Building a resort
Intrawest guidance actively reshapes Winter Park
December 24, 2006
Winter Park — Winter Park and Steamboat Springs both are small mountain ski towns serviced by U.S. Highway 40.
But the similarities do not end there.
Winter Park and Steamboat are not yet resort communities in which celebrities go to see and be seen, said Al White, the state representative from House District 57, which includes both cities. White lives in Winter Park, where he moved in 1972 to operate his business.
Both towns have a strong desire to overcome the challenges of growth and to keep a sense of community. Residents want the towns to retain the qualities that originally attracted them to Steamboat or Winter Park.
“They are more brother or sister towns than any other communities in Colorado,” White said.
And if Intrawest’s $265 million purchase of the Steamboat Ski Area becomes final, Steamboat and Winter Park will have one more thing in common. Intrawest has managed the Winter Park Resort for the past four years under an agreement with the city and county of Denver.
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Intrawest officials were quiet last week about what might be in store for Steamboat, but a look at Winter Park could provide some clues.
When Intrawest became the operator of Winter Park, company officials hosted community meetings and passed out surveys to find out what the residents of Winter Park valued most, said Catherine Ross, executive director of the Winter Park and Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“We found it was the small-town nature and open spaces,” Ross said.
Also included in the survey responses was this comment from a resident:
“Winter Park is a friendly, casual mountain community whose infrastructure needs some help. Our town is built around the history of our area, and great bump skiing, but the public transportation is weak and we still have dirt parking lots.”
Then there was the Winter Park resident who responded: “We love the laid-back feeling. Don’t add stuff.”
The business community and many of the residents knew that Winter Park Resort needed improvements to stay competitive with other ski resorts. But the community also wanted to keep Winter Park like, well, Winter Park.
“We didn’t want to be Whistler or Copper,” Ross said. “We wanted to be Winter Park.”
Intrawest coined the vision for the resort: “Making Winter Park more like Winter Park” by keeping a “real town with real values.”
In search of deep pockets
Gary DeFrange, Winter Park Resort’s vice president and general manager, was chief executive officer of the resort before Intrawest came to town. He was instrumental in choosing Intrawest as the operater that could make Winter Park a more profitable ski area.
“We went to the mayor of Denver and said we had to do something different,” DeFrange said Friday, two days after 24 inches of snow fell at Winter Park. “We looked at where we were and what we needed to do to stay competitive.”
The resort was losing market share, DeFrange said. Winter Park’s location put it in direct competition with the other resorts that compete for Front Range skiers. And not enough money was being spent on on-mountain improvements such as additional lifts.
“People wanted to see the resort grow because it will help get things in the community that people wanted,” DeFrange said. “We didn’t want to be a Vail or an Aspen. We’re going to develop this, but in a way that makes Winter Park more Winter Park.”
They identified a need to develop the base area with commercial spaces and residential units and put more money into the actual ski mountain.
“We knew that we had to get a village built, but we had no way to access the equity,” DeFrange said.
So Winter Park began the search for a partner.
A number of companies were interested, DeFrange said. Some were stronger in the area of real estate development, while others were more oriented to mountain operations.
Intrawest won because it was the most focused on the overall guest experience, DeFrange said, and that involved both mountain and off-mountain operations. Intrawest knew how to create a 24-hour experience.
“Prior to Intrawest, we thought of the guest experience from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the lifts were open,” DeFrange said.
The city and county of Denver entered into a long-term arrangement with Intrawest. As part of the deal, Intrawest had to develop the base area with retail and commercial spaces. And it had to put $50 million worth of improvements into the mountain during a 10-year period.
“We always had choices, and Intrawest brought it all,” DeFrange said. “I’m confident that we made the right decision. Had we stayed that direction, we would not be where we are today.”
Walking the walk
It’s been four years since Intrawest took over the operations of Winter Park, and the changes are evident.
The $1 million slopeside Discovery Center has been open for a year and serves as the sales center for The Village at Winter Park Resort base area development.
“By building the village the way we’re doing it, we’re hoping to increase the amount of business we do mid-week,” DeFrange said. “If we do it right, we should see more market share from within the state.”
The Discovery Center has a theater where a 15-minute movie explains Winter Park’s history. Locals give testimonials about what separates Winter Park from other ski towns. The entrance to the theater has many of those same locals pictured on the walls.
The first phase of The Village at Winter Park Resort likely will cost more than $100 million and includes two buildings with 194 residential units and a commercial village core with shops and a parking garage. There will be an ice skating pond, and the Fraser River will be a prominent feature through the development.
“They’ve really taken the time to make a village,” Ross said, adding that the Chamber wanted the village to be unique and to utilize natural elements such as the Fraser River. “It’s not cookie-cutter.”
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve changed the plan,” DeFrange said. “We already have a new village plan, and in fact we’ve taken it out of the planning phase, and we’re building.”
An open-air gondola will transport people from a large parking lot and drop them off at the entrance to the village core.
“You want traffic going through the core of the village,” said Matt Sugar, Intrawest’s Colorado communications director. “The economics of this is driving people through the village.”
Market demand will determine how quickly the village is developed, but plans call for 1,500 residential units built in the next 10 years. Construction of the commercial core will begin in the spring. The first residential units should be finished by next winter.
On the mountain, $21 million of the $50 million in guaranteed improvements by Intrawest during the first 10 years already have been completed.
The Eagle Wind triple chairlift opened Saturday, allowing access to the backside of the Parsenn Bowl area. Seven new ski trails also were added.
Last year, the Super Gauge Express six-pack chairlift opened, and another $8 million six-pack has been ordered for faster access to the top of Parsenn Bowl.
Extensive improvements also have been made to the terrain park and learning area, and snowmaking has been expanded.
Adapting to change
Intrawest’s arrival in Winter Park has brought a new layer of stability to the business community and increased Winter Park’s stature and property values, said Jon de Vos, owner of Allegiant Management, Winter Park’s largest property management company.
“Like any ski area – Steamboat knows well – the future of your community depends a lot on the character of the mountain operator,” de Vos said. “For so many years we were essentially operated like any city park in Denver – without being marketed.”
Still, many might have felt uncomfortable with a large company coming in.
“We went from being run by a not-for-profit corporation to being operated by the biggest ski company in North America,” Ross said. “Obviously there are some people who long for the old days and don’t like corporations. It’s not hard to find someone that doesn’t trust a corporation for a second.”
She said many in the community were comforted when Intrawest officials agreed that Winter Park’s small-town feel was its greatest asset. Intrawest President Alex Wasilov made a similar comment about Steamboat last week.
Ross said Winter Park still has a small-town feeling, and many locals are appreciative of the on-mountain improvements.
White said there were two different community perspectives about Intrawest’s presence.
Those in the business community focused on the benefits that accompany growth, while many long-time locals were concerned about the demise of the “laid back, ski-bum lifestyle,” White said.
“We’re trying to maintain that personality, but it’s difficult,” he said. “Still, I don’t know that we’ve noticed a whole lot of differences.”
Most agree the investment in and off the mountain has allowed Winter Park Resort to compete with other Colorado ski areas.
Winter Park has benefited from Intrawest, DeFrange said, and he thinks Steamboat will as well.
“They brought in expertise, they worked with us, and they didn’t tell us what to do,” he said. “We defended things we thought we were doing right.”
Intrawest officials have said it’s too early to tell what changes could take place or how much money might be pumped into the Steamboat Ski Area. They have said there is opportunity to market the company’s three Colorado resorts collectively, but there is no word on whether Steamboat will become a part of the Winter Park Resort and Copper Mountain pass.
Sugar described Steamboat as “a completely different animal” because Steamboat is more of a destination resort, with about 80 percent out-of-state customers. A majority of Winter Park’s customers are from the Front Range.
With the recent acquisition of Intrawest by global investment firm Fortress Investment Group, there is new potential for financing capital projects.
DeFrange said he has met with Fortress principal and Chief Executive Officer Wes Edens. DeFrange said Edens is an avid skier, and he is impressed with Fortress’ understanding of business.
“I was amazed by how much they understand our business,” he said. “They’re able to make decisions,” he added, citing the Steamboat purchase agreement just two months after Intrawest was acquired by Fortress.
Of course, there certainly are distinct differences between Winter Park and Steamboat.
Winter Park has undeveloped land and all the potential that comes with it. The sale of the Steamboat Ski Area does not include a lot of developable land.
Wasilov said Intrawest has looked at Steamboat’s base area properties that are for sale, including the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. And Wasilov has said Intrawest is buying the Steamboat Ski Area for its mountain operation, not necessarily the development opportunities.
“Steamboat has a great operation,” DeFrange said. “When Intrawest says we’re buying Steamboat for the resort operations, you can bet they are.”