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O’Donnell bemoans ‘capital shootout’

By Allen Best ASPEN, Colo. – Pat O’Donnell retired last week as chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Co. and, at age 68, from a career that has arced across the North American West.

By Allen Best

ASPEN, Colo. – Pat O’Donnell retired last week as chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Co. and, at age 68, from a career that has arced across the North American West.

He started out during the 1960s in California, first at a ski area in Yosemite National Park and then launching Lake Tahoe’s Kirkwood. Then, in the 1970s, he was in Colorado’s Summit County, where he was responsible at Keystone for mountain operations and also creation of the first base-area hotel.

Then, he directed Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, before becoming the head of Whistler Mountain Ski Corp. He finally joined Aspen in 1993, becoming CEO in 1996.

As the head of the Aspen Skiing Co., O’Donnell is widely credited with making Aspen a trend-setter once more. The company has become known for its various environmental initiatives, but particularly its efforts to take climate-changing greenhouse gases seriously. If not overnight, the company’s ski area and associated hotels and other operations have become a showcase for more efficient use of electricity and other fossil fuels. Too, the company has lobbied legislatively for concerted federal action to address global warming.

But the company has also developed real estate. It redeveloped the base of the Aspen Highlands ski area and refurbished its on-mountain restaurant at Ajax, as Aspen Mountain is known by locals. And most significantly, it is redeveloping and expanding the base village at Snowmass, one of the company’s four ski areas, while also spending $50 million in on-mountain improvements.

In an exit interview with The Aspen Times, O’Donnell seemed to rue some of these and other changes that have Aspen fending off challenges from Deer Valley, Beaver Creek and other high-end resorts.

“We got into a capital shootout,” he said. Once the industry started adding faster lifts, customers’ expectations grew. Now a competitive resort must have the whole mountain covered with high-speed chairs or risk getting shunned, he explained.

O’Donnell also said that when Aspen Skiing Co. unveiled its new advertising campaign about climate change, it was criticized within the ski industry. O’Donnell likened this criticism to getting hit between the eyes with a marshmallow. “It didn’t hurt, but it was still offensive,” he said. He declined to identify the source or sources of the criticism.

Other ski areas, however, will soon follow in Aspen’s path in making global warming central to their advertising messages. “I’ve said to people within the industry, ‘I will bet you a dollar to a doughnut that within 12 months and no longer than 18 months you will see other ski areas within the United State messaging along these lines,’” O’Donnell told The Times. “Exactly what medium they will use, I don’t know, but you’re going to see part of their campaign say, ‘Climate change, come on folks, climb on board.’”

 

Steamboat recruiting off-shore

STEAMBOAT SRPINGS, Colo. – The economy has roared back, and so the Steamboat Springs bus system has now gone off-shore to recruit drivers. In a staff of 39 drivers, the agency now has 10 drivers from foreign countries, including six from Australia, two from New Zealand, and one each from Great Britain and Jamaica.

Transportation director George Krawzoff said Steamboat first used international bus drivers in 2001-02 but discontinued the program because of a lagging economy that attracted more local workers. But lately, Krawzoff told the Steamboat Pilot & Today, bus driver positions have been hard to fill, especially during winter.

Other bus-operating organizations have also gone to Australia to recruit drivers. In Jackson Hole, it wasn’t enough. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports the agency remained 10 to 12 drivers short in filling out its 50 positions. It is, reported the newspaper, the “worst-ever labor shortage for the winter season.”

The Jackson Hole bus agency recruited in Australia for five days in conjunction with recruiters from the towns of Vail and Avon and the Eagle County-based agency called ECO Transit. Vail has recruited in Australia and New Zealand every year, but it’s problematic, says Suzanne Silverthorne, the town’s public information officer.   Because of new concerns about homeland security, getting employees through immigration for even seasonal work is a “nail-biter every time,” she said.

 

Hospital plans reflect growth

VAIL, Colo. – Administrators of the hospital in Vail are planning a giant expansion that will nearly double the size of the facility. It is now at 175,000 square feet, and if approved by town officials as now envisioned, would reach 305,000 square feet.

In the last 35 years the hospital, formerly called Vail Valley Medical Center, has grown steadily. One barometer of growth is the number of doctors, which has grown from 3 to 172.

This new proposal reflects the expectation of continued population growth, but also increased number of older people in the Vail Valley, the resort-oriented portion of the Eagle Valley. In addition to the expanding hospital in Vail, a cancer clinic is now located 10 miles west in Edwards, and a new hospital is to be eventually built 30 miles west in Eagle.

Total cost of this hospital expansion is estimated at $70 million to $90 million. The proposal is to expand the hospital on the west side, and raze the older, labyrinth of hospital on the existing east side, in the process doubling the parking spaces by mostly putting them underground.

 

Taking the longer view

REVELSTOKE, B.C. – The changing climate continues to be in the news in scattered mountain towns as activists and officials argue for a broader and longer matrix for economic decisions.

“I’m slowly getting converted over,” Revelstoke Mayor Mark McKee told the Revelstoke Times Review. Returning from a meeting of B.C. municipalities, he said he believes Revelstoke needs to step up its recycling, but it also needs to make buying decisions based on longer-term environmental costs, not just shorter-term capital costs.

“We need to be looking at alternate fuels, hybrids and costing out vehicles over five or 10 years, rather than just looking at the purchase price,” he said.

Elsewhere in British Columbia, at Invermere, greenhouse gas emissions are being cited by one opponent of the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort. Global warming has rendered ridiculous the concept of mega-real estate development in the backcountry, said Rob Campsall, in a letter published in the Invermere Valley Echo.

In Canmore, the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth , was shown to a capacity crowd at the Radisson hotel. Local David Lavallee was provoked to propose something he calls the Bow Valley Protocol. Among other things he wants people to buy fleece jackets made of recycled pop bottles rather than from virgin crude oil, and he wants them to buy more locally-grown food.

In his letter published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, Lavallee noted the increasing oil exports from Alberta to the United States, the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases. Alberta, he suggested, is in a position to nudge the U.S. into taking the threat of climate change more seriously.

 

‘No’ a familiar response

EAGLE, Colo. – Developers down-valley from Vail and Aspen are hearing “no” with some frequency.

At Eagle, between Vail and Glenwood Springs, a major commercial project has been rejected by the town’s planning commission. The project calls for nearly 500,000 square feet of commercial space created in an outdoor mall, plus a major hotel and a water park.

Planning commissioners gave no reason for their unanimous vote, but the town planner, Bill Gray, warned that the project will generate 1,850 jobs, but would not provide affordable housing. Too, there are concerns about the impact to the town’s old downtown area, reports the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

The newspaper speculates that the rejection may have been a way of delegating the decision to town voters, who once before overturned a town decision by rejecting a major commercial development at the site.

At Basalt, between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, the town council has rejected expansion of the highly successful Roaring Fork Club, a golf- and river-based real estate development that caters to the extreme high end. The developers proposed to add 32 luxury cabins, 18 single-family homes, and 36 affordable housing units. The project, however, is not entirely within the town’s growth limit areas.

 

Serious snow study in Sierra

SEQUOIA NAITONAL PARK, Calif. – Scientists in California have been installing sophisticated analytical tools in the Sierra Nevada to get a better idea of how global warming is affecting the snowpack and runoff.

In California, as is true across the West, the effect of global warming is expected to be enormous on water supplies, explains the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Even if the same amount of precipitation falls, it’s expected to come more as rain, less as snow, while spring snowmelts are likely to arrive sooner,” explains the newspaper. “That would mean less effective water storage during the long Sierra winters and, possibly, an increased risk of floods from fast mountain runoff.”

About a third of California’s water supply comes from the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada (and more yet comes from the Rocky Mountains). Altogether, 10 per cent of California’s water supply could be lost because of the higher temperatures of global warming. In that case, what remains will have to be managed with even greater precision.

The equipment being installed will monitor sap flows in trees, detect changes in moisture, and also chronicle carbon dioxide in the air. Current plans call for clusters of instruments from the foothills, at about 1,200 feet in elevation, where most of California’s major reservoirs are located, up to the crest of the Sierra, 11,000 feet and even higher.

Cost of installing the equipment is estimated at $2 million a year for 10 years.

“There’s no chance the average winter snowpack in the West is going to be in the next 50 years what it has been the last 50 years,” said Philip Mote, a climate researcher at the University of Washington.

Temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5 to 9 degrees Celsius, pushing snow lines to higher elevations — anywhere from 1,500 to 4,500 feet higher.

 

The more the merrier

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. –A two-week real estate class in Jackson Hole recently drew 71 students, the largest class ever at the school. But the field of real-estate agents is already crowded, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide, with 691 agents registered as of September with the Teton Board of Realtors.

Not all these registered agents are actually working. Estimates of working agents range from 262 to 375. Nor are all working agents making gobs of money. David Viehman, owner and broker for Jackson Hole Real Estate & Appraisal, speculated that very few make $1 million, close to 10 per cent are reaching $100,000 in annual income, and about half make less than $30,000.

“I tell everybody I interview, plan on taking about two years of income out of your savings to make it in this business,” Viehman told the newspaper.

“You can be as sharp as a tack and it still doesn’t mean you’ll make it,” he said. “It all boils down to luck. My definition of luck is ‘preparation meets opportunity.’”

 

Real estate sales climbing

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – The golden triangle of Aspen, Glenwood Springs, and Vail continues to post real estate totals that just a few years ago would have been staggering. While volume of transactions has declined this year, higher prices have all three markets ahead of last year’s record-setting pace.

Eagle County, where Vail is located, continues to lead the pack. For the third straight year it has now surpassed $2 billion in real estate sales, even if the growth in volume is only 1 per cent ahead of last year. The strongest growth is in the upper middle-class down-valley areas, particularly in the town of Eagle.

Close behind is Pitkin County, where Aspen is located, which appears certain to surpass $2 billion for the second straight year. Growth in dollar volume is 12 per cent ahead of last year, reports The Aspen Times.

Garfield County, which is down-valley from both Aspen and Vail, was well below $1 billion as of the end of September. However, the growth in volume was up 21.5 per cent compared to last year, faster than either of the resort valleys. Garfield County also is strongly influenced by the oil-and-gas boom.

Elsewhere in Colorado, the Telluride-area market is also rising, but relatively slowly, with sales ahead of last year by 3 per cent as of September. While real-estate agents agreed that the market was healthy, with semi-rural real estate strongest of all, one agent, Erik Fallenius, warned against too much optimism. “In general, as has always been the case, the Telluride real estate market is fragile,” he told The Telluride Watch.

 

Gunnison asked to prod supplier

GUNNISON, Colo. – The issue of climate change is being debated in a most concrete and pragmatic way at the Gunnison County Courthouse.

In Gunnison County, which includes Crested Butte, electric power is provided by a rural co-op, Gunnison County Electric Association, which in turn buys its power from a wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Tri-State gets its electricity almost exclusively from coal-fired power plants, which are the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the United States. And the U.S., of course, is the world’s leader in greenhouse gas emissions.

Two questions, explains the Crested Butte News, are at issue: Will the rural co-op extend its contract with Tri-State, which is now set to expire in the year 2040, to the year 2050? The answer to that question may depend upon the answer to a second question: Will Tri-State do anything differently?

Tri-State contends that it must burn coal, and it has plans to build two new coal-fired plants in Kansas during the next five years and one in later years in Southeastern Colorado. In addition to the three power plants, Tri-State figures to need another 700 miles of transmission lines. Costs are estimated at $5 billion to $6 billion.

Company executives point out that wind and other renewable energy sources are not constant, but much of the demand for electricity is. Tri-State expects a 7.6 per cent growth in demand for this continuous energy load during the next five years. The company aims to meet this growth at the lowest cost, says J.M. Shafer, the president and general manager of Tri-State Energy.

But an environmental group, Western Resource Advocates, disputes the Tri-State plan in almost every respect. The group’s Rick Gilliam, a senior policy advisor, having studied Tri-State’s work, argues that Tri-State won’t need another coal-fired plant for 13 years. Even then, he says, wind power, biomass and solar can be developed more rapidly, and in smaller increments as necessary to meet increasing demand.

Gunnison County has no direct say in the matter, but is being asked by Bruce Driver, a second-home owner in Crested Butte (and former director of Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates), to adopt a resolution advising the rural co-op to not renew its contract with Tri-State. “It’s time to say good-bye to pulverized coal,” said Driver.

He argues that the threat of global warming is sufficient that limits on carbon emissions are likely to be imposed within the next 5 to 10 years.   While carbon can probably be removed from power plant emissions, it is likely to come at a high cost, he says. A more responsible move by Tri-State, he argues, is to help consumers use existing electricity more efficiently.

The commissioners have not taken a position, but the co-op itself seems to be pressuring Tri-State in the matter. Jim Somrak, general manager of the Gunnison County Electric Association, said Tri-State has not received the idea of renewables well. “That’s one of the ways we ought to be moving,” he added.

 

Car wash essential

BANFF, Alberta – Banff is without a car wash, and local councillorss are trying to make it a federal case to get one.

The town is located within Banff National Park, which specified limits on commercial growth in 1998. That cap allowed an additional 350,000 square feet of commercial development, but that space has been snapped up. Meanwhile, the one car wash closed — and municipal councillorss think it is an essential service. Locals are urging a more flexible cap on commercial expansion, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

 

La Plata County joins pact

DURANGO, Colo. – La Plata County has now joined the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. The agreement, explains the Durango Herald, substantially follows the Kyoto Protocol, which requires signatories to roll back their emissions to 7 per cent less than 1990 levels in the year 2012.

“The federal government has to open its eyes to the global warming that everyone else seems to already know about, and part of what this program entails is to ensure that they take steps to do something about it,” said County Commissioner Wally White.

Mountain towns that have previously endorsed the agreement are Park City in Utah, Jackson in Wyoming. In Colorado, Durango, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Frisco, Aspen, and Basalt and Aspen have all joined, as has Pitkin County.

 

Vail adds hybrid bus

VAIL, Colo. – The first hybrid diesel-electric bus is being pressed into service in Vail. At more than $500,000, the bus is 40 per cent more expensive than a conventional diesel. So why spend the extra money?

First, fuel efficiency is up to 40 per cent greater than a standard low-floor diesel, and it produces 50 per cent fewer emissions. Second, because of a smaller engine and a regenerative braking system, it is much quieter.

And third, the town really isn’t paying much more. State and federal grants pay 80 per cent of the total cost of mass-transit buses.

Based on the experience with this bus, Vail transit may add nine additional hybrids to its fleet during the next four years, saving 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year when all 10 buses are in operation.

 

Silverton focuses on short shorts

SILVERTON, Colo. – Tiny Silverton, with a year-round population of about 600 people, now has two ski areas and a budding ski movie festival.

The new film festival is certainly not big budget. Films at the inaugural festival on Dec. 2 will be limited to five minutes. The winner gets $500, but also gets a day in the headquarters of a Los Angeles firm, Studio 411, to gain insights into the business side of action sports films.

The town has both ends of skiing. Silverton Mountain is a double-black diamond ski area with the steepest lift-served terrain in Colorado, if not North America. (The ski area, and Silverton, were profiled in a travel piece in the Sunday New York Times, with unflattering comparisons to Aspen, Telluride, and Mammoth Mountain).

Within Silverton is a second ski area, Kendall Mountain, whose slopes can best be described as forgiving. Community organizers are trying to raise $150,000 for the ski area’s first chair lift. It is currently serviced by a 950-foot-long rope tow.

 

Taos Pueblo opposes expansion

TAOS, N.M. – A proposal to expand the runway at Taos Regional Airport is running into opposition of the same sort that delayed airport modifications 20 years ago. The Taos Daily News says the most significant objection is coming from the Taos Pueblo. The pueblo is one of only 20 United Nations World Heritage Sites in the United States.

Writing in the Taos Daily News, a local artist, poet and sculptor named Thomas French sees airports as producing nothing of much good for the community. “With greater air transportation accessibility, Taos will likely go through a change culturally and economically on an accelerated pace similar to Vail, Aspen, Grand Junction or Woods Hole (Mass.), yet with a greater cultural and historical loss. The airport will be a doorway for the very wealthy to access second homes in Taos by air.”

 

Heritage tourism gets funds

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – Breckenridge town officials have added $360,000 of funding to their talk about boosting heritage tourism. The new Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is to become an umbrella for various existing organizations that operate museums or promote art or history, and also has responsibility for planning the 150-year anniversary of Breckenridge as a mining camp, reports the Summit Daily News.

 

No fast food nation

KETCHUM, Idaho – The Wood River Valley, with a permanent population of more than 20,000, has only a McDonald’s and a Subway. Why not more?

Local zoning rules discourage national franchise fast-food eateries, explains the Idaho Mountain Express. In Ketchum, at the base of the Sun Valley ski area, drive-through windows are prohibited except at banks. The McDonald’s down-valley at Hailey doesn’t look much like a McDonald’s. Plus, perhaps the fat-food franchisers would expect few patrons. After all, the valley has four health clubs. Sweat and thin seem to be exalted more than deep-fried and thick fries.

 

View of Milky Way cherished

GRAND TARGHEE, Wyo. – The proposal to vastly expand the base village at Grand Targhee continues to be debated. The resort is located in Wyoming, on the west side of the Teton Range, but most directly affects Idaho’s Teton Valley.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports a substantial turnout of opponents for the first time from Alta, the community closest to the resort. One neighbor, Dana Wilson, a rancher, expressed fears that the expanded expansion will cause pollution, including loss of the night sky. “I want to look up at night and see the stars and not have to look at smoke pollution, not have to look at light pollution.”

Another Alta resident, Jim Farrier, said the expansion will result in the rich crowding out the middle class at the resort. The resort now has 96 lodging units, but the plan calls for 725 residential units, plus more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

But others in the valley have testified in support of the family of George Gillett, the owners of the resort. Represented by Geordie Gillett, the family has given generously for medical, affordable housing, and other causes — and some are sure it’s not part of a public relations campaign.

Regardless of whether Targhee’s upzoning is approved, the Teton Valley is already changing rapidly and promises to change even more. “We are plotting thousands of lots in the valley,” pointed out Doug Self, the planning and zoning administrator for nearby Driggs, Idaho. “There are 1,000 from here (Grand Targhee) to Driggs alone,” he said.

 

Airport security costs plenty

ASPEN, Colo. – Even with a 12.5 per cent adjustment because of the cost of living, airport security checkers at Aspen’s Sardy Field are paid only $102 for an eight-hour shift by the federal government. That’s about minimum wage in Aspen’s hyperinflated economy.

As you might guess, the help-wanted sign is out constantly. But in the meantime, reports The Aspen Times, the federal government has a pool of security workers that shuttle around to understaffed airports. The cost is by no means minimal. The per diem for room and board at Aspen is $289 per day during peak seasons. That compares with the standard per diem of $99.

If security workers spend the winter in Aspen scanning baggage and shoes for bombs, utility knives and explosive toothpaste, the cost to the federal government — excluding wages and benefits — will be $43,639.

 

Manslaughter charge laid

GRANBY, Colo. – Early in the summer a 16-year-old boy ran into a pond at a golf course near Granby to rescue his dog, which had become entangled in electrical wires. A live electrical wire electrocuted the boy. A 77-year-old man, Charles Haddock, has now been charged with reckless manslaughter, but the specific accusation was not reported.




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