An unlikely Shangri-la

by Christopher Solomon

Steve Jenson twists the throttle of his hornet-colored snowmobile and rockets up the empty ski slope. At the top, where the motionless chairlifts wait, Jenson finally slows, and cuts the engine. The shattered quiet of southwestern Utah's high country knits itself back together. At 10,300 feet in the palm of the Tushar Mountains, frosted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir stand as silent as penitents in the December snow. The air smells of balsam and wintertime. A romantic would say it smells like Christmas; a cynic, cash. That's because Jenson and his colleagues are transforming this troubled but scenic ski area into an uber-exclusive resort to rival the finest anywhere. And in the process they hope to make themselves a great deal of money. 

"This is going to be our temporary upper lodge," Jenson says. He's dismounted and is pointing at something a snowball's toss away from the lifts. The building is vintage early '80s, the windows now dark, a slab of plywood nailed ignominiously over the door: the shuttered ski area's upper day lodge. We are here just six weeks after the Mt. Holly Club has begun selling memberships, and a certain amount of squinting is required to see Jenson's vision. "We're doing a full remodel on it," says Jenson, the club's president and CEO. "We're doing a 'European mountain feel': stone, timbers, some sort of a metal roof with patinas. Stone floors and hardwood floors. Venetian plasters on the walls. A nice, exposed, big-timber ceiling. There will be a restaurant, a lounge for people to have a glass of wine at night. A ski shop and a sales office."

That's just to kick off. "This whole flat area you see up here" -- with a finger he lassoes several acres of snow and fir -- "this will all be the Village Center": a 40,000-square-foot main lodge. Spa. Boutiques. Tennis courts. He throws his arms wide to embrace, well -- nothing but brooding spruce. "This is going to be the heart of the resort, right here."

Oh -- but he's nearly forgotten the golf! "The golf course surrounds this part of the resort," Jenson adds, spinning. Afterward, as we motor around, he'll point out black and green PVC pipes that periscope from the snow, marking future tees and landing areas: the schematics of a dream.

And yet something else lingers in the air besides Jenson's vision and the nip of frostbite. A closed ski area is a melancholy thing. Snow drifts in the doorways of vacant lift shacks. A sign for a ski run called "Rocky Raccoon" dangles forlornly. But it's more than that: There's a curious, low-humming tension. It's fed by the flame-red placards -- "Private Property -- Mt. Holly Club -- Members Only" -- that are nailed to most vertical surfaces, and by the memory of the people back at the clutch of slopeside condos. None of them smiled or waved as Jenson and his colleagues arrived.

Almost no one is making new ski areas anymore. The slopeside dirt of the established Vails and Tellurides? Gobbled up long ago. If you're an entrepreneur daring to dream an outsized dream -- say, building a posh country club on snow for the world's richest people -- you need a blank canvas upon which to boldly sketch your gilded ambitions. But what happens when you find such a place, only to discover that not all the natives share your passion for superlatives, your awe of stardust? Well, then you have two choices. You can woo the people until they swoon. You can shower them with goodwill and understanding, and bond with them over the contested dirt until the sweet-smelling lily of compromise blooms.

This is a story about the other choice.

Beaver, Utah, seems an unlikely exit for Shangri-La.

Beaver, population 2,500, is the seat of Beaver County, a tongue-depressor-shaped county in basin-and-range country. Here, a vast landscape that John McPhee once called "a delirium of sage" spraddles beneath southwest Utah's parched sky, interrupted only by sudden cardiac jags of mountains. Located almost exactly halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, it is a place in-between: the kind of spot where an industrial hog farm relocates when it doesn't want to bother anyone. Talk to residents and you get the sense that many of them love this place precisely because of this in-between-ness -- because it is neither Here, nor There. It is a county one-third the size of New Jersey with just 6,500 residents and not a single traffic signal. But it does possess one troubled ski area.

Eighteen miles east of town, up a twisting canyon where heat-loving piñon pines yield to water-loving aspens, lies the modest ski hill long known as Elk Meadows. Skiing first began there 35 winters ago, and struggled nearly from the start. Some five different owners came and went; at least three of them declared bankruptcy. Observers often blame the absence of a large nearby population center. "It's essentially become a running joke with residents because nobody's lasted," said Gene Gatza, who was general manager when the mountain closed for the final time in late 2002. "There have been all kinds of promises," said Gatza, who still owns a cabin by the slopes.

"You're always going to hear this: 'There's huge potential up there.' "

The latest to see potential were the Jenson brothers. Steve Jenson, the president and CEO of the Mt. Holly Club, is the former president and CEO of NStar Inc. and North American Lighting, a lighting and electrical company that engineers projects like Mobil refineries and service stations. Marc Jenson, 48, is Steve's older brother and director of marketing. He has a reputation in Utah as a hard-money lender, offering short-term, high-interest loans, or bridge loans, to individuals and companies. In 2002, he extended one such loan to Elk Meadows' cash-strapped owner, who defaulted and declared bankruptcy. Mt. Holly Club investors later acquired the property from a lender.

I met Marc Jenson a week before Christmas in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay, in a post-war rambler that he'd bought several years ago. He'd had it completely remodeled and now preferred that visitors call it the Cottage. An artificial creek holding brook trout coursed through a yard with a high fence. Inside, the Cottage felt like some European nobleman's alpine hunting cabin -- thick wooden ceiling beams the color of bitter chocolate, refinished pine floors, 19th century Henri Schouten pastorals on the walls. In a bedroom a duvet cover of Egyptian cotton bore the logo of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jenson explained that potential Mt. Holly Club buyers could come here before heading to Beaver to get a taste of the club's rustic sumptuousness.

Jenson himself seemed of a piece with the Cottage -- attuned to the finest things, and out of place with the neighborhood. Charismatic and intense, with a close-shorn head, he wore fashionable green boots, a heather purple cashmere sweater neatly tucked into True Religion jeans, an oversized gold Dolce & Gabbana belt buckle. On one wrist a chunky gold watch demanded attention. "It's Richard Mille," he told me when I asked about it. "It's very expensive."

Jenson grew effusive as he spoke about his vision for the Mt. Holly Club. A master plan calls for 1,204 homes and luxury condominiums spilling across 2,000 acres of revamped ski slopes (Ted Ligety, who clinched the 2008 overall World Cup giant slalom skiing title in mid-March with a Mt. Holly Club sticker on his forehead, is the club's director of skiing) and along the new fairways of a Jack Nicklaus Golf Club, one of just 25 in the world. Would-be members will pay $250,000 just for the privilege of buying dirt at Mt. Holly, plus $25,000 annually, and are required to purchase property immediately. The first piece of the first phase -- 21 "estate lots" averaging about an acre and bordering Fishlake National Forest -- was approved by the county in November. Prices start at $1.5 million. Jenson said he expected those prices to go up over time. The club expects many of its memberships to be bought by the very affluent from the coasts.

Though Marc Jenson said he and his brother had been thinking about a private club for a decade, he was quick to acknowledge a debt to the Yellowstone Club in Montana, the paragon of the genre. Yellowstone members must pay $300,000 and buy property in order to enjoy 2,200 acres of the club's trademarked "Private Powder." Bill Gates, Tiger Woods and Dan Quayle all own property there. Existing homes for sale start at $4 million. Jenson added that a lot alone at the Yellowstone Club recently sold for $16 million. "We thought, 'We can do that.' "

Is this what the ultra-rich want? I asked. "We have a philosophy that people of means are largely urban, but they have this wilderness fantasy," he said. Once they have their daily hike or swim in the Great Outdoors, "they want to go back to a lodge and have a glass of wine and tell their friends about the bear they saw." The Mt. Holly Club will be more like a resort than a home in the woods, he explained, offering abundant nature (national forest wraps the property) without depriving affluent clients of the comforts and amenities they expect, even at an altitude of 10,000 feet -- including a movie theater, no tee times, and "the kind of service that you get at the world's finest hotels." The club said that it had sold more than five memberships in the first few weeks after opening. A spokesman declined to provide updated membership numbers except to say that "there has been significant interest."

Entrepreneurs who've aped the Yellowstone Club have met with mixed success. In mid-2005, a group of investors led by Bob Foisie bought Vermont's Haystack Ski Area and soon announced the creation of the Haystack Club, a private resort with a plan to build 450 townhomes and condos, and a heli-pad for people coming from Manhattan. Today, all that remains are a gatehouse and a few townhomes. The club's treasurer, Tom Cross, blamed last year's lack of snowfall. Outside Plymouth, Vt., investors bought long-dormant Round Top Mountain and opened the Bear Creek Mountain Club to the first private skiers in 2001. Today, 47 families pay up to a $25,000 membership for a chance to use the postage stamp-sized ski area and its clubhouse. Even the Yellowstone Club hasn't been without troubles -- most dramatically, a lawsuit by Tour de France winner/investor Greg LeMond, and an increasingly bitter divorce between club founder Tim Blixseth and his wife. In the process a picture has emerged of a club that's a financial mess, albeit a gilded one. At press time, Tim Blixseth had reportedly agreed to sell his stake in the club to his soon-to-be ex-wife as part of the divorce settlement, and give Edra Blixseth full control of his erstwhile dream.

Still, the idea of the private ski area remains very viable, argued David Dillon, former president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association and former marketing director of the Haystack Club. "There's always a market for exclusivity," said Dillon. In fact, this past winter the Florida-based Ginn Company gained approval to build an exclusive community of 1,700 high-end homes and condominiums and a private, 1,000-acre ski mountain on 5,300 acres of land adjacent to the mining burg of Minturn, between the world-famous resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek. Wolf Creek, a small ski area and resort in Utah's Ogden Valley, about 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, announced in April that it has transitioned into a private club and resort, with real estate. 

The concept of private ski areas is hardly new to North America, though there have never been many, and the motivation behind them has changed, said John Fry, author of The Story of Modern Skiing (2006; University Press of New England). Originally, scarcity drove their creation; ski clubs started them simply in order to have a place to make tracks, said Fry. Ski areas designed purely to be exclusive evolved later.  

That trend dismays Fry, former editor of Ski magazine. "It just seems like a different type of spirit is coming into skiing, with this $25,000 to have a parking space next to the lifts, or a private dining room in the lodge," he said, mentioning amenities now available even at "regular" upscale resorts. "It's a reflection of our broader society, a greater divisiveness between the poor and the wealthy" -- or in skiing's case, he corrected himself, between the merely affluent and the own-their-own-jet set.

As introductions to the community go, the Mt. Holly Club's was a disaster.

The overflow crowd packed the public hall on Sept. 20, 2006. Word had spread that someone had big plans for Elk Meadows, and everyone wanted to hear about it. The first item on the Planning and Zoning Commission's docket was a proposal by the Circle Four hog farm to build barns to hold 42,000 more swine. It aroused little comment. Then Craig Burton, a member of the Mt. Holly Club team who had more development experience than the Jenson brothers, introduced himself and his colleagues. They all wore suits. It was the last time they would make that mistake.

First, the developer showed a video: A private jet landed amid the sage at the county's municipal airport. The video's narrator asked the crowd to imagine their own private jet swooping into town -- just a 22-minute flight from Las Vegas. The narrator asked them to imagine their driver chauffeuring them to a private refuge nestled among the peaks, with their mountain home already stocked with every possible amenity by a private concierge. Meanwhile, the voice continued, their private fly-fishing guide had already matched the hatch and tied the appropriate fly to their rod for the afternoon's fishing. A moose appeared onscreen. A moose! The crowd laughed: There are no moose in Beaver County. The Golden Bear appeared, too -- Jack Nicklaus -- standing at Elk Meadows, squinting at maps as he envisioned what would be the highest 18-hole golf course in North America. The soundtrack to the video: Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."

The video concluded, and Burton laid out the developers' proposal for a $3.5 billion project -- seven times the assessed value of all of Beaver County today -- spread across mountainside and alpine meadows. Many in the room, however, wanted to hear what came next. Over the years some 130 condos and cabins had sprouted next to the ski slopes, along with about 200 undeveloped lots -- most of them owned by people from Salt Lake City, or Las Vegas residents who liked to ski or escape summer's heat. According to several people who attended the meeting, Burton waited until after the video to drop his bombshell: Those owners could either sell to the Mt. Holly Club at fair market value, apply the value of their property toward a club membership, or trade their condo toward a piece of property outside the boundaries of the new club. The message was clear: The developers expected them to buy in, or sell out. 

The new developers were kicking off plans for land they didn't even own -- a fact driven home for Jim Bradshaw that night when he glimpsed a layout of the proposed resort that wasn't shown onscreen. "It looks like the Sun Valley Lodge is built on my existing condominium," Bradshaw, a Salt Lake attorney and longtime skier who owns a condo with his brother, recalled thinking. The shock Bradshaw and nearly a dozen other mountain homeowners I later spoke to said they felt soon turned to a boiling anger. The battle for Elk Meadows was on.

No matter what side people would fall on, everyone agreed on this: Beaver needs help. Business in town hasn't been the same since the interstate highway system routed the cars off Main Street decades ago, bookending it with exits for a McDonald's at one end and a Comfort Inn at the other. Today, the Sleepy Lagoon Motel really means it when it says "Vacancy"; feral cats stalk ducks around its algae-scrimmed lagoon. Across Main Street from the empty Sam's Furniture & Appliance, the movie-house marquee announces that the coming attraction is itself: "The Firmage Theatre -- Coming Soon." "You can't even buy a pair of socks. Dress socks, anyway," barber Hugh Blackburn complained.

Residents are divided over whether the Mt. Holly Club will be their economic savior, though. Farmers in this corner of the nation's second-driest state have watched the value of their water soar nearly 800 percent in the last few years, as demand increases, said Rob Adams, director of the Beaver County Economic Development Corporation. "There are opportunity costs to keeping that water in agriculture," said Adams. "What that means is that farming is going to be a tough proposition as time goes forward." The completed development would eventually generate $30 million annually in taxes for the school district, and more than $13 million to other county coffers, according to a study done by the Mt. Holly Club. And proponents argue that the massive development at the top of the watershed will be a fairly low-impact boon for the county, at least compared to projects like the hog farm, or the open-pit mine that's reopened a few miles west of Milford. (The mining company says it hopes to scratch or leach out 230 million pounds of copper, 719,000 pounds of silver and nearly seven tons of gold in just a few years.) "You couldn't write a better case for economic development," County Administrator Bryan Harris told me.

Several other Beaver County residents that I spoke to -- almost no one wanted to be quoted, saying the small-town backbiting had grown too hurtful -- said the developers had bought the ski area and deserved a shot with their new scheme. Still, they scratched their heads at the wisdom of building a golf course that will be snow-covered most of the year. And they wondered how easy it would be to get people to build multimillion-dollar homes beside a ski area that even its fans call modest. Erik Miller, a real estate agent and mountain property owner, said he wasn't entirely opposed to the club but felt frustrated by how the owners tried to steamroll opposition, and by plans that seem wildly unrealistic. "It's like putting a bunch of luxury boxes around a T-ball field and calling it Yankee Stadium," he said.

Opponents have a laundry list of concerns. They worry about the environmental impacts of so many homes and a golf course at the headwaters of the Beaver River, which irrigates the valley below. People like Dell Hollingshead, a local historian and the second-generation owner of Arshel's, a diner on Main, and his waitress, Linda Downs, said they worry about property taxes rising. They worry about how the newcomers will change the moral and social fabric of this small-town Mormon community.

Keep prodding a few of the most ardent opponents, however, and you realize that their furrowed-brow concerns about stream flows or blocked trails, however earnest, are only accessory affronts to a hotter, more bedrock outrage. For these critics, "Mt. Hollywood," as opponent Margaret Wellman calls the club, represents an assault on a rural way of life by something frivolous and unproductive, decadent even. "To me, who's not a golfer, a golf course is the biggest waste of water in a farming community," said Carol McCulley, president of BRAVE, an opposition group. "You can't eat golf balls." When the Utah State Division of Water Rights allows agricultural water to be transferred up a mountain to homes, "that is a terrible thing for a society to decide," McCulley said.

The Mt. Holly Club doesn't speak much about the sensitive issue of water. "We have plenty of water for what our approvals are right now," Marc Jenson told me, refusing to be more specific. He added that the club had purchased "significant amounts" of water from users down in the valley to augment what it already had. "Water is not one of our issues."

The fact that the club occupies land that locals long enjoyed hiking through and skiing on -- though it never was public land -- doubles the offense to McCulley and others. "It'll be the castle on the hill," she said near the end of our conversation, "and we'll be the serfs down here, and we won't be allowed to cross the moat -- to ski or do nothing."

A vigorous hearts-and-minds strategy by the developers after the initial sour public meeting might have cooled the Us vs. Them antagonism. The developers made some attempt at conciliation. But the next several months were, in the argot of skiing, a public-relations gongshow. Plans for buying and scraping the condos were immediately yanked. There was talk of building a fence or a wall to surround the club -- appropriate for a high-end gated community, condo owners like Miller said -- but the homeowners said they could never get a straight answer about exactly where the barriers would be. And would those homeowners be walled off from the ski slopes? At one point, overzealous security guards tried to run off some men who were legally fishing on Puffer Lake, a popular, public high mountain lake whose surrounding land had been purchased by the Mt. Holly Club.

The advertisements fomented more distrust: A brochure appeared on the Web site of the high-end Robb Report's Vacation Homes magazine, boasting that the club had 2,500 vertical feet of skiing (it has not quite 1,400 vertical feet) and "extreme snowcat skiing -- up to 12,000 feet" (that area is designated as non-motorized and roadless by the Forest Service). The club also has repeatedly run a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal showing a skier schussing before a backdrop of jaw-dropping peaks that definitely aren't the Tushars. (They look suspiciously like the Canadian Rockies.) By spring, an investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had arrived in Beaver to interview county officials about whether any misleading advertising had led to violations of the federal Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act. (A HUD spokesman declined to comment.)

The atmosphere grew even more poisonous once two opposition groups formed that winter as the developers crafted a development agreement with the county. One January morning, a private investigator named Steve Burdette knocked on the door of BRAVE's McCulley. Burdette said he wanted to talk with her about the Mt. Holly Club, and he asked her whom she was working with, she recalled. "He made an impression on me; he knew where I lived." The investigator also called on others who had problems with the club. A month later, after a Salt Lake Tribune reporter penned a probing, unflattering portrait of Marc Jenson and his background, a private investigator appeared in the reporter's neighborhood, asking about his habits. The reporter, Mike Gorrell, told me he was "reasonably certain" it was the same shamus who had shown up in Beaver.

Steve Jenson said that no one from the Mt. Holly Club hired a private investigator in either instance. But Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel told me he telephoned the club's offices after the January visits. Did anyone send a private dick to my county? Noel asked. Yes, the club said. Someone here did.

If the Mt. Holly Club was growing frustrated in trying to put its best foot forward, the developers weren't doing themselves any favors. Marc Jenson has a track record that might give a cautious investor pause. Jenson pleaded guilty in 1991 to making false statements to a financial institution and not filing his federal income tax and was sentenced to six months in a federal facility and six months of home detention. He has declared bankruptcy. Millions of dollars in state and federal liens have been filed against him over the years. When the previous owner of the Elk Meadows ski area went into bankruptcy, he accused Jenson, who'd made a short-term loan, of then colluding to defraud him and forcing him to default, according to bankruptcy-related papers. That allowed investors to buy the ski area for much cheaper than its appraised value of $20 million to $40 million. (The current club's developers eventually acquired the resort.)

And Jenson's troubles weren't behind him. In late May, he went on trial in Salt Lake City on four counts of securities fraud and one count of racketeering, accused of misleading investors who lent him millions of dollars as part of his plan to take over the Mongoose bicycle division of Brunswick Corp.

The shenanigans continued during the trial. The judge made the rare move of rejecting the first plea bargain, which didn't require Jenson to repay two victims any of the millions he allegedly lost them. Then, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced that he'd received pressure from both sides in the case, including a bribe attempt and comically bad threats: The AG said he'd received a picture of a young couple -- his future wife, with Jenson, at a high-school dance decades ago -- along with a headline intimating that his office's prosecution was motivated by old jealousy -- and that there was more such ugliness to come.

Jenson eventually agreed to a reduced charge of three counts of offering the sale of an unregistered security, a third-degree felony. The agreement to a "no-contest in abeyance" requires him to repay $4.1 million to two victims, but the charges will be swept clean if Jenson fulfills the terms within three years, said Scott Reed, chief of the criminal justice division for the Utah Office of the Attorney General. Jenson can still participate in the ownership, management and financing of the Mt. Holly Club.

In spite of this, and perhaps due to his considerable charisma and his proven ability to attract dollars -- "I have access to money like you have access to air," a plaintiff in a recent lawsuit quoted Jenson as saying -- the club has retained him as its marketing director. Asked how the legal issues had affected his work, Jenson told me, "It hasn't been much of an issue."

Stoked by Marc Jenson's past, speculation about the financial health of the endeavor became a parlor game among some locals. CEO Steve Jenson assured me that the club had the necessary financial wherewithal to get the project going, adding, "We haven't missed a payment."

Court and county records show a more tangled financial picture.

In February Dow Jones & Co., former owner of the Wall Street Journal, filed suit against the club in federal court for allegedly being more than a year delinquent in paying for more than $500,000 in advertising. The club was months late paying Beaver County at least $44,000 in taxes on several mountain parcels. As of mid-July, the Mt. Holly Club owed nearly $150,000 to the Elk Meadows Special Service District, the entity that Beaver County created years ago to manage some of the infrastructure up around the ski resort. The bills are for everything from attorney's fees to engineering fees to bond payments for a new water system. The club's debt included nearly $75,000 in assessments for the water system on nearly 50 parcels it owns. On July 15, the district filed papers saying that those lots were in default and would be sold in 90 days.

Such payments might seem a pittance, perhaps, for a multibillion-dollar resort in the long run -- but it's curious for a glamorous-sounding project that's trying to appeal to some of the world's richest people.

The hardball was far from over. As Beaver County crafted a development agreement with the Mt. Holly Club, a chief sticking point for the mountain homeowners was access to the ski slopes; without it, "I personally think we're gonna have dead-end property," said Brent Stapely, a local State Farm Insurance agent who owns two condos there. The club said it tried to compromise. But the two sides had very different ideas about what co-existence meant. The Mt. Holly Club wanted homeowners to agree to a ski "license" (revocable, including if non-members broke rules), a dress code and the right for the club to monitor non-members while they skied. (The homeowners' representatives balked.) "There's a sense of entitlement" by people on this mountain -- perhaps understandably so after so many years, said club spokesman Bill Quick. "But at the end of the day, it's still private property." Even so, last April, the county's planning commission sent to the Beaver County Commission a development agreement that did include a guarantee of ski access for homeowners.

At the last public hearing, however, Burton declared the ski-compromise a dealbreaker for the club. The county commission removed the ski compromise at its next meeting, and that night approved the development agreement. The Mt. Holly Club received its stamp of approval. Exclusivity, Steve Jenson said when asked about the last-minute change, "is the hallmark."

Two opposition groups sued soon after, claiming among other things that the club's agreement with Beaver County should be subject to a referendum. In July, a judge ruled the development agreement valid and not subject to referendum. As opponents mulled their options, a letter arrived by certified mail in some mountain homeowners' mailboxes. In the letter, CEO Steve Jenson threatened to sue them personally for the loss of millions of dollars "as the result of unlawful delays." The threatened suit had all the hallmarks of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or a SLAPP, said Sean McAllister, executive director of the University of Denver's SLAPP Resource Center. Such suits rarely hold up in court -- Utah has a law against them -- but they are often filed to intimidate opposition, said McAllister. The homeowners' group did not join an appeal.

But the Mt. Holly Club continued its eyebrow-raising tactics even into the Capitol hallways. This May, Utahns discovered that little-noticed wording had been slipped into a simple-seeming "housekeeping" measure, said BRAVE attorney Joel Ban. The new law appears to bar voters from making land-use ordinances (such as the one that birthed the Mt. Holly Club) subject to a public vote.
A lobbyist who pushed for a version of the legislation that was enacted has the Mt. Holly Club as a client. Though the law's constitutionality is debatable, the Mt. Holly Club wasted no time taking advantage of it: The day after the law took effect, attorneys for the club's developers and Beaver County filed briefs with the Court of Appeals, suggesting that the citizens' suit was moot because it ran counter to the new law. The Court of Appeals kicked the case to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

In the meantime, the club says it will open this fall. The pace is clearly more modest than eight months ago, however: Marc Jenson told me excitedly in July that one of the summer's achievements will be "a brand-new beautiful gatehouse" for the entry. And skiing won't be done by chairlift this winter, but by snowcat on the existing slopes because the new chairlifts have not been purchased. The club won't say how many people have purchased memberships. Jenson did say that a sales office was to open in August in Newport Beach, Calif., in the heart of where the club expects to draw many of its wealthy clients.

As for the lingering community troubles, the Mt. Holly Club insists that it has been more than patient, and a very good neighbor — holding weekly coffee meet-and-greets to answer questions, letting schoolkids sell the old ski-rental shop's inventory for school programs and matching the proceeds to the local school district, a $40,000 donation in all. The club kicked in money to help Beaver High's cheerleaders go to nationals, Jenson told me. I asked him if the project would have gone over better if the developers had decided to be less aggressive in their tactics. "I'm very aggressive," he replied. "We wouldn't apologize for our process at all." He added, "People who are going to oppose are going to oppose no matter what."

Hardcore opponents just don't want to believe that the project could be good news, the developers said. "The residents there, in a year or two, they'll look back and say this is the greatest thing that's happened to them," Marc Jenson told me over lunch with his brother and two public-relations people, the morning after we'd left the Cottage. He mentioned everything from new school buses, a new recreation center and stoplights, to "high-paying jobs." Here I stopped him, because this really was the crux of the matter — that is, what would be the legacy of the Mt. Holly Club for those who wouldn't own a manse, or who pimp the dirt? Locals, I told Jenson, were skeptical that Beaver-area workers and companies will see many of the high-end construction jobs (though a builder who relocated to Beaver from Las Vegas a few years ago will now be a "master developer partner" and the builder of facilities for the club, Jenson said in July). And when those jobs move on, what remains other than low-wage jobs waiting tables in the clubhouse, or buffing mansions?

Jenson, as usual, wasn't caught without a response. "Rich people love to tip," he replied with a smile. A moment later, he added, "And they'll be able to work with some really high-quality linens." He smiled again, and it was hard to tell whether that smile wanted to be taken seriously.

Seattle writer Christopher Solomon writes frequently about the intersection of recreation, culture and the environment. He is a former Seattle Times reporter.

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