The original Thunderhead Lodge was completed in 1968 and was emblematic of the "arrival" of the Steamboat winter resort on the regional scene.

Photo by Tom Ross

The original Thunderhead Lodge was completed in 1968 and was emblematic of the "arrival" of the Steamboat winter resort on the regional scene.

Times changin' in Ski Time Square

Thunderhead once state of the art, now part of Sheraton sale

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— Tom Ross

Pilot & today staff

steamboat springs

The ski-in, ski-out Thunderhead Lodge, which has been identified as a candidate for a tear-down and redevelopment, was once a symbol of the increasing sophistication of Ski Town U.S.A.

Thunderhead is among the Ski Time Square Enterprises properties at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area that are being offered for sale with the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center.

Sheraton management has openly discussed the prospect that Thunderhead and neighboring Ski Time Square commercial buildings are likely sites for redevelopment. And a master plan being prepared by the city of Steamboat Springs in consultation with the private sector recognizes both properties as being significant in the effort to modernize Steamboat's mountain resort base.

"Absolutely. It's a huge opportunity to go back and try to master plan the base area," Sheraton General Manager Chuck Porter said. "I think of it as a renaissance."

"They are integral to the redevelopment of the base area," City Planner Suzanne Bott agreed. She is guiding the public/private planning process intended to provide the framework for redevelopment of the ski base.

Porter confirmed Sept. 1 that the partners in Ski Time Enterprises had retained hotel industry consultant HVS to broker the sale of its Steamboat properties, including the Shera-ton Steamboat Golf Course. The Sheraton's announcement comes six weeks after the announcement that the Steamboat Ski Area is for sale.

Mike Sullivan, managing director of HVS, said that the market for hotel sales in this country has been running on a 10-year cycle ever since the end of World War II and that increasing room rates and occupancy rates make this an attractive time to sell. If the hotel market was an extra-inning baseball game, "we're in the fifth inning right now."

"It's an absolute bull market in hotel sales right now," Sullivan said.

Ski Time Square Enterprises purchased the original (and smaller) Inn at Thunderhead out of bankruptcy in 1975 for $1.17 million. The lodge was built in 1968 and opened to considerable fanfare.

In an article looking back on a year of growth, the Steamboat Pilot wrote in 1968:

"The Inn at Thunderhead opens this week with ceremony and celebration. Its facilities include an elegant dining room, a lounge looking out toward the ski slopes, private meeting rooms, a large banquet hall and 26 sleeping rooms, which are singles and suites.

"Anyone who doubts the impact of the skiing industry on a community has only to look around and see what it has brought to the Steamboat area. The years ahead certainly loom as exciting ones with changes almost too many to visualize."

At the time, the Village Inn hotel, later to become the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Hotel and Conference Center, did not exist. It wasn't until a year later that LTV Recreational Development Inc. purchased the ski area and announced a $10 million development plan that would include the hotel and the original Stagecoach Gondola.

As the Thunderhead Lodge was being completed, construction continued on the Storm Meadows Condominiums, now among the oldest at the ski area.

Also in 1968, businesses in Ski Time Square were just beginning to fill the available spaces. Mount Werner circle did not exist, and Mount Werner Road ran in a straight line up the hill from U.S. Highway 40 to the base of the Christie Chairlift.

Porter said the Thunderhead Lodge has 75 condominium units, all but seven owned by partners in Ski Time Square Enterprises. Of the total, 40 are owned by Ski Time Square Enterprises' six individual partners and Starwood Hotels. Another 28 are owned by the six individuals without Starwood. That leaves seven individually owned units. The wishes of the independent owners must be acknowledged, Porter said. However, the fact that Ski Time Square enterprises controls 90 percent of the condos is significant because it means there would be relatively few obstacles to redeveloping the property.

Still, Porter sounded a cautionary note. Redevelopment is more expensive than original development, he pointed out. Whoever tackles redevelopment of the Thunderhead and Ski Time Square, city government will have to show a willingness to approve sufficient density to make it work financially for the developer, Porter said.

Bott sees a cause and effect relationship between the city's decision to put an Urban Renewal Authority in place at the base of the ski mountain and much of the activity that seems poised to take place.

"I do believe that taking on the URA has spurred all of this activity and investment. I really do," Bott said.

The URA sets aside an increment of property tax growth attributable to new development at the base of the mountain and devotes it to building public improvements.

Sullivan said the URA sends a message to potential buyers of the Sheraton that the community is receptive to redevelopment projects.

"They didn't do the URA for nothing," Sullivan said. "They did it because they want to see things change. We believe the redevelopment climate in Steamboat is positive."

The City Council plays a dual role, serving as the board of the URA and exercising control over disbursement of the public dollars it collects. Acting in concert with the URA is a citizens group, the Urban Renewal Authority Advisory Committee, which is reviewing the base area redevelopment plan.

"It's a true partnership of everyone at the mountain," Bott said.

Porter sits on the advisory committee, as does Chris Diamond, president of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. In addition, there are members of the community at large who do not have a business stake in redevelopment.

The advisory committee is very close to making recommendations on some key directions to City Council. They will be unveiled during a public open house June 19.

Former City Councilman Bud Romberg, who is the chairman of the committee, said the recommendations will include a "pattern book" to give developers who are contemplating projects at the base of the ski area. He said the consultants have been charged with developing themes that will tie the redeveloped base area together.

"The big thing is the roadways and how traffic would flow and buses would turn around," Romick said.

Porter acknowledges that it might make sense for one entity to purchase the Sheraton and the Steamboat Ski Area.

"I have always felt that whoever owns the ski area should own the hotel and probably the Thunderhead," Porter said, "for the ease and ability to master plan the base and also to have seamless operation. There are more advantages than disadvantages."

If it all comes to pass, the foot of Mount Werner will look far different than it does today, and even more different from the way it looked in 1968.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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