Butte in the balance
The honeymoon at Crested Butte ended in the mid-1970s when co-owner Howard Callaway, then secretary of the Army under Gerald Ford, was charged with leveraging his influence with the U.S. Forest Service to win ski area expansion approvals for Snodgrass Mountain.
Outspoken critics from Crested Butte joined with then-Sen. Floyd Haskell, D-Colo. to shower Callaway in disrepute. The charge was later dismissed, but it spawned an atmosphere of ill will.
Snodgrass Mountain, a timbered ridge north of Crested Butte Mountain, has been the linchpin in the resort’s expansion. Snodgrass unfolds in a southern exposure of gently rolling hills, suitable for intermediate ski terrain, and opens into a large, montane meadow proposed as North Village. This is where real estate development and local land ethics have collided for decades.
The issue of ski development on Snodgrass reared up regularly during the Callaway-Walton era, but always with impediments. “Too much too soon” was how plans for 11 chairlifts and 1,800 units of resort development were seen by residents of Crested Butte, which managed to sway the county to withhold approvals.
As if in response, the town of Mt. Crested Butte was incorporated in 1973. Carved out of ranches around the ski area base, the “mountain” approved developments at which Crested Butte sneered, even while its citizens swung the hammers. Condos and second homes sprawled across meadows and valleys. Today, the resort base is considered by many to be a disorganized hodgepodge, but the new owners, Tim and Diane Mueller, say they will try to change that. The Muellers are ski resort developers best known for their stellar turnaround of Okemo, a struggling Vermont ski resort.
A deeper change is the breaking down of old divisions and the forming of new alliances. Tim and Diane Mueller are viewed in some circles as saviors whose success is assured because they talk the language of reasonable, responsible growth – values as important to Crested Butte as mountain bikes and telemark skiing.
As a result, the land-use politics of Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte have fused somewhat, forming a new impetus for growth and development that may thaw the glacial pace of the past.
“The sale means a growing economy … both in tourism and the building trades. It also means that townspeople are going to get a boost in their wallets,” said John Norton, a former vice president of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Norton left Crested Butte for Aspen in 1991 to serve as chief operating officer for the Aspen Skiing Company. Norton returned to Crested Butte Mountain Resort in June 2002 as the faltering ski company’s chief executive.
“When they brought John in, it boosted morale, I think, for the whole county,” Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt. “John has done wonders with smoke and mirrors … and no money.”
Norton said any buyer of Crested Butte Mountain Resort would have been well-received because, “the current owners don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done, which is plan and build the mountain village and design and build lifts on Snodgrass.”
“The other part,” Norton added, “is that the Muellers come with a great reputation for understanding the ski business and delivering the goods on the mountain.”
“Growth is OK’
The Muellers’ reputation will be put on the line with Snodgrass. Not only will Crested Butte residents keep a watchful eye on development plans, but so will the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at nearby Gothic, where sensitive biological studies have been going on for over 75 years.
Diplomacy and compromise will be the key as the Muellers strive to alleviate past fears and cultivate broader support.
“Snodgrass will involve an overall mountain plan and eventually a full-blown,” environmental study, Tim Mueller said. “Our plans will be different than the last plan. We’ll have fewer lifts and fewer trails, so it won’t be quite as intensive.
“The economic downturn here has opened people’s eyes and they realize that you need a healthy economy to have a healthy lifestyle and a healthy environment,” Mueller said. “The community has evolved to a common purpose, to say that growth is OK, that the mountain is an integral part of their environment and their lifestyle, that it impacts everybody here.
“That’s the first realization, at least from our perspective, that they need,” he added.
Gunnison County Commissioner Jim Starr said he agrees.
“A lot of people were concerned that if Snodgrass were developed as originally envisioned, we’d have more cars than we could deal with. With a scaled-down version, people are beginning to say that maybe we can mitigate these impacts and work together to see something happen up there.”
Former mayor Thom Cox said economic troubles have made people in Crested Butte more amenable to growth and development.
“There’s nothing like a recession to make everybody willing to take on some more business,” Cox said.
Ralph Walton, who has owned the resort with Callaway, said he foresees big changes ahead.
“We think the new owners can take the Gunnison valley to another level. They will be bringing in a lot of capital, and more capital will be coming in,” Walton said. “Tim and Diane Mueller are really pros when it comes to operating a ski resort, and Crested Butte is poised and ready to jump. The entire county will benefit. It’s a big deal.”
Schmidt has witnessed Crested Butte’s economic struggle since he was first elected to the Town Council in 1981. As a potential swing vote on a council divided on growth issues, his perspective may be critical, and he laid out a challenge to himself and the community.
“The last few years, we’ve been hurting economically, and there is a hue and cry for economic development,” Schmidt said. “This town has always had such great concern with quality of life, and it’s my job to balance out economic development with quality of life. I hope I can do that.”
Schmidt cautions that isolated resorts like Crested Butte are part of a bigger economic picture. “Like all ski areas,” he said, “we’re controlled by the national economy.”
And what’s the bigger picture? A recent news feature in the Rocky Mountain News was headlined “Boom(er) Towns: Affluent second-home owners changing face of mountain counties.” The article described a land rush led by “affluent baby boomers” flocking to the high country for second homes and small-town lifestyles.
Starr said he sees the writing on the wall for Gunnison County.
“We really are going to be taxed by what is about to happen. Our challenges include an infusion of capital, people who want to move here, maintaining the scale of building in town, and dealing with traffic issues and affordable housing,” he said. “If we can’t deal with those things, I think we’re going to lose it.”
A dramatic shift is not in the Muellers’ plans, the couple said.
“We don’t want to come in here and over-develop or do things that are out of context,” Tim Mueller said. “We have a reputation of trying to work with local communities. We will have a good rapport, and I think the town is looking forward to working with a new owner and getting something done.”
Paul Andersen is a columnist for The Aspen Times daily and a former newspaper editor in Crested Butte.