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

Page 2

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.

High Country News Classifieds