Steamboat Springs Hours before a scheduled public hearing Thursday, Intrawest declined to fund a share of a $7 million high-speed people-mover gondola that was to have been a collaboration with Resort Ventures West, developers of Wildhorse Meadows.
Mariana Ishida, development manager for Resort Ventures West, said Thursday night that her company intended to dust itself off and begin planning June 5 for the slower pulse gondola. It previously was approved in the original plans for Wildhorse Meadows.
"We are all really bummed; we were so excited about everything," Ishida said. "And everyone worked so hard on this - city staff burned the midnight oil getting the (planning documents) ready. But we remain focused on completing a gondola by late this year or early next year."
City Planner Seth Lorson learned about the change of plans in a short letter from Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond that read: "Please accept this letter as officially requesting withdrawal of #DPF-09-03 application."
The slower gondola reverts to a budget in the neighborhood of $3 million. The pulse gondola will have four cars and pause every time two of them reach the upper and lower terminals.
It will remain a public facility and free to all riders, Ishida said. However, it will not have the uphill capacity to replace the shuttle vans that ferry day skiers from the nearby Meadows parking lot to the base of the ski area.
The gondola now being contemplated would link Trailhead Lodge with the public plaza at One Steamboat Place. The One Steamboat Place development is scheduled to be finished by December.
Diamond said Thursday evening that Intrawest still would like to build the higher speed gondola in the future and understands that when that time arrives, the project will cost more money than it would have this year.
"We're just a victim of the current economic climate," Diamond said. "We want to do it. We're committed to doing it. Over the long term, we feel this is the right solution. Our efforts to date will not be wasted."
Asked whether it would be possible to someday replace Resort Ventures West's slower pulse gondola with a high-speed gondola, Diamond said it was "too early" to make that determination. However, he did not rule it out.
"We have the ability to replace (the slower gondola) under our agreement," Diamond said.
Ishida concurred. She said she did not want to think of the pulse gondola her company is committed to building as a temporary solution, but she acknowledged it could prove someday to have been an interim measure. "At some point in the future, we'll all sit down again," Ishida said.
The news about the gondola project broke in late April after Intrawest CEO Bill Jensen made a passing reference to it in a long interview with a reporter for the Summit Daily News while visiting Copper Mountain.
Resort Ventures West and Ski Corp. officials then convened a press conference to lay out the details of the project as it entered the public planning process. City of Steamboat Springs Planning Director Tom Leeson and City Manager Jon Roberts confirmed at that time their willingness to expedite the approval process because of the project's perceived public benefit.
Although it wasn't discussed during the press conference, the involved parties were aware that Intrawest's funding participation wouldn't be final until Thursday, when the ultimate decisions about capital projects for all Intrawest resorts were voted up or down.
"Basically, today was the fork in the road when the capital plan for Intrawest was approved or not approved," Diamond said. "Ours was not approved. The reason was the complexity of the global markets and all that mess. It was decided that now is not the time. When we can see that it's clearly a better time," the plans could be revisited, Diamond said.
Resort Ventures West principal and Chief Financial Officer Brent Pearson confirmed that he understood all along that there was a chance Intrawest would pull back from the project today.
Pearson said that although his company was not obligated to complete a gondola until 2012, it was important to continue with plans to build it sooner so that the gondola becomes tangible to buyers of luxury condominiums and home sites in the project.
"Even though there is money in the bank to build the gondola, we believe it's extremely important based on our vision for Wildhorse Meadows that we solidify that vision with our buyers and investors in Trailhead Lodge," Pearson said. "The vision is going to happen, and it's going to happen this year."
Ishida added that Resort Ventures West executives see a benefit to completing the gondola in conjunction with the completion of One Steamboat Place so as not to prolong construction activity. She added that gondola manufacturers Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr Garaventa U.S.A. continue to have strong interest in the project and engineering teams are essentially in place to start over with a different type of lift.