An Unlikely Shangri-la: 

Part I: Little room is left for new development at the West’s established resort towns, so entrepreneurs are turning second-tier ski hills into private enclaves for the jet set. But will the new resorts fly?

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By Christopher Solomon/High Country News

Steve Jenson twists the throttle of his hornet-colored snowmobile and rockets up the empty ski slope. At the top, where the motionless chairlifts wait, Jenson finally slows, and cuts the engine. The shattered quiet of southwestern Utah’s high country knits itself back together. At 10,300 feet in the palm of the Tushar Mountains, frosted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir stand as silent as penitents in the December snow. The air smells of balsam and wintertime. A romantic would say it smells like Christmas; a cynic, cash. That’s because Jenson and his colleagues are transforming this troubled but scenic ski area into an über-exclusive resort to rival the finest anywhere. And in the process they hope to make themselves a great deal of money.

“This is going to be our temporary upper lodge,” Jenson says. He’s dismounted and is pointing at something a snowball’s toss away from the lifts. The building is vintage early ’80s, the windows now dark, a slab of plywood nailed ignominiously over the door: the shuttered ski area’s upper day lodge. We are here just six weeks after the Mt. Holly Club has begun selling memberships, and a certain amount of squinting is required to see Jenson’s vision. “We’re doing a full remodel on it,” says Jenson, the club’s president and CEO. “We’re doing a ‘European mountain feel’ — stone, timbers, some sort of a metal roof with patinas. Stone floors and hardwood floors. Venetian plasters on the walls. A nice, exposed, big-timber ceiling. There will be a restaurant, a lounge for people to have a glass of wine at night. A ski shop and a sales office.”

That’s just to kick off. “This whole flat area you see up here” — with a finger he lassoes several acres of snow and fir — “this will all be the Village Center” — a 40,000-square-foot main lodge. Spa. Boutiques. Tennis courts. He throws his arms wide to embrace, well … nothing but brooding spruce. “This is going to be the heart of the resort, right here.”

Oh — but he’s nearly forgotten the golf! “The golf course surrounds this part of the resort,” Jenson adds, spinning. Afterward, as we motor around, he’ll point out black and green PVC pipes that periscope from the snow, marking future tees and landing areas: the schematics of a dream.

And yet something else lingers in the air besides Jenson’s vision and the nip of frostbite. A closed ski area is a melancholy thing. Snow drifts in the doorways of vacant lift shacks. A sign for a ski run called “Rocky Raccoon” dangles forlornly. But it’s more than that: There’s a curious, low-humming tension. It’s fed by the flame-red placards — “Private Property — Mt. Holly Club — Members Only” — that are nailed to most vertical surfaces, and by the memory of the people back at the clutch of slopeside condos. None of them smiled or waved as Jenson and his colleagues arrived.

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