If you build it, will they come?
Big Water (nee Glen Canyon City), Utah, sits west of Lake Powell in the middle of the desert. It's not the most obvious place for a town -- in fact, there wasn't anything there at all until a man camp for dam workers was constructed in 1950. In the 1980s, it was reborn as a polygamous colony, and then a libertarian haven, and then as a town known for electing an openly gay mayor and decriminalizing marijuana. Today, Big Water is home to about 400 people, and you can pick up a decent modular home for less than $100,000.
Big Water may also be on the brink of becoming a multimillionaires' mecca. A couple of months ago, a handful of 5,100-square-foot homes -- each with floor-to-ceiling windows and a pool replete with meditation platform -- went on the market, each going for a cool $7 million. These "villas‚" are part of the ultra-exclusive Amangiri Resort & Spa, which is emerging from the red rocks and dust not far from town.
Seems a bit odd, doesn't it? Don't get me wrong; southern Utah is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Still, it's not Sedona or Aspen or Park City or even Scottsdale. Amangiri will be a lot closer to a coal-burning power plant and a mothballed uranium mill than to, say, a world-class cultural center or even Vegas. Why on earth does resort developer Aman, which runs high-end digs all over the world, think people will fork out $7 million for a place in the middle of nowhere?
The same thing could be asked of the folks in this issue's cover story, who have plans to transform a modest ski hill near Beaver, Utah, into a luxurious private community. As Chris Solomon points out, Beaver seems like a more natural location for a hog farm than a resort. The ski hill lacks the world-class terrain of a Jackson Hole, and it's more likely to evoke images of a low-budget family ski trip than of high-end trophy homes and plush apres-skiing lodges.
And yet, these developers may be on to something. Critics point out that the Tellurides and Aspens of today derive their current cachet more from ginormous homes, exclusivity and luxury than fresh powder. If that's true, then why couldn't someone take a little piece of Telluride and plop it down next to a little ski hill somewhere in Utah, and open it to high-rolling members only? Why shouldn't you be able to take the ritziest slice of Santa Fe or Sedona and rebuild it in the Utah desert? What missing in ski terrain can be made up for with exclusivity, and with enough money, you can even imbue a small slice of Utah desert with a decent facsimile of art and culture.
Looked at through this lens, maybe Big Water and Beaver aren't such weird places for exclusive resorts. Unlike Aspen or Vail, they offer relatively blank slates onto which dreamers can overlay their visions of grandeur. Still, such dreams depend entirely on the wealthy buying into them. And with the economy in a slump, that sort of money isn't flowing so freely anymore. Meanwhile, other fledgling resorts, such as Tamarack in Idaho, are hitting the financial skids, throwing the prospects of any new, high-end resort into doubt.
Amangiri is proving that you can build something that looks a lot like Shangri-la in the empty desert. But will the ultra-rich actually flock to this private little paradise? Or will they just speed by on their way to somewhere else, as though it were just another mirage that tricks the eye for a moment before fading back into the dust?
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.