Once considered a done deal, a planned ski resort near Steamboat Springs, Colo., suffered a major setback in early June when the principal investor pulled out.


Houston-based spokesman Jack Crumpler said the decision by Mitchell Energy to "no longer participate in the funding and active development" of Lake Catamount doesn't kill the resort. But it does stop the project in its tracks before a shovel-full of earth has been turned. - 'A hiatus' is a good choice of words," said Crumpler.


Lake Catamount Joint Venture - a partnership between Mitchell and former Steamboat Springs ski area owner Martin Hart - had so far spent $20 million while seeking other investors. Mitchell Energy, which provided the bulk of the funding to date, will retain its majority ownership stake in Lake Catamount and hopes to split it 50-50 with a future investor, according to Joint Venture manager Jerry Blann.


Mitchell Energy, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, recently went through a corporate restucturing. That resulted in Mitchell's decision to pull back fromLake Catamount and to focus on Mitchell's 25,000-acre Houston-area development, The Woodlands, destined for 52,000 households.


The 3,266-acre Lake Catamount proposal, which got a Forest Service go-ahead in 1993, called for a new ski area seven miles south of Steamboat Springs capable of hosting 12,000 skiers per day - about the same capacity as Steamboat Springs' existing ski area on Mt. Werner. A marina, two golf courses, 3,750 condominiums and single-family homes, and hotels and shops were also planned.


Now, the Steamboat Springs office is being closed and staff let go. "I thought I'd spend the rest of my career here," said Blann, who previously ran the Big Bear, Calif., and Aspen, Colo., ski resorts. "But things happen."


The Catamount resort has been controversial since it was proposed as a venue for the 1976 Olympics. "I think the town is very relieved," said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Back Door Sports and a 17-year Steamboat Springs resident. "It was one of those projects that we didn't have control over. It wasn't a natural, evolving kind of thing. It didn't evolve for the needs of skiing or business or more housing. It was something that was going to change the nature of the town very drastically."


The Forest Service permit issued for Lake Catamount requires the master development plan for the resort to be completed by 1998, and construction on the first phase - the ski area - initiated by 2003. Should those deadlines be missed, the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest Supervisor would decide whether to revoke the permit.


Blann and Crumpler insist that won't happen. "It is our intention," Crumpler said, "to maintain the validity of the permit." But, he added, "there are so many unanswered questions."


The recent boom in mountain real estate has not been sufficient to draw big money to the project, which Blann estimated would take 25 to 30 years to build out. The first phase, he said, would cost $100 million; he wouldn't venture a guess as to the rest.


"The real estate situation in this town and all over the Western Slope is just moving so fast," said businessman Van De Carr. "I'm really glad to slow it down a little bit. I'd almost rather see an economic recession than have such rampant development."


* Hal Clifford





Hal Clifford writes from Aspen, Colorado.