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Mountain News: Analyst predicts hard times for Vail

BROOMFIELD, Colo. - Vail Resorts has weathered the recession pretty well so far, but the company's resort and real estate operations will suffer more in months and years ahead, according to research analyst Chris Woronka of Deutsche Bank.

BROOMFIELD, Colo. - Vail Resorts has weathered the recession pretty well so far, but the company's resort and real estate operations will suffer more in months and years ahead, according to research analyst Chris Woronka of Deutsche Bank.

Woronka said he believes skier visits have fallen off at the company's five resorts, and he expects conditions to worsen. "The typical consumer, especially the Northeast-based destination skier, is going to have to make some difficult decisions," he told the Vail Daily.

"A lot of (customers) have lost jobs. Many have lost money in the stock market and on their houses. As they grapple with that, it's going to be difficult for many people to make that trip out to Vail. A lot of customers are going to redefine what's really necessary."

The newspaper said prices of shares in Vail Resorts dropped almost 6 per cent in response to Woronka's analysis.

He did say that Vail is "pretty well positioned (financially), but I'm not sure if they'll have any more luck in getting people to their mountain. People are much more price-sensitive now."

Aspen figures all down

ASPEN, Colo. - Numbers reflecting the economy continue to be mostly negative in Aspen. Retail sales were down 20 per cent in January, with spending related to tourism even worse but spending by locals a little better.

At the local airport, passenger enplanements were down 6 per cent for the winter through February, despite an increase in capacity of 14 per cent. Meanwhile, the ski area reports an 8.1 per cent drop through February in terms of skier days.

Rentals below radar screen
TELLURIDE, Colo. - Visitor numbers in Telluride reported by the normal sorts of groups that track such things are down - way down. January figures were down 17 per cent from the previous year.

But Telluride seems busier than that. Why?

One theory is that more people are arranging lodging through Internet websites. While everybody uses the Internet these days, in these cases people are avoiding paying sales taxes, buying the business license fee required in Telluride, and paying into common marketing and airline subsidy programs.

Scott McQuade, chief executive officer of the Telluride Tourism Board, estimated that there are 400 such below-the-radar housing units in the Telluride area, and they had 80 per cent occupancy at Christmas.

In a way, this is good, he said. Telluride has lost much of its bed base over the years. In this way, it is regaining some of its capacity.

But there are also downsides. People who book in such ways may have a less than seamless trip experience, such as when trying to book their own transportation. Those rough edges may sour the prospect of return visits, McQuade suggested to The Telluride Watch.

And then there's the question of fairness. Airline flights to nearby Montrose are subsidized by taxes paid by above-the-radar hoteliers, which the below-the-radar renters don't pay.

There are enough of these illegal rentals that the town government now has a staff member trolling the Internet in search of illegal rentals. The town gets shorted revenue, and there may be zoning violations.

M. J. Schillaci, the town clerk, said she believes such illegal rentals are occurring more now than just a couple of years ago, although she's not sure it's due to the recession.

McQuade says he's sure the economy is pushing this envelope. "We started noticing an uptick in this activity this past summer, and it has hit a maximum threshold now. It has become very prevalent."

As long as price is a major consideration in booking a vacation, he said, people will be looking to cut corners - including taxes and fees.

Real estate sales down
AVON, Colo. - If January is any guide, it's going to be a brutal year for real-estate agents in the Eagle Valley. Citing a tally by the Land Title Guaranty Co., the Vail Daily reports that just $40 million in real estate changed hands in January, less than one-third of the figure from the same month in 2008. About one-quarter of the sales volume was in the Vail Village.

Sleds to blame for caribou decline?
REVELSTOKE, B.C. - Snowmobilers and wildlife advocates are squaring off in British Columbia over the issue of the endangered mountain caribou.
Some wildlife advocates are accusing snowmobilers of further imperiling the threatened species. Revelstoke-based snowmobilers say they have actually done quite a lot in voluntarily staying out of caribou areas and then self-patrolling other snowmobilers to ensure the limits are honored.
The Revelstoke Times Review notes that Dr. Bruce McLellan, a senior ecologist with the provincial government, has said intense snowmobiling displaced caribou from some areas.

Vail Resorts cutting energy use
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - Ordered last summer by chief executive Rob Katz to cut energy consumption 10 per cent by 2010, employees of Vail Resorts have been rapidly changing out light bulbs at its five ski areas, plus its dozens of hotels and other buildings.

Julie Klein, director of environmental affairs for RockResorts and Vail Resorts Hospitality, estimated that more than 25,000 lights have been changed in 60 properties to use lower-consuming compact fluorescents. Included are such places as on-mountain restaurants at the company's five ski areas, lodges, lift shacks and some - but not all - real estate projects.

But it's not just light bulbs. It's also such things as at Keystone Lodge and Spa, where installation of timers and sensors has yielded a 20 per cent savings in electricity.

At the Lodge at Vail, a 40-year-old boiler was replaced at a cost of $300,000 with a new high-efficiency model. The new model is expected to result in 5 to 7 per cent less consumption of natural gas. The savings are projected to pay back the investment within 5 to 7 years.

Some good deeds were done well in advance of the edict, however. Because of work at one building in particular, the Great Divide Lodge in Breckenridge, the company was recently recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency with an Energy Star award.

The award is given to commercial building and industrial plants that rate in the top 25 per cent of facilities in the nation in terms of energy efficiency. The hotel is the only one in the Rocky Mountain region to be so recognized.

The lodge uses 49.6 per cent less energy than the national average for similar hotels, the Summit Daily News notes.

"Just turning down the heat in the common areas is huge," said chief engineer Ben Raitano. Energy is typically responsible for 6 per cent of a hotel's operating cost. As such, said the EPA's Barbara Conklin, reducing energy use by 10 per cent is the same as increasing revenues by raising room rates.

The increased emphasis upon energy efficiency and energy conservation is expected to offer handsome paybacks for Vail, which spends $25 million per year for gas and electricity.

Cap on house sizes reviewed
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - Breckenridge town officials have proposed to limit the creep of home sizes. But it's not clear how much traction this proposal will get.

Mayor John Warner says he was primarily motivated by his dislike of the ecological footprint of large houses in terms of energy use and so forth. But another argument - and the one that is getting more traction - is that big houses degrade surrounding smaller houses. The example he cites is of a 10,000-square-foot house erected among houses of 4,000 square feet.

The regulation now being considered, says the Summit Daily News, would limit home sizes to 80 per cent of the largest home in that neighbourhood. As such, the limits would depend entirely upon contexts.

But some people want no limits. Others want limits based on additional criteria, such as setbacks from lot lines, and not simply on size.

The idea does have supporters, though. "The last thing we need in Breckenridge is a lot more 'McMansions' that are only occupied three or four weeks per year," said one resident, Rick Hague, at a recent meeting.

Jeffrey Bergeron, a council member, said he wouldn't argue strenuously for the regulations, but hopes to see them. "I'm not gonna fall on my sword against this thing," he said. "But I bet you in 20 years from now, if we don't do anything, I think we'll wish we had."

Bison back to Banff?
BANFF, Alberta - Talk has been renewed about restoring bison to Banff National Park. The bison is described by one advocate as the "last big mammal that's missing from our ecosystem."

A management plan from Parks Canada, which manages the park, calls for reintroducing bison on a trial basis. However, provincial authorities aren't keen on the idea of free-roaming bison.

Bison, which are more colloquially called buffalo, were in the Bow Valley, where the townsite of Banff is found, 10,370 years ago, and from time to time construction workers come across bison skulls while excavating for foundations.

The last native bison in the valley was shot near Lake Louise in 1858, but others from Texas and elsewhere were reintroduced and remained until 1998 as a show herd within a 25-hectare paddock.

Merger discussed
KETCHUM, Idaho - Should the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley merge? The Idaho Mountain Express reports there are new talks, although the idea has been batted about for at least 20 years. The major argument in favor is that there would likely be cost savings. After all, the two towns are adjacent. If this should happen, then Sun Valley would be swallowed by Ketchum because, according to Idaho law, the larger of two municipalities retains the name. That would still leave the Sun Valley ski area, however, which has operations in both towns.

Three victims carried transceivers

ALPINE, Wyo. - Yet again comes evidence that transceivers, also known as beacons, are not talismans, alone able to prevent death in beacons. The newest report comes from the Snake River Range of Wyoming, located southwest of Jackson Hole. There, four snowmobilers were caught in an avalanche that ran between a half-mile and a mile, burying all four. One of the men dug himself out, and then hiked uphill to call for help on a cell phone. Why he did not use his transceiver to locate the others was not clear, reported the Jackson Hole News & Guide. His three companions, who were buried under three feet of snow, were all killed by compression asphyxiation.

Kloser ends string of wins
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Is Mike Kloser hanging up his snowshoes, skis, mountain bike and all the other ways he has won grueling, long-distance races during the last several decades?

That's the suggestion out of Steamboat, where the 49-year-old Vail-based athlete won the pentathlon at Howelsen Hill. It was the 10th time he has entered, and his 10th victory.

"Kloser took his 10th go-around just as seriously as he took his first, and it surprised no one when he yet again emerged in front of the pack," said the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

"I prepare for this. I don't like to come over here with the possibility of losing," he said.

But it was all part of a busy weekend for Kloser, who returned to Vail the same day to compete in a 20-kilometre Nordic ski race, and then expected to compete the next day in a 10-kilometre snowshoe race at Beaver Creek.

Kloser has won any number of long-distance races over the years, including the brutal winter overnight slog between Crested Butte and Aspen.

Steamboat's pentathlon attracted 266 competitors, including one petroleum geologist who had just flown in from the Congo.

Kloser told the newspaper he may return to the event again, "but it may be just to support my son," he said, nodding at 15-year-old Christian Kloser.

Black-and-white views
DURANGO, Colo. - Have you ever noticed how two people can hear the same thing and walk away with two completely meanings?

The Durango Telegraph reports two very different reactions to recent news involving a coal-fired power plant called Desert Rock proposed for the nearby Four Corners region.

Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said recently she would reconsider whether carbon dioxide should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

If the carbon dioxide emitted by power plants becomes regulated, then the legal landscape for Desert Rock could become more treacherous. Despite much ambitious talk, there is no large-scale sequestration of carbon to date.

Jeff Holmstead, an attorney for Desert Rock and a former EPA air administrator, dismissed the announcement. "It's a clever procedural move that allows the new administration to distance itself from the Bush administration without actually changing anything about how carbon dioxide is regulated," he said.

The Sierra Club offered a different slant: "The announcement should cast significant further doubt on the approximately 100 coal-fired power plants that the industry is trying to rush through the permitting process without any limits on carbon dioxide," said David Bookbinder, the group's chief climate counsel.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has been negligent by failing to reduce mercury emissions from power plants. Bookbinder said he believes that increased costs to reduce environmental impacts will mean that, "Desert Rock is going to price itself out of the market."

Gas detectors required

ASPEN, Colo. - In November, four people died in their sleep at a home near Aspen because of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide. In response, both Aspen and Pitkin County tightened up regulations, mandating carbon monoxide detectors outside each separate sleeping quarter. The Aspen Times notes that a similar requirement covering all of Colorado is being studied by state legislators.