Vail Resorts to invest $50M, connect 2 Utah ski resorts

BRADY McCOMBSAssociated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A new high-speed gondola is set to be built this summer to connect two Utah ski resorts and create one of the largest ski areas in the country, Vail Resorts Inc. announced Monday.

The lift connecting Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort is the key part of $50 million in investments planned at the two resorts ahead of the 2015-16 ski season. Other plans include making two other lifts bigger and faster, building one new restaurant and upgrading two others, and improving snowmaking.

It will be a transformational makeover that will give skiers and snowboarders a much better experience, said Bill Rock, Park City Mountain Resort chief operating officer. The projects are pending approval from city and county officials in Park City.

“Putting the two resorts together has been the vision for a long time,” Rock said. “It’s great for our company, it’s great for Park City, and it’s great for Utah skiing.”

Vail bought P ark City Mountain Resort in September for $182.5 million, resolving a messy legal battle between Vail and Powdr Corp. that threatened to cancel the ski season. Vail began leasing and operating Canyons in May 2013.

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The 7,300 combined acres of skiable terrain certainly will make it among the nation’s largest, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. His association doesn’t track the size of U.S. resorts by skiable acres to say for sure which is the biggest.

Skiers already can buy one ticket and ski both resorts this season. But without a connecting lift, they’ll have to take ground transportation to do that.

The makeover is one of the largest investments in Utah ski resorts since Talisker Corp. invested about $75 million over several years in the early 2010s to improve and upgrade Canyons before Vail took over the resort.

It marks yet another significant moment in what has been a big year for the Utah ski industry, which is ga rnering attention across North America, said Ralf Garrison, a Denver-based ski industry consultant with The Advisory Group. History shows skiers are drawn to new and more combined terrain.

Also in the past year, Deer Valley Resort bought Solitude Mountain Resort and will take it over in 2015. Powdr Corp. executive Ian Cumming purchased the majority interest of Solitude Mountain Resort. And officials continue to work toward a long-term plan of building a series of chairlifts that would link seven ski areas and give Utah a European-style experience

That plan gets a turbo charge from the connecting lift at Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons, leaving only two connecting lifts to be planned and constructed to make the ambitious project a reality, said Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah.

The new plans help shine the spotlight on Utah, which is vital in a very competitive ski industry, Rafferty said.

“Skiers and snowboarders are adventu rists, and they are always looking for the next adventure,” Rafferty said. “People get to pour over the map and plot out how they are going to ski those two mountains together. That’s a lot of skiing.”

Not everybody in Utah was thrilled about the announcement. Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said the connecting lift plan is less impactful on the mountain than other proposals. But he said the totality of the projects represents the continuation of a troubling trend of hyper-development of ski mountains that started years ago.

“Skiing is an activity to try and get out and connect with nature, whether it’s at the resort or in the backcountry,” Fisher said. “This is taking away from its core.”

The new gondola will seat eight people and take about 9 minutes to get from the Silverlode lift at Park City Mountain Resort to the Flatiron lift at Canyons, Vail officials said. It will include a stop-off point midway at Pine Cone Ridge, where skiers will be able to cruise down two new trails.

It marks the first gondola at the resort since an old one was shut down in 1983.

The combined resorts will be known in the future as Park City Mountain Resort, Rock said. Canyons will be known as Canyons at Park City.

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