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Snowball effect?

Wren Wertin

Hal Clifford, author of “Downhill Slide,” thinks so, and is able to articulate why. He’ll be at Verbatim Booksellers today at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the issue with anyone interested.

“Downhill Slide” looks at what he calls the Big Three: Vail Resorts, Intrawest and American Skiing Company. All are traded publicly on Wall Street, use public lands and control more than one resort. He writes in the preface:

“The unavoidable reality is that alpine towns that have risen around the sport of skiing – once full of heart, soul and character – increasingly resemble the crowded, polluted, sprawling and undistinguished

landscapes that characterize so much of modern America.”

He’s come to this conclusion after years of living in the Rockies. Currently a Telluride resident, Clifford is a former editor of the Aspen Daily News and SKI Magazine. As such, he’s watched the personality of mountain towns change drastically, as has anyone in Vail during the past few decades.

“I love mountain towns and communities,” said Clifford. “Upon investigating the workings – the why – of development in ski towns, I wasn’t able to keep saying all this was wonderful and great.”

What he saw was urban sprawl, and most of the control was in the hands of ski companies. Terry Minger, Vail’s first town manager, is quoted in the book:

“I’m a firm believer that the best resorts, the most enduring places, are because people actually live there,” he said. “The ski world is a little bit behind this curve, I think. Words like sustainability are, to them, fighting words. How much is enough? That’s a question we never ask ourselves in America.”

A former resident of both Washington, D.C., and London, Clifford admits mountain towns are still much better than cities. But simply being better isn’t enough.

“By and large, mountain towns are magical places,” he said. “I feel the “Big Three’ are urbanizing them. The Vail Valley and Summit are what they are – but they’re becoming like the suburbs.”

Clifford puts Vail under the microscope and raises many issues, including the Wall Street phenomenon of needing increasing profits from an industry that can be fragile, dependent on good skiing conditions as they are. He attributes this trend to ski wars, where resorts make upgrade after upgrade in an effort to win more skiers. Lift ticket prices go up to pay for it. As Clifford points out, skiing wasn’t always a sport for the rich. It used to be primarily for the adventurous.

Clifford admits that growth and change are necessary; he’s even an advocate of them. Such growth is what allows so many people to make their homes in the mountains year-round, rather than seasonally. Yet, he has concerns about the pacing and scale of growth, and who is making the decisions.

“If you have a major investor calling the shots, that’s not a good situation,” he said. “The community is at the whim of the investor.”

Ski companies don’t just control the lifts and the snow – they’ve gotten into real estate, too. But Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, points out that Vail Resorts doesn’t own more than 10 or 12 acres in Vail. And they didn’t become a public company until 1997. Before that, Vail was privately owned.

“We own minimal parts of Eagle County,” he said. “There are other developments like Cordillera and Eagle Ranch, but we don’t own those. We obviously provide an experience that attracts people from all over the globe. The skiing of the valley contributes to those places. But we don’t own them.”

Jensen hasn’t read “Downhill Slide” yet, but plans on doing so. He encouraged Verbatim Booksellers to host the book signing despite that Vail Resorts is one of the “bad guys” in the book.

“Dialogue is always productive, and having environments where we have this discussion is always good,” he said.

Alessandra Mayer, owner of Verbatim, agrees.

“It is a real topic of interest here,” she said. “I think our main purpose isn’t to be on one side or another, but to provide a forum for discussion and dialogue… We really want to encourage people from both sides of the issue to come. A lot of us wouldn’t be here without Vail Resorts, but then we might not like everything they do.”

Clifford will speak briefly, and then people will be invited to discuss their views and ask questions. The event is free to the public and starts at 6:30 p.m. “Downhill Slide” is a Sierra Club Book. It costs $24.95. For more information call the bookstore at 476-3032.


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