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

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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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