spin off the recreational components of the resort business, Friends envisioned the Jackson Hole Land Trust buying twenty-eight acres of the resort’s ski-run parcels, placing a conservation easement on them and donating the property to the town.

McLaurin’s interest is deeper than the town’s balance sheet. “The longer I live here, the more I appreciate and love that mountain,” he says. “I love standing at the top and looking at town and the Tetons. It has a place in our community character, community history.”

Townsfolk swarm the hill in summer, hiking 1,571 vertical feet on their lunch breaks to keep fit. One hill manager counted four hundred hikers one day. In winter, office workers scurry over for a lunch run or two. When Sullivan had an office in town, he says, “I utilized [Snow King] virtually every day.”

McLaurin speaks from behind a desktop statue of a 10th Mountain Division ski soldier he acquired as town manager in Vail, Colorado, near which the storied troops trained for World War II (many returned from the war to play critical roles in the development of ski areas in the United States). A climber himself, he’s steeped in mountain culture and history and has seen millions of people travel far to cruise the Colorado slopes. Consequently, his view of Snow King is cosmopolitan.

“In a sense,” he says, “it’s our private mountain. It’s just a very important asset. Can you quantify it economically? Not sure.”

 

McLaurin also is the one member of the Friends group who holds some kind of leverage. The town of Jackson approved a master plan for Snow King Resort development that provided a boost for the original hotel, a 1970s-era complex now showing its age. The plan would allow another 500,000 square feet of development that would house an additional 1,188 guests in condos and hotel rooms. The approval was based on the hotel’s location in a resort zone; the okay for development at higher than normal densities was linked to recreation and its continued operation, McLaurin says.

Thus the proposed bifurcation of hotel and ski hill operations had townsfolk in arms. If hotel operators planned to abandon the ski area, perhaps they should surrender their development rights as well, the reasoning goes.

Isn’t that the town’s position?

“We don’t want to answer that question,” McLaurin says flatly. The development master plan says hotel operators are committed to the recreation and conference center facets of the complex. That’s as far as he will go, hoping the town does not have to revisit development approval. “We’d rather the question be answered, worked out, locally,” he says, without the town becoming an enforcer.

Without showing his hand, McLaurin offers a bottom line. “The council has a very strong interest to make sure we have an operating mountain up there,” he says.

How that will happen remains uncertain. “I’m not in the ski business,” McLaurin says. “I think there’s an argument to be made that a private nonprofit running this may be the best long-term approach.”

 

And public money? “I don’t want to run a ski hill,” McLaurin says.

He once called Steamboat Springs officials to query that town about its famous ski jump, Howelsen Hill. It’s subsidized to the tune of $800,000 a year, McLaurin says. The word from Colorado was, “As long as they keep cranking out Olympians, we’ll keep paying.”

Friends of Snow King felt they were on the cusp of success. The group submitted its proposal to Lopez with eager anticipation. The response was deeply disappointing—a whole set of new negotiations proposed that veered wildly from the deal the group thought it had in hand. In a flip from his position in early 2011, when he sought a divorce from skiing, Lopez now believes the whole is worth more than the pieces.

“I went through a difficult time,” he says. “The banks were not thinking that [the resort had to be preserved intact] and the market was not thinking that.” When he threatened to shut down the lifts, Lopez explains, lenders’ ledgers read a simple black-and-red message: “You make this much on the hotel and lose this much on the ski area.” Today, the financial assessment is on a “more global basis.”

In August, a Chicago-based firm, Hospitality Real Estate Counselors, advertised “a truly rare and unique investment opportunity in terms of scope and location.” It listed a “465-acre property in the heart of Jackson,” and sought investors. Those who inquire will learn about the three ski lifts, mountaintop building, planned mid-mountain restaurant, cell phone and radio tower leases, and Forest Service special-use permits. They will pencil in expected revenues from the trail ride concession, alpine slide, miniature golf course, and potential zip line. And in their due diligence examining the ski runs—Elk, Grizzly, Bearcat, Bellyroll, and others—they’ll notice a piece of ground at the center of them that can’t be used.

 

President Woodrow Wilson signed over patent to that plot, about ten acres in size, to the Town of Jackson on October 26, 1922. That’s because long before people in the valley were skiing, they were dying. Aspen Hill Cemetery is where relatives hauled their loved ones’ coffins for interment. Now Jackson’s pioneer graveyard is surrounded by gleeful snowboarders and skiers in winter, and endorphin-pumped hikers in summer.

The dead might not need company, but in Jackson they have it—and it’s lively, so to speak. Whether a new owner comes to operate the ski area or a revived Friends group assumes control, it seems likely the quick and the dead will remain close, but separated. One way or another, Snow King will live on.

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