Mountain Town News: What deals will be cut next week at Sun Valley gathering? |

Mountain Town News: What deals will be cut next week at Sun Valley gathering?

A roundup of news from other ski resort communities

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

What deals will be cut next week at Sun Valley gathering?

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — If past is prologue, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg will be among the titans of the new American economy in Sun Valley next week to compare notes and perhaps strike new deals at the annual conference hosted by Allen & Co.

Several years ago at the conference, Bezos — the founder of Amazon and the world’s second wealthiest person, behind only Bill Gates — forged a purchase of the ailing Washington Post. Other big deals have also been shaped in hallway conversations.

Among the politicians invited to attend this year is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, known as a business friendly governor with possible presidential aspirations.

The press is barred from the sessions. Even so, many major news organizations send reporters to note who is seen talking with whom when they venture into public during the four-day conference.

Last year, the average nightly rate for a terrace suite at the Sun Valley Lodge, where the conference was held, was $529, noted the Wall Street Journal. It also noted that 9 Gulfstream G650 jets were among those parked at the local airport during the 2015 event. Those jets go for $65 million each.

Big thoughts as Isaacson wraps up Ideas Fest stint

ASPEN, Colo. — The Aspen Ideas Festival wrapped up last Saturday after its now customary 10-day run. Under a big, white tent, Katie Kouric interviewed New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks about the cultural divide reflected in the election of Donald Trump but also, in a lighter moment, inquiring about their favorite vacation spots.

Friedman, although a frequent Aspen visitor, confided that he loved Yellowstone National Park and had only been there days before.

The festival was launched in 2004 after former Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson took over management of the Aspen Institute. The institute was launched in Aspen in 1950 but long ago moved operations to metropolitan Washington, D.C. Looking around for a big idea, Isaacson came up with the festival built around ideas. With his enormous Rolodex of contacts paired with the equally enchanting beauty of Aspen at the start of summer.

It can seem as if all the big players in Washington, D.C., and New York City are in Aspen for the festival, sprinkled with entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley — and well, just interesting people from all over.

“Guess we’re in Aspen. There’s Andrea Mitchel with General…” said one participant last week, as the NBC news correspondent casually walked by talking with somebody who has been in the news — a lot — lately.

That morning, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, thought to be preparing to make a run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, spoke, a view of the Maroon Bells was in the background. The next noon, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker — although considered an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party— was at the institute to answer questions from Amy Walters, a steady presence on cable TV shows. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, had stopped by to explain his thinking on the dismantling of statutes honoring Confederate leaders in the Civil War.

Isaacson talked about his newest book, about Leonardo da Vinci, to be issued in October. It’s the latest in a sting of books he has written while still having a day job at the Aspen institute. How do you manage to do it? “We don’t own a television,” he answered, an odd answer for someone who once oversaw CNN’s news department.

Isaacson is returning to New Orleans, where he grew up, to become a professor at Tulane University. As for the Aspen Institute, he said he believes surely there is somebody out there with new and better ideas. But to the extent that the Ideas Festival has succeeded, he attributed to Aspen itself, what he called the “secret sauce.”

“You get people in this mountain (town) and they are elevated in their thinking. …It’s not like going to something in Davos or in New York,” Isaacson said. “We’ve not yet cracked the code of how you would replace Aspen in Akron (Ohio) or Columbus (Ohio). I would like to see a way of taking Aspen (Ideas Festival) and making it part of American society, making it part of the world.”

But in returning to his old hometown, Isaacson also spoke of the need to reconnect, helping bridge the nation’s cultural divide. He said he believes the tension can be partly explained by how advantaged people have left their communities, while the disadvantaged have stayed home with fewer job prospects and less engagement in the information world.

“I think the divide between people who left their community and the people who stay should narrow,” he said.

The reconnection of communities on the local level must happen “if we’re going to cure ourselves,” Isaacson said.

Ranch in Cowboy State marketed to Chinese

THAYNE, Wyo. — Can über-wealthy Chinese be persuaded to buy ranches in the Rocky Mountains? A Texas-based marketing firm is confident enough of Chinese interest that it included a 299-acre ranch in a portfolio of 18 properties directed to wealthy Chinese.

Laura Brady, founder of marketing firm Concierge, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that lots of space, clean air and amenities such as swimming pools and tennis courts grab attention among wealthy Chinese.

“Those are aspects not available in China,” she said. “It’s such a populated area.”

Being sold at auction, the ranch was expected by one real estate professional to fetch between $20 million and $26 million. But will it sell to a Chinese buyer? Bruce Simon, a real estate agent in Jackson, said he believed that the property is too distant from Jackson, about 50 miles.

The News&Guide points out that Chinese investments in U.S. real estate were negligible until 2010. That changed. From 2013 through 2016, Chinese topped foreign buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Durango looking into a homeless campground

DURANGO, Colo. — Durango city officials have started talking about building a permanent campground for the homeless.

The ambition is inspired by a campground in Las Cruces, New Mexico, called Camp Hope. Opened six years ago, it has permanent bathrooms and showering facilities in an area proximate to services for the homeless. The permanence gives local officials the ability to better address fire and safety concerns.

The Durango Telegraph reported that Camp Hope is cited as a success because a large number of homeless residents at the campground have transitioned to permanent housing. That said, the cost of housing in the New Mexico city is far less than that in Durango.

Durango municipal officials estimate the campground would cost $250,000 to build on the city-owned land and $60,000 annually to operate and maintain.

La Plata County already has a campground in Durango with 25 campsites and 33 individuals living there. The campground is supervised by four hosts. Unlike what is proposed, however, the campsites are temporary in nature, leaving both safety and sanitary issues to be resolved.

Interstate 70 toll lanes proclaimed a success; more are planned

IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. — It works! That’s the conclusion of the Colorado Department of transportation two years after it put into place new tolling lanes on Interstate 70 between metropolitan Denver and the mountain resorts.

Citing a recent C-DOT report, Vail Daily reported that use of the express lane more than doubled during its second winter season. About 8 percent of peak-day traffic used the lane when it was open. Those motorists paid an average of $5 to $6 to move a little bit faster through the 13-mile segment.

Traffic congeals on winter and summer weekends. The trip from Summit County to Denver, which is about 75 miles and normally a little more than an hour, could take four hours if attempted during a Sunday afternoon.

There are several pinch points. One of them is at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel under the Continental Divide, where the highway is constricted to two lanes. Another narrowing is found in the Idaho Springs area, where three lanes narrow to two. A central problem is at Idaho Springs itself, an old mining town built long before interstate highways were contemplated. Space is tight. Expanding the footprint of the highway would have had devastating consequences for the town.

In response, C-DOT plowed $70 million into modification of the east-bound lanes in order to squeeze in a narrow toll lane. The intent is to add capacity to the highway by giving some drivers faster speeds, but in turn allowing everybody to go faster. Megan Castle, a spokeswoman for C-DOT, told Vail Daily that the added lane has reduced overall travel times in the three lanes for weekend and holiday afternoons anywhere from 26 to 52 percent.

Traffic moved faster even as the overall number of vehicles on the corridor increased about 9 percent last winter.

Castle said the express lane will lose its advantage if more than 10 percent of drivers choose to use it. If that happens, then tolls will be increased for the lane, in what is called variable pricing. The maximum charge would be $30.

With this success, several similar projects are planned to speed traffic on I-70 during peak times.
Margaret Bowes, director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit group of local governments and business interests, told Vail Daily that a similar express lane in the west-bound lanes is being discussed to pick up the pace on Saturday mornings and other times when it seems like half of Denver is trying to get to the mountains.

Yet another idea being discussed is a third lane to the top of Floyd Hill. If these are completed, then I-70 will have three lanes from Denver to Frisco — except for the tunnels at the Continental Divide. Adding capacity there will cost a lot more money yet.

What Trump presidency means for an arts center

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — There’s a tangible result of the Trump administration in Crested Butte. A group that had been trying to pull together money for the Mt. Crested Butte Performing Arts Center has thrown in the towel after eight years of strategizing and passing the hat.

Commitments had been made, but a $5 million gap remained on the $23 million plan. Directors had hoped to fill that gap with a low-interest, long-term loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under a rural development program. Bill Ronai, co-president of the board of directors, said one reason given for the rejection was that future budgets are expected to decline, given the Trump administration’s priorities.

“The terms were much less attractive, and thus we would have to raise more money from private donations. And that became more than we thought we could raise,” he told the Crested Butte News.

Tangled up in blue: water issues in Summit County

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. — The Blue River is a tangle of problems as it flows through Summit County. It originates along the Continental Divide, south of Breckenridge, and is soon impounded at a reservoir called Goose Pasture Tarn.

The reservoir was created in 1965 when a dam was erected on the Blue River, and it provides water for Breckenridge. But in 2015, evidence emerged that erosion was threatening the integrity of the dam’s spillway. Cost of a permanent repair is estimated at $16 million to $18 million — if done right away. Breckenridge, however, is building a new $50 million water treatment plant, with a completion date of 2020. The price will undoubtedly rise if the current economy continues to heat up.

A few miles down the valley, the river is next blocked by Dillon Dam. The dam was built by Denver in the 1960s. Water from the reservoir is shipped via a tunnel under the Continental Divide. Along with water from the Winter Park area, the Blue River diversion provides approximately 50 percent of the water for 1.25 million people in metropolitan Denver.

Below Dillon Dam, the river used to be classified as a gold medal trout fishery all the way to where it joins the Colorado River near the town of Kremmling. But a 19-mile segment of the river was stripped of that blue-ribbon fishing designation in March because the river just isn’t much of a place to go fishing. The Summit Daily news explained that there are fewer rainbow and brown trout in the segment, and those that remain are underweight.

What has gone wrong? Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier told the Summit Daily News that it’s a mystery. A water quality problem is among the possibilities. She wonders if the cold water released from the bottom of the dam is at fault. Trout thrive at between 54 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and what is released from Dillon is typically closer to about 46.

Long and winding road for real estate projects

MINTURN, Colo. — Some land development projects take generations to deliver. Two stories from Colorado’s Eagle County — one at Minturn, the other at El Jebel — speak to the seemingly slow-motion pace even in fast-growing mountain counties.

The news at Minturn, just around the corner from Vail, is that almost 4,700 acres of land atop Battle Mountain is for sale. The asking price is $19.5 million.

The price, in a valley where homes have sold for that much, should give you an idea that there are “challenges.” The land became private because of mining claims staked in the late 19th century. Farther down Battle Mountain, major mining continued at Gilman until the late 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, a trio of lawyers began buying up the old claims, often for back taxes, and lined up Vail Associates — the precursor to ski company Vail Resorts — as a partner.

Vail wasn’t in a hurry to do anything, in part because it had its hands full with a major ski area expansion that finally, in 2002, resulted in what is called Blue Sky Basin. The land holding only abetted the charge of environmentalists that Vail was about real estate, not skiing. Finally, Vail got rid of its interest in the land.

Next came Bobby Ginn in the boom-boom years of the 2000s. A real estate developer from Florida and other warm-weather climates, he had huge ambitions, including the continued idea of a private ski area amid mountain-top gated mansions. He sold Minturn elected officials on his vision before the recession of 2008-2009 took down his empire.

The land now has entitlements, but it also has problems. From the beginning, real estate professionals have understood the enormous costs of delivering roads and other infrastructure.

Now the real estate agents are extolling the virtues. One agent told a Vail Daily reporter last week that the property allows views of both the Back Bowls of Vail and Mount of the Holy Cross — something available from nowhere else. That’s true, but what he failed to mention is that to get these views would require being at 11,000 feet in elevation. That’s a tough acclimatization for somebody likely to be at sea level most of the time. It would also be a half-hour drive to Vail’s restaurants.

Battle Mountain Development Co., which got the property after Ginn went belly-up into bankruptcy in 2008, is hanging onto the property along the Eagle River in the area of Bolts Lake. This also has entitlements.

In the Roaring Fork River Valley, about 20 miles downstream from Aspen, another land parcel now several decades into gestation has been in the news. Twenty-five years ago, the parcel near Basalt was owned by the U.S. Forest Service and used as a tree farm. Now in private hands, the parcel is headed for development, including 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space.

The Eagle County commissioners approved the project by a 2-1 vote, a division mirroring community disagreement. “As anybody can see, the community is not of one voice,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, the dissenting commissioner, during a five-hour hearing.

Opponents argue that the project will produce too many cars and too many jobs while delivering too little affordable housing. Developer Ace Lane must rent 40 apartments at below-market rents and sell 10 condos with price caps. Moreover, 150 units are to have “resident occupied” restrictions. Development foe Ken Ransford says the commercial development will produce the need for more affordable housing units than the project will deliver.

Tim Whitsitt, an attorney representing a group called Save the Midvalley, warned of a “long string of litigation” if the commissioners approved the project.

Allen Best has edited mountain town newspapers for 20 years. He has served as managing editor at four different mountain town newspapers and is now living in metropolitan Denver. Visit for more information.