Boom for the Butte?
Tim and Diane Mueller, ski resort developers best known for their stellar turnaround of Okemo, a struggling Vermont ski resort, will replace Howard “Bo” Callaway and Ralph “Bubba” Walton at the scheduled Feb. 25 closing. Excitement in the “Butte’ has peaked, as people expect a boom in business and real estate to follow the influx of rich new blood.
But while most of Crested Butte cheers, others are more cautious. A quick glance around town shows a high proportion of banks and real estate offices, harbingers of growth that are poised for action. A big boost of prosperity might seem worthy of celebration for a struggling ski resort, but the traditional values of Crested Butte run contrary to big growth.
With the sale of the ski area, however, the first domino may tip toward a chain reaction of development that could sweep traditional values aside.
Winds of change
In 1969, when Howard “Bo” Callaway first saw Crested Butte, the population was 370. The grid of dirt streets was crowded with quaint Victorian buildings ornate with filigree and worn with time.
Coal smoke and accordion music drifted on the night air as men in taverns drank slivovitz and ate kielbasa. Polka dancers stomped their heels on wood plank floors and Serbo-Croatian was spoken by hardy Yugoslavian immigrants, many of whom had fresh memories of the coal mines that built the town in the 1880s and kept it going through the 1950s.
Until a ski area was built in 1961, Crested Butte was a Shangri-La nestled in a mountain redoubt in the heart of the Elk Range. But with skiing came tourism, resort development and the struggle for economic viability. For the past 33 years, since Callaway and Walton bought the 1,058-acre ski resort in 1970, they have taken the resort as far as their capital and patrician patronage would allow.
Now the winds of change are blowing, and to some it is a refreshing breeze.
“The new owners look like they want to do more than turn around some real estate and flip some properties,” effused a Gunnison businessman. “They are in it for the long haul and they see the magic in the community.”
A Crested Butte construction worker put it bluntly: “You bet it’s a good thing. I’m broke. Something’s got to happen.”
Today, one can hike 20 minutes from the “High Lift” and take in the whole picture from the 12,162-foot peak of Crested Butte Mountain. The stunning panorama has not changed dramatically in the last three decades. The town of Crested Butte still occupies the valley floor, surrounded by pastures flanked by timbered ridges. Mountains rise snow-capped in every direction.
Change is only evident from a closer perspective, where vacation homes are encroaching on former hay meadows and prospective homesites are staked on former grazing land. Subdivisions and satellite communities range across ridges and are filling in the valley toward Gunnison, where a newly paved highway will lead to newly paved runways by next summer.
A ripening plum
Crested Butte was not Bo Callaway’s first choice. His initial overture was for Aspen Highlands, where owner Whip Jones declined to sell. Jones directed Callaway across the Elk Mountains to Crested Butte, where the defunct ski area was in receivership.
The base area was comprised of sheds and barns from an old ranch. Cattle grazed the ski runs in the summer – as they still do – and remnants of corrals and fence lines revealed an agrarian past. The main lift, which climbed 2,700 vertical feet, was a three-person gondola imported from Italy. Skiers interlocked their knees inside the tiny, lozenge-shaped cars that swung from welded steel towers.
Still, Callaway recognized a plum that could ripen one day. He saw dramatic ski terrain and world-class vistas. What he and Walton failed to grasp was that the resort’s potential would hinge on friendly relations with the outspoken citizenry of Crested Butte.
Time for a turnaround
Lean times seem to go with Crested Butte. During the mining decades, the struggles were epic, both underground and above. Long, cold winters at 8,800 feet – nearly 1,000 feet higher than Aspen and 7,000 higher than Vail, though lower than Breckenridge – with 300 inches of snow took a toll, but established a legacy for toughness of body and spirit.
Crested Butte’s resilience is celebrated, but the Spartan life seems no longer appreciated by a new breed of “Crested Butteicians” who hope the end of privation is in sight. Today’s businessmen and tradesmen are banking that the new ski area owners will provide a rebound.
At Okemo, which the Muellers bought in 1982, skier days have climbed steadily from a dismal 95,000 per year to 600,000 last ski season, making it the second-busiest ski area in New England.
Some in Crested Butte hope one day to match that top figure.
“I’m very excited about the sale,” said former Thom Cox, who was mayor of Crested Butte from 1981-85 and is now president of Crested Butte and Gunnison Community Banks of Colorado.
“We’ve lost a lot of skier days in the last four or five years, and it’s just good to see some new blood coming in,” Cox said. “These people are obviously very successful in taking Okemo to 600,000 skier days, which is just what we need here for everybody to be able to make a living.”
Crested Butte’s current mayor, Jim Schmidt, favors the slow growth plan of Okemo, where the Muellers are credited with investing $150 million over 10 years.
“The people familiar with Okemo say there is an improvement every year,” said Schmidt. “There is something new all the time, and gradual building works much better for infrastructure.”
When Callaway and Walton bought Crested Butte in 1970, a similar ray of hope spread across Gunnison County. Big plans were unveiled and $20 million went to new lifts, trails and amenities. Skiing bolstered Gunnison County’s traditional ranching and college economy – Gunnison is home to Western State College – and recreation became the economic engine for the region. Today, in spite of Crested Butte’s tourism, Gunnison County is Colorado’s fourth-poorest county in per capita income.
Because of economic strife and failed local relations, the Callaway-Walton era ended like a bad marriage, with divorce a necessity. The ski area ownership and the community were hopelessly divided by suspicion and distrust.
“Not only did the owners run out of money, they ran out of desire. And that permeated through the organization,” Schmidt said.
Tim Mueller, the new owner, said of his purchase, “The timing is right for a change.” allowed Tim Mueller.
“That’s not to criticize the Callaways and the Waltons,” he said. “It was just time for a break, and I think all parties agree with that.”
Walton reflected sadly: “I really regret the fact that the community perceived us as bad guys and consequently, when we had an issue to put before the public, all was not favorable and neither were the results.”
Some say the Callaway-Walton era was the best growth-control Crested Butte and Gunnison County ever had. But a shop owner on Elk Avenue put it this way: “Everybody is looking forward to the new ownership because things have been stagnant here for too long. Anything would be better than what we’ve had.”
Paul Andersen is a columnist for The Aspen Times daily and a former newspaper editor in Crested Butte.