The Lodge at Blue Sky is seen as a large-scale example of agritourism, an approach that could reinvigorate the East Side
The gates at The Lodge at Blue Sky open very slowly.
They’re made of some kind of distressed metal and give off the impression the rust on them is intentional. They sit just past a guard house at the base of the hills on which High West Distillery’s Wanship location and a new hotel sit, and after the gates open, visitors can begin to climb the steep road that leads up to one of Summit County’s newest amenities.
Just past the distillery, the road sweeps around a curve and the hotel comes into sight, built into a hillside swell, blending in with the surroundings but for its sharp angles. The rounded hills rise in the background and a sense of rural stillness becomes apparent.
Curiously enough, the 46-room boutique hotel with access to heli-yoga and shuttle service to its private lounge at the base of Park City Mountain Resort can be seen, officials say, as an example of an alternative type of economic growth for East Side communities, one that might offer an alternative to subdividing their heritage into condominiums.
The scale of this project is just a bit different.
Agritourism attempts to attract visitors to places with existing, historical uses like ranches and farms. The concept has been around forever, said Summit County’s Community Development Director Pat Putt, but it’s evolving from the traditional corn mazes or pumpkin patches popular in previous generations.
Now, as consumers are more interested in where their food comes from and experiencing authentic regional ways of life, Putt estimates there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent nationally directly on these types of experiences.
Tom Clyde, the chair of the Eastern Summit County Planning Commission who lives on a working ranch in Woodland, said agritourism has been a hot topic in agricultural communities as ranchers and farmers attempt to make up for decreased revenue from their farming efforts.
But it’s easier said than done.
Clyde said building a corn maze would be nice, but he can’t get corn to grow more than 3 feet high on his property before it freezes. His land also appears to be well-suited for cross-country skiing, but it’s tough to imagine consumers driving out to Woodland to pay for something they can get for free in Park City. So he’s still thinking.
Larger-scale operations like The Lodge at Blue Sky, which sits on 3,500 pristine acres and features activities for every season like sport shooting, fly fishing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, seem more able to tap into the market than smaller operations trying to get into it.
County officials say that’s where they might come in — supporting nascent efforts and serving as a facilitator to bring interested parties together.
Jessica Cook, Blue Sky’s director of sales and marketing, said they’ve been successful in attracting consumers from big cities around the country with direct flights to Salt Lake City like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Cook said what they’re trying to sell is the experience of reconnection — connecting to the land, animals and nature, as well as to themselves and other humans.
Mike and Barb Phillips own the land on which the distillery and hotel sit. In the lobby of the hotel, Barb shared that her goal is to impress upon guests the benefits of sustainability — for the land, animals and humans. She said she hopes the guests take some of that sentiment home with them.
“We’re not just here to use up the land,” Phillips said.
What’s in Blue Sky
Pulling up to the circular drive of The Lodge at Blue Sky, there are the expected trappings of luxury — greetings with eye contact, doors being held open, cars being whisked away.
Floor-to-ceiling windows dominate the open lobby with views onto the hillsides beyond. A telescope sits on a tripod for those who want a closer look.
Eschewing the traditional front desk, “guest managers” begin a check-in conversation, often offering a beverage like housemade lemonade with muddled ginger and garnished with wild sage harvested from the property.
The hotel comprises 46 units across three different offerings, the Sky Lodge, Creek Houses and Earth Suites. The bar, restaurant and spa are all open to the public.
The five Creek Houses are standalone structures that overlook the Alexander Creek. Giant glass doors roll back to allow the noises of nature to bubble into the rooms, and drop-down screens keep the critters at bay. Tasteful art adorns the walls, much of it local, as are some of the bath products, which Cook said were infused with wild sage from the property.
Blue Sky also has an onsite farm that is planned to provide fresh produce for the restaurants. Lynsey Gammon, the director of farming, said she’s still in the early stages of getting the farm ready and hopes to plant next April. Right now, they’re “growing the soil,” using sustainable composting techniques and other efforts to enrich it. Gammon said she does not use tractors and the tilling is done by hand.
The farm is bolstered by a 2,200-square-foot greenhouse that features cutting-edge technology Gammon referred to as a climate battery, boring into the ground to use geothermal energy to regulate temperature and a special material to passively circulate heat.
The greenhouse, a 1,700-square-foot hoop house and other techniques enable Gammon to extend Utah’s short growing season.
Gammon said she plans farm tours and other educational opportunities. Barb Phillips, who runs an equine rescue foundation on the property, spoke about hosting a “little kids day” at the cattle farm, showing people how they raise chickens, take care of animals and tend to crops.
Blue Sky has recruited James Beard-winning chef Galen Zamarra to guide the culinary vision. Zamarra said he is already working closely with Gammon to plan menus featuring food grown on site. He said he has looked back on the last 150 years of history here to inspire the taste choices, particularly the Spanish, Mexican and Chinese cultures that all passed through the area.
He said he’s also studying Native American culinary traditions and trying to incorporate some of those tastes into his work.
On a recent chilly morning, Zamarra and an assistant could be found by a mountaintop yurt cooking on outdoor stoves. Zamarra was arranging a crab salad nested inside a roasted avocado for a private luncheon.
The yurt serves as the jumping off point for some of the recreational activities like axe-throwing, shooting and skiing.
He took a break to explain some of his motivations, indicating that it was important to him to incorporate local influences in his work. In an email, Zamarra wrote that agritourism could help bridge the disconnect today between Americans and their food.
At Blue Sky, for example, guests can directly experience the animals and plants that end up on their plates. That connection is something that Putt and others say is at the heart of the surging agritourism industry.
Zamarra also noted the cattle drives on the farm that would show guests the difference between grass-fed beef and what he called the horrors of a large factory farming feedlot.
“Too often, we only know the food we see in a supermarket shelf,” Zamarra wrote in an email. “The farm experience allows this deeper connection to food, which leads to a more profound appreciation of the producers, farmers, chefs and the food itself.”
Agritourism challenges and county support
East Side communities have felt the effects of growth on many fronts. As home prices rise, the next generation is less inclined to see ranching and farming as a viable way of life, and the temptation to subdivide land to provide another homestead or sell to developers is increasing.
Mike Crittenden, who is the spokesperson for the Cedar Crest Overlay Committee that is trying a novel approach to designing a new East Side town near Hoytsville, explained the goal of the group is ensuring the next generation would have a place to live so kids won’t be forced to move away to find employment and housing. That’s something many of his neighbors have been grappling with for years.
Agritourism is seen as another avenue to the same goal, one that would enable East Side communities to maintain — and hopefully profit from — a rural way of life.
Jeff Jones, the county’s economic development director, wrote in an email that agritourism is more of a marketing tool than an industry, and as such, competitors can actually complement each other by providing different attractions in nearby locations.
But to develop the market, Jones said it is key to gain an understanding of the customer base and create an ecosystem that would foster such growth.
He identified multiple ways in which the county could support those efforts, including taking stock of how zoning rules help or hinder new businesses and whether existing policies favor dominant industries.
Putt suggested the county’s primary role could be that of facilitator, bringing multiple stakeholders together to come up with potential solutions and then working with them to see them through.
He mentioned the county’s expertise in identifying and winning federal and state grants. One example of a path forward would be to gather a group of entrepreneurs interested in agritourism and then helping them do a market study to identify a potential customer base and what sort of businesses might be attractive.
Putt mentioned authenticity as being at the core of any such successful effort, pointing to the Summit County Fair, Oakley Rodeo and a recent trip he made with his wife to the Santa Fe Fiesta, an event that has been going on in New Mexico’s capital city for more than 300 years.
“Our society is hungry for that,” Putt said. “People want to have that experience. (They want) to break out of the sameness of everywhere.”