An unlikely Shangri-la

Little room is left for new development at the West's established resort towns, so entrepreneurs are turning second-tier ski hills into private enclaves for the jet set. But will the new resorts fly?

  • A lone skier on the slopes of the former Elk Meadows ski area near Beaver, Utah, now the private Mt. Holly Club.

    Courtesy Mt. Holly Club
  • Steve and Marc Jenson at a strategy meeting last fall.

    Courtesy Mt. Holly Club
  • Trophy Mountain Construction president Scott Hoffman, right, talks about building plans to guests at the Mt. Holly Club this summer.

    Garrett Davis
  • An artist's rendering of Mt. Holly Club, including a Jack Nicklaus golf course (middle left) and ski runs.

    Courtesy Mt. Holly Club
  • Children are reflected in the windows of Main Street in Beaver, Utah

    Garrett Davis
  • Industries like Cache Valley Cheese Factory have been the mainstays of the local economy.

    Garrett Davis
  • Dell Hollinghead's Arshel's diner.

    Garrett Davis
  • Carol McCulley, Julia Moore, and Margaret Wellman, members of BRAVE (Beaver River and Varied Estates), discuss their concerns about the new Mt. Holly Club

    Garrett Davis
  • The old ski lift at the former Elk Meadows ski resort won't be used this year. Instead, Mt. Holly members will use snowcraft to ascend the slopes.

    Garrett Davis
  • Puffer Lake, a public lake that already has been the scene of confrontations over public access.

    Garrett Davis
  • Slopeside condos no longer have access to the ski slopes of the former Elk Meadows ski area. The Mt. Holly Club originally planned to buy out all the condos and make the area part of the club, but quickly backed off after some owners balked.

    Garrett Davis

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."

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