One of the largest crowds at a public forum in the Park City area in years on Thursday evening condemned with near unanimity the idea to build a gondola connecting Canyons Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort, rattling off numerous points, in what was seen as a critical event in the dispute about SkiLink.
More than 300 people packed the pews of St. Luke's Episcopal Church for a panel discussion involving some of the important figures in SkiLink. The forum was organized by a group called the Project for Deeper Understanding, which is not tied to either side of the SkiLink dispute. Although the event was not a part of the official SkiLink process, it likely offered a preview of the opposition that SkiLink will face should it advance through the governmental approval processes.
The crowd appeared heavily weighted toward the SkiLink opposition movement, and nearly all of the comments made by the crowd were critiques of the idea for the gondola connection itself or the federal SkiLink process that is ongoing. The crowd included a mix of people from the Park City area and those who live in the Salt Lake Valley. It is rare for a local forum to draw that many people from Salt Lake, but SkiLink has mobilized opponents along the Wasatch Front as well as in the Park City area.
Mike Goar, the managing director of Canyons Resort and one of the speakers, tactfully navigated the evening as it became apparent that the crowd was most interested in his comments. Canyons, more so than Solitude, has been seen as the resort that is promoting the idea of SkiLink.
In one of his key statements, Goar said Talisker Corp.-owned Canyons Resort does not see SkiLink as an opportunity for more residential or commercial projects along the route. There has been widespread concern among the critics that the Canyons-to-Solitude connection could spur growth in a pristine area between the Park City mountains and Big Cottonwood Canyon.
"We have absolutely no interest in any development," Goar said.
He also said SkiLink would not be an "expansion or development of Alpine skiing," a comment meant to assuage concerns about the effects of SkiLink on the backcountry.
SkiLink Public Forum - Mike Goar
Canyons Resort Managing Director, Mike Goar, discusses some of the aspects of SkiLink with the audience.
But Laura Briefer, who is with the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities and was also a panelist, outlined an argument against SkiLink as she spoke about the impacts on the Salt Lake watershed. She said other places have closed watersheds to public use in an effort to protect drinking water. Briefer said SkiLink is one of many ideas for development at mountain resorts, including connecting resorts. She said she worried about a "piecemeal approach" to the proposals.
Panelist Carl Fisher, the executive director of Save Our Canyons, one of the lead opposition groups, offered wide-ranging criticisms of SkiLink. He said the gondola connection will "jeopardize what the Wasatch means" to the area. He questioned an assertion by Canyons Resort that SkiLink will reduce traffic by ferrying people between the two resorts instead of them driving themselves. He said SkiLink is "myopic and shortsighted."
Dave DeSeelhorst, the Solitude executive who represented the mountain resort on the panel, disputed the claims about the effects on the watershed. He said environmental health is important to the resort. DeSeelhorst also spoke about what he sees as SkiLink's ability to increase competitiveness in the ski industry. He said modernization has occurred over the years at ski resorts and customers are searching for additional terrain. SkiLink, he said, does not represent a desire to expand Solitude itself but an opportunity to connect to another resort.
SkiLink, as it is envisioned, would link Canyons Resort with Solitude via a gondola shuttling between the two on an 11,000-foot line. The idea was unveiled in 2011 and depends on the federal government agreeing to sell approximately 30 acres of land to Talisker Corp. The opposition is incensed that Congress is considering the sale of federal land to the private sector for SkiLink. Canyons Resort argues that congressional SkiLink legislation, if it passes, creates a process for the connection to be considered. It does not approve the gondola outright, Canyons says.
The crowd on Thursday night was energized but mostly polite as the panelists presented their introductory remarks and then answered questions. The people in the audience ranged from high school students to senior citizens. A few of the questioners received cheers as they finished speaking. Some of the questions were salted with opposition messages.
One of the questions directed at Goar dealt with the gondola route that is under consideration. The person wondered why the alignment was crafted as it is. Goar responded that the route has been tinkered with in an attempt to minimize the impact."We're open to looking at other alignments," Goar said, also acknowledging that there are a limited number of potential gondola routes between the two resorts.
Another critic in the audience, Summit Park resident Andrew McLean, inquired about the prospects of connecting Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort, apparently instead of a connection to Solitude. The crowd offered McLean applause. DeSeelhorst, though, countered that business decisions take years and a connection like that is not as simple to create as some would believe.
Black Diamond CEO, Peter Metcalf, asks the SkiLink panelists a question during the SkiLink Public Forum.
Peter Metcalf, the president and CEO of outdoor equipment manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment, received applause as he told the panel outdoors enthusiasts oppose SkiLink. Goar responded to Metcalf by saying SkiLink does have supporters among outdoors companies and enthusiasts.
Some of the other points brought up during the forum included:
Charles Robinson, the pastor at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, ended the event with six people still in line to offer comments or ask questions with the microphone. Donna McAleer, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged for Congress last year on a platform that included SkiLink opposition, appeared to be the next person in line for the microphone when Robinson stopped the speakers and ended the evening.