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The great connection

Vail founder Pete Seibert dreamed of a great European-style ski mountain when he first skinned up and skied the terrain of Vail Mountain in the late 1950s. He envisioned a sprawling network of ski trails throughout the valley, meandering into separate alpine villages and connected by a system of gondolas or trams.Forty years later, in the first ski season since Seibert’s death last summer, there are thousands of acres of ski terrain, stretching from Pete’s Bowl in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin to the sage-brush slopes of Arrowhead 15 miles to the west. But there’s still only one gondola.”I believe it will be possible to link up Vail and Beaver Creek at some juncture. How and when I don’t really know. It depends on a lot of environmental questions,” Seibert told The Vail Trail in 1999.But the man who was forced to sell his stake in Vail Associates in 1976, when Vail’s gondola crashed and killed four people, never lived to see his dream of European-style interconnecting resorts become a reality.Recent signs from the ski company appeared to indicate Seibert’s dream may not have died with him, but executives are quick to discount the notion.”It’s a dream and vision that I think it’s safe to say Pete Seibert considered for many years,” says Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen. “But we see Vail and Beaver Creek as two stand-alone resorts.”Linkage fans seemed to have a ray of hope this past summer when The Vail Trail first reported the ski company was appealing the revised White River National Forest Plan because it designated two prime interconnect chunks as roadless areas.The two disputed parcels are South Game Creek Bowl, which dives off the backside of Vail Mountain’s Game Creek Bowl and is a popular backcountry ski route into Minturn, and Meadow Mountain, a small defunct ski hill strategically situated between Minturn and Beaver Creek ski area. Jensen, though, says the company’s interest in clarifying the status of those two areas is purely strategic and has nothing to do with connecting Vail and Beaver Creek.”I’ve never been involved in a discussion within Vail Resorts about the potential or the value or the upside of a connection between Vail and Beaver Creek,” Jensen says.Instead, Jensen says, the ski company wants to swap its private holdings in South Game Creek and some private land called Mud Flats adjacent to McCoy Park on the west side of Beaver Creek for a Forest Service parcel in Vail Village at the base of the Vista Bahn chairlift. The company has a $100 million plan for sprucing up that area, dubbed Vail’s Front Door.If that land swap is rejected, Jensen says, the company wants to keep its options open for Meadow Mountain and South Game Creek, which dumps into the popular Minturn Mile. Forest Service officials say up to 500 skiers a day use that backcountry run, winding up in the old railroad town of Minturn.For years, locals have speculated that Vail Resorts wants a lift link into Minturn, where another base area would provide additional parking and development potential, easing the pressure on the front side of Vail Mountain (see related story). Jensen is also dubious of a Minturn portal.”The die has been cast about a connection to Minturn and Meadow Mountain,” says Jensen, who helped negotiate a memorandum of understanding with town officials, basically saying the ski company would pursue the portal only if the town asked them to. “We were neutral and we left it up to Minturn to decide their own fate, but after some dialogue on the issue, they declined to go that route, and we respected that.”The Avon connectionFrom a Minturn base area, a gondola up and over Meadow Mountain to the eastern flanks of Beaver Creek would have been the next link in Seibert’s dream. That gondola or tram would have connected into a proposed Beaver Creek-to-Avon gondola that is still very much alive and well, although that gondola had far more momentum a couple of years ago.”The project is still moving forward, but it’s in somewhat of a holding pattern,” says Beaver Creek Chief Operating Officer John Garnsey. “We still plan to openly discuss this with the new town council; that will happen within the next 60 days. At that time we’d be able to understand much better what the situation is.”Four new council members have all told The Vail Trail they’re interested in linking Avon to Beaver Creek with a gondola that would travel through Bachelor Gulch, but all expressed skepticism about using tax dollars to pay for it.The previous council rejected a request by the ski company to ask Avon taxpayers to foot $6 million of the bill, and the new council doesn’t appear too eager to reverse that decision.”I would purchase a lift ticket to ride the proposed gondola,” incoming council member Debbie Buckley told The Vail Trail. “However, it would be a misuse of Avon’s tax dollars to provide $6 million to help subsidize a public company like Vail Resorts.”Garnsey says Vail Resorts is close to finalizing agreements with the Beaver Creek Resort Company and the Bachelor Gulch homeowners that would get those two groups to subsidize the plan, which right now is estimated at just over $20 million.The gondola would start at VR’s proposed Confluence Site hotel and retail project in south Avon, travel over private land to the Tarnes employee housing, continue on up to Bachelor Gulch Village and the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Club that opens this month and wind up at Strawberry Park atop Beaver Creek. A final leg down into Beaver Creek Village was scrapped due to cost.”There are significant issues with the current plan,” says incoming council member Ron Wolfe. “The route of the gondola does not include Beaver Creek Village, and therefore it will not bring guests down to the town after the slopes close.”Proponents of the original configuration touted it as a transportation alternative similar to the wildly popular Telluride gondola system that links the town to the ski area and nearby Mountain Village, shuttling guests at all hours, not just when the slopes are open.The final leg from Strawberry Park to the Beaver Creek Village, Garnsey says, isn’t even on the backburner at this point. “That is not on any burner right now.”Avon Town Manager Bill Efting, who’s leaving his job for a similar position on South Padre Island, Texas, at the end of the month, says he thinks Vail Resorts simply has other priorities right now.”I think it’s all kind of on hold,” Efting says of the Avon gondola. “If you look at what they’re doing in Vail and Breckenridge (both sites of major base-area renovations) those are two pretty big projects, and I think it would be pretty tough to do all three at one time.”


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