FEATURE: All Hail the King

By on September 20, 2016

Digging into the plan that will transform the town hill.

160921coverfeat-1

 Snow King celebrated its 75th birthday in 2014. It barely made it. This is part one in a series that will explore Snow King’s past, present and proposed future.

JACKSON HOLE, WY — Feelings toward the cherished “town hill” have never wavered. It’s a state icon. Old-timers recall spending long winters at Wyoming’s first ski resort, learning to ski on old planks the size of paddleboards and tobogganing back down to their idling Plymouths. The base area was so sacred then, maps of the 1950s indicate it was referred to as the “Holy Land.” Then a rope tow, then a chairlift, then its heyday.

Somewhere along the way time passed Snow King by. As a business enterprise, a graph of Snow King’s revenue stream from 1939 to 2016 might look a little like a silhouette of the mountain itself. Its peak years at the summit are a distant memory now, and present-day prospects wallow in the foothills at the base of a mighty mount that has served its people well.

New ownership at Snow King Mountain has something previous proprietors never had: deep pockets. A team of the valley’s heaviest hitters, including Max Chapman, Richard Sugden and John Tozzi, assumed ownership of Snow King in late 2014 for a reported $23.75 million.

The group, led by Chapman as its president, proposing significant upgrades to the aging resort was met with a degree of predictable pushback that most changes in Jackson Hole elicit. It’s a sink-or-swim gambit to preserve a legacy, ownership says. Opponents, however, call it Disneyland in the making.

A sleeping giant of development potential lies slumbering at the base of a mountain once known as Kelly Hill. About 600,000 square feet of commercial development entitlement is still waiting to be tapped since approved by town and county leaders at the turn of the millennium. That’s six Marriotts, 12 K-marts, or 20 Mangy Mooses.

The unrealized real estate growth has more than a few casting a wary eye at Snow King as the struggling ski resort proposes big changes to the beloved town hill.New ownership says the added bells and whistles—which include a new gondola, zip lines, a 5,000-square-foot summit restaurant and planetarium/observatory, and expanded skier terrain—are all necessary to keep the King alive.

Will the quaint town hill retain its charm as Chapman and company squire it into the modern age? Or will it morph into an expensive megaresort locals hardly recognize?

Back in the day

Bob Lenz, the elder statesman of the Jackson Town Council, remembers skiing Snow King in the mid-60s. “It was the ‘town hill,’” he said. “You put your kids in Bill Briggs’ ski school and they spent all day there. We live three blocks away. There was a group of about eight kids including mine that lived in the neighborhood that skied it all the time. They knew every trail, every bump, every log. They covered that thing.”

Locals called it Simpson’s Ridge or Kelly Hill. By the 1920s, the popularity of alpine (downhill) skiing began to overtake traditional nordic skiing as the preferred winter leisure sport. It couldn’t have suited Snow King better. The mountain boasts one of the country’s steepest vertical drops (1,568 feet of sheer terror for the novice).

In 1926, innovator Mike O’Neil made the valley’s first documented ski jump on Snow King. He was also the first to use two poles instead of one. The “Hoback Boys” (Banty Bowlsby and the Hicks brothers—Sam, Ed, and Joe) entertained locals through the 1930s with their trick skiing. Their high-speed ski circus show featured jumps through hoops of fire.

Neil Rafferty, Fred Brown, Jack Yokel, and Grover Basset all helped promote skiing in the valley and Rafferty, in particular, was instrumental in establishing Snow King as the state’s first ski resort when he fashioned a rope tow with cast-off equipment from a Casper mining company and an engine from an old Ford tractor. Snow King officially opened in 1939. By 1946, Rafferty put in a chairlift, this time powering the apparatus with an army pickup truck.

The resort enjoyed tremendous popularity and growth through the 1960s, as many ski resorts across the country did. In all, 107 ski resorts opened, nationwide, during the decade. Wyoming resorts born in the 60s include Snowy Range ski area (Laramie) in 1960, Hogadon (Casper Mountain) in 1961, and Big Horn ski area (Ten Sleep) in 1963. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Targhee came online in 1965 and 1969, respectively.

As Snow King Mountain approached 75 years of community service, cracks were showing. The aging Ramada (now Snow King Resort), a 204-room hotel built in 1976, was falling apart. It was dated, and looked it. The ice rink was run down as well. The resort’s owner, Manuel Lopez, began falling behind financially.

Through the 2000s, Snow King was hemorrhaging money—from $500M to $800M a year, Lopez claimed. He owed the town $129,000 in back payments for the lease on the ice arena (now called Snow King Sports and Event Center) and eventually surrendered it to them in 2011. He also began selling off parcels of land at the base of the hill. Jim Walters (Crystal Creek Capital) bought two, where construction for high-end condos is slated to soon break ground.

When Lopez found himself in a reported $14 million in debt, it was his investment partners who stepped up year after year to bail him out.

“The real miracle is those partners kept Snow King and the hill running since the 70s. Those partners kept investing, they kept it alive,” Lenz said. “Clarene [Law], [Richard] Sugden, that group; you’ve got to take your hat off to them. You’ve got to thank them for that.”

To keep money coming in, Lopez parted with the hotel in 2012. He sold out to JMI Realty, a real estate developer out of San Diego. In a subsequent deal, Will Gustafson (Top of Podium LLC) was under contract for a five-acre parcel at the base of Snow King. That eventually fell through as Chapman’s team of investors (SKMR, LLC) swooped in and took over ownership by November 2014.

North facelift

Since Lopez, who died in January 2015, relinquished control of the King, massive improvements have been made to the resort and ski area. Some $17 million was poured into a hotel makeover. Center Management Inc. (CMI), a nonprofit operation now running the ice rink, secured a $250,000 grant from the Wyoming Business Council (WBC) in 2012 and has made significant upgrades to the arena.

160921coverfeat-2

The ski area has also benefitted from an influx of cash. Enhanced snowmaking was made possible by a low-interest $1.5M grant-loan from WBC. Chapman says he also pumped $8 million into the new Rafferty Center and lift that Stanley called a “game-changer.”

What exactly are Snow King reps proposing in Phase 2 of their master plan? Chapman and general manager Ryan Stanley briefed the town council recently with the main components of the next steps toward making Snow King a viable and sustainable resort. Chapman said Phase 2 consists of primarily three goals: a gondola, summit facilities, and expanded terrain on the east and west flanks of the resort.

“We have a 35-year-old lift that takes 17 minutes to get to the top. We want to replace it with a modern device we call a gondola [that will take eight people up there in eight minutes],” Chapman explained to the council. “We have a 50-year-old facility called the Panorama House which is falling down and quite frankly a blight on this community. We would like to replace that with a first-class restaurant and possibly a ski school. We would also like to enhance—somewhat limitedly—the area of intermediate [and beginner terrain] skiing. It’s very hard to ski from the top of Snow King.”

SKMR has two master plans. One is specifically for the Forest Service that pertains to skiable terrain leased from the Bridger-Teton. The other is for the town of Jackson for the base area of operations.

Currently, BTNF officials Dale Dieter and Ray Spencer are waiting on Snow King and the town to come up with an agreed-on vision for the resort’s Phase 2 plan. Once the details are worked out, the Forest Service will begin a NEPA process. Improvements to the ski area are aided by the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011—a revolutionary bill that allows ski resorts leeway in remaining a feasible business venture in the U.S. Still, Stanley says he expects any approval from the Forest Service to take up to two years.

SKMR would like to extend skiable terrain by about 84 acres—reaching out to the east (to Rancher Street) and west (to Rodeo Drive), and increasing total acreage used to 221 acres. They say this is necessary for two reasons: they need a road to the top and they need more gentle terrain for novice skiers. The added terrain would allow SKMR to move ski school students to the top of the hill in the sun where they could be warmer and more comfortable.

“Look, we are a failing ski resort. We don’t have enough skiers coming to pay the bills. That’s what the problem has been for a long time,” Stanley said. “We had 40,000 skier days last year. The Village had 550,000. Anything under 100,000 is a dying ski resort. I think we capture two percent of the destination skiers that come through the airport. If we could bring that up to four or five, that might help our cause. So we are trying to attract more skiers by targeting beginner and intermediate skiers, and providing more terrain that appeals to them because the mountain is pretty darn steep.”

The added terrain has some worried about lights and infrastructure infringing on wildlife and habitat, especially to the east toward Cache Creek.

Shane Rothman once worked for Snow King. A neighbor and avid user of the resort for many years, Rothman is at the helm of Free Snow King, a website and Facebook page he launched to raise awareness about changes on the horizon for the town hill. “I’ve always thought that Snow King would be kept in bounds, inside their footprint, and never thought they would propose an expansion into critical habitat, I’ve always felt that riding in this area was ‘barely legal’ and discouraged,” he said.

Longtime Snow King neighbor Patty Ewing believes development within the current boundaries of the ski resort will have major impacts to the town of Jackson. She also says further encroachment onto public lands will be detrimental to wildlife and its habitat.

“The impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat will be significant,” Ewing said. “The area east of the existing Snow King boundary provides habitat for deer, elk, moose, cougars, occasional wolves, coyotes, fox, pine martens, flying squirrels, weasels, and myriad bird life including owls, hawks, goshawks, as well as numerous small bird species. These critters have been here since we moved into the neighborhood in the early 60s and were certainly documented much earlier than that.”

160921coverfeat-3

Lenz agreed: “I don’t think [the town] has much to do with the east. That’s all Forest Service, and you’ve got to be careful about the wildlife habitat to the east there.”

SKMR’s earlier plans for expansion included “out-of-bounds” skiing on the backside of Snow King into Leeks Canyon that would have brought the total skiing area to 614 acres. Stanley says Bridger-Teton officials weren’t too keen on that idea, preferring the resort stick to the north-facing slopes. Some worry, though, that plan is still on the backburner.

“A short lift on the backside would’ve been the biggest future expansion imaginable,” Rothman said. “Just because they need a road that requires an extension of their boundary, they are asking to expand even further. That’s the way developers work: they ask for too much, and then most developments need to be scaled back to respect the public, community priorities and wildlife.”

Stanley assured: “The master plan shows only east and west in terms of the expansion, which is a pretty meager one. That’s kind of the full buildout. We are not talking about going back in 10 years [looking for more]. Obviously people can think that but that’s the reality due to the sensitive nature of the environment back there to the south. I don’t think we will ever see anything further happen. Not to the south.”

Rothman, however, is still worried SKMR won’t stop there, and anything they get will open the door for other ski resorts across the nation to bloat themselves in kind.

“There is no other ski area in the USA that borders a jungle as wild as ours. The backcountry experience at Snow King is incomparable to anywhere else. Even thinning under the guise of fire protection will open the door plenty. If this one goes, anything goes, anywhere,” Rothman said. “Only Max Chapman knows where Snow King is headed in terms of future ownership, and he is a proven investor, not a skier or philanthropist.”

Town downhill

The master plan submitted to the town does not specifically mention attractions proposed that have already gone in. Things like a rebuilt Rafferty lift and corresponding ski runs, improved snowmaking infrastructure, as well as a new ropes course, alpine coaster, and miniature golf course were all added piecemeal with easy approval from town leaders.

“In a rush to get these projects completed to get the resort in the black, the owners of Snow King got them approved with minimal analysis and comment from citizens, denying our community an opportunity for public input,” wrote Craig Benjamin, JH Conservation Alliance’s executive director, in a recent guest opinion for The Planet.

Benjamin points out Snow King’s master plan is 16 years old and needs updating so the community knows exactly what changes are coming down the pipe.

“It is important to answer basic questions,” Benjamin said. “Where are people going to park? How are people going to get there? Where are new employees going to live? Where will all the new sewage go? How can we protect wildlife and habitat? How do we ensure this private investment results in benefits for locals and keeps Snow King the heart of our community?”

Stanley said he doesn’t think the plan needs to be updated. It was amended in 2014. The perception that Snow King has lately taken a “ready, fire, aim” approach when it comes to getting town approval is “laughable,” according to Stanley.

“That’s so far from reality that it’s funny. Because we have never done a single thing up here without going through the approval process with town,” Stanley said. “Frankly, it’s fairly amazing what a ski resort has to do to simply cut a tree down here or there, or to fix a water line. We have to deal with multiple entities and it’s not easy. While that might not be the perception in the newspaper for whatever reason, the reality is we even went to the town for permission to start talking about Phase 2 stuff.”

The Troyans—Jeana and Gary—bought a place at 935 Snow King Drive in 2002 specifically to be adjacent to the national forest where they thought they would be protected from the noise, traffic and lights associated with a big city. Jeana said she and her husband are “saddened and concerned” the 2012 Comp Plan is being ignored.

“As I understand the 2012 Plan, there are to be no new planned resorts created, and existing resorts should be limited to their existing footprint. I see that the new owners of Snow King Mountain Resort have a grand new design for the town’s hill and do not wish to be limited to the 2012 Comp Plan,” she said. “This new group of owners knew when they purchased the property the standing rules for development. Do they presume that their money and heavy-handed influence take preference over the years of public input and professional consultants’ opinions that formed the 2012 Comprehensive Plan? Why do they think their groups’ wishes to increase the size and scope trump the plan?”

Lenz, for one, said he was unfamiliar with that provision in the Comprehensive Plan.

As far as mitigating the need for additional employees, Stanley said that’s par for the course with any business in the county, and for the first time since he’s been with Snow King, the ski hill aspect is housing their own this year. A traffic study is currently in the works. SKMR hopes to present it to town leaders before the end of the year. Stanley doesn’t think parking will be a problem, either.

“People have this perception of parking issues at Snow King, but they are not related to the ski area. When you look at when we have parking problems, there is a Jackson Hole Live concert, there is a People’s Market or a hockey game. None of those are driven by skiing because there’s not that many people coming here to ski, and in the summertime when we have actually started to become a bit busier, there wasn’t a single day this summer that the parking lot was full related to the activities we were doing,” Stanley said. “From what I can tell and observe the shared parking that has been going on for a long time between the hotel and the condos and everything here is generally kind of working. For the most part, overall, we are not in a parking crisis here at Snow King by any means.”

On behalf of the town, Lenz said the town-county wastewater treatment plant could easily handle the additional sewage generated by Snow King’s planned expansion.

Phase 2 improvements look to build on successful enhancements made to summer amenities. The Alpine Slide, once called a “cash cow” by Lenz, is now the Alpine Coaster. Along with the Tube Park, which will remain in Phase 2, it’s one of the few things that has made money for the ski area.

“People are looking for different attractions like that to do. It’s commonplace now that ski areas offer these kinds of things. If you don’t offer these things you don’t get business,” Stanley said. “Snow King was in a sense ahead of the curve 10 years ago with the Alpine Slide. There was, like, 70,000 rides on the Alpine Slide 10 years ago. That’s almost twice the number of people skiing on the hill. We were also averaging 900 rides a day on the coaster for about two months this summer.”

Rothman points to other small ski areas like White Pine, Sleeping Giant, Hogadon, Meadowlark, Snowy Range, and Pine Creek that survive without trying to be world class resorts.

“They are not funded by billionaires, and do not have a slide or coaster or huge ropes course. They do not sell real estate or build luxury townhouses, or have huge events like the Hillclimb, or a state-of-the-art snowmaking system mostly funded by donors and taxpayers,” Rothman said. “Unlike other ski area expansions, this one is not being dictated by rising skier usage. This project, along with the Marriott, set the stage for decreased morale amongst town locals. The bike park, gondola and restaurant complex at the top will have the most impact, and what they are proposing is definitely overkill.”

Zip lines are also the way of the future. Stanley says they are enormously popular across the country and one of the top Google searches for tourists researching things to do in Jackson Hole.

Stanley expects to be working closely with the town in the next few months in the redesign process. The base area is a complicated mix of privately held parcels (about 60 acres in all) and town-owned land (around 30 acres). Ideally, Stanley says Snow King would like to poach the ball field in Phil Baux Park for the gondola loading station. In exchange, he says SKMR is willing to horse trade with the town, exploring, perhaps, land swaps for parking. He says Parks and Rec has initially been supportive of phasing out the baseball field, anyway.

Lenz isn’t so sure about that aspect. “You gotta watch the parking and the way the bottom is used. The gondola will be the game-changer—summer and winter. To me, it makes a lot of sense. It will transform that mountain,” he said. “But I’m not interested in tearing up the ballpark. I’m very careful about that.”

The town councilman added that the town is interested in purchasing a small piece of land adjacent to the skating center where a second sheet of indoor ice is a possibility.

Mogul run

The process toward Snow King’s master plan and Phase 2 implementation is hampered by the complexities inherent in dealing with both federal bureaucracy and local government. It doesn’t help that the Chapman name can sometimes work against his efforts. Especially with Free Snow King’s Shane Rothman around. He passionately stalks online news articles concerning anything to do with the resort and its new top brass.

160921coverfeat-4“Snow King GM Ryan Stanley and president Max C. Chapman, Jr., cannot be trusted to engage the public or be truthful about their plans,” Rothman wrote in response to a news story posted on Wyoming Business Report. “…I know for a fact that this intelligent man is oblivious to the priorities of the ski area and the sentiments of locals,” he also stated on his Facebook page.

Rothman has also pointed out, as proof, the recent pollution of Brooks Lake. The lodge there is under investigation by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for staffers allegedly dumping raw sewage into the lake for what may have been years. Chapman owns Brooks Lake Lodge.

Chapman and Stanley are well aware of Rothman’s bitterness, and the segment of the community that views big money change with suspicion.

“Our goal is to simply take Snow King and move it into the 21st century. I don’t think it’s that complicated,” Chapman said recently in front of town officials. “It’s not to do anything clandestine, to run behind the council, not withstanding the very subtle remarks made by certain groups in this town calling me names that I think is inappropriate. I’m not being inappropriate. What we’ve done so far has been done in a nice and respectful manner. I’m trying to do something in this town that a majority of people will think is positive and good. And, oh by the way, we have some people willing to spend the money to do it at no cost to this town. No one is asking this town to underwrite the costs of Snow King.”

The perception that the King’s men get preferential treatment persists, however.

“We are very concerned that the discussion on expansion of local resorts does not take place openly and with a frank dialogue about the impacts on Jackson city infrastructure, housing, traffic and quality of life,” Jeff and Karen Walker stated in a recent letter to town council. “We moved to Jackson because it has retained much of its sophisticated, small town size and character. Jackson is a special place with a unique charm, which can easily be altered by growth, particularly when such growth is not accompanied by transparent and open dialogue that weighs the long-term impact in greater measure than short-term profitability.

Jeff Walker added, “I have lived in large, developed communities in the past and I well understand that allowing well-meaning developers to advance their own agendas is not necessarily in the best interest of the Jackson way of life.”

Chapman’s business style has been called abrasive by some. Perhaps in that acknowledgment, Stanley has often been tapped as a kinder, gentler interface with the public. Rothman, though, believes he simply does the bidding of his boss, calling Stanley “the worst ski area general manager imaginable.” When asked for rebuttal, Stanley simply shook his head and chose his words carefully.

“That’s fine. But from a reporting perspective it might be more useful for you to get a more credible source. There are other people out there that have opinions or concerns that are reasonable and relevant, and have a reasonable and relevant way of communicating them. I would rather see you talk to a Craig Benjamin [for instance],” Stanley said. “There are really no secrets here. We’ve been telling these same stories again and again. The hill is 35 years old. At the end of the day, what it’s coming down to is we are trying to make the ski resort successful so it can stay around, and you’ve got to do that by changing things because it’s been status quo forever, and it’s been failing for a long time.”

Benjamin has been concerned more with how than what. Changes have come quickly since new ownership arrived two years ago—rushed to improve a bottom line, Benjamin says. The merits of each additional amenity or growth at the King are debatable, but understanding future impacts and what benefits might be realized for the community is crucial.

“For many of us, it feels like Snow King belongs to our community. In fact, it does. Nearly all of the Snow King land on which we play is owned by the Town of Jackson or the Bridger-Teton National Forest, meaning it’s our public land,” Benjamin wrote in an August 17 opinion piece for The Planet. “Let’s be clear about what’s going on here. We’ve got a private entity [with dozens of acres at the base] proposing significant development, most of which will take place on our public lands under the jurisdiction of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Town of Jackson. These jurisdictions have a responsibility to coordinate and ensure this proposal benefits our community and addresses basic questions before moving forward.”

160921coverfeat-6

While the means to Snow King’s future are hotly debated, common ground can be found in the community’s united desire to see the historic hill live on for the next 75 years, and do so without losing its local feel and character.

“I think Snow King is a tremendous asset, and I think it has a great future. They should be able to get it in the black,” Lenz said. “There’s no question we want a quality hill with quality infrastructure and services. But I would like to see it developed within reason. I don’t want to be the Village.”

Stanley assured Lenz, and anyone else, there is no worry of that. “There is no end game where we are ever competing with Teton Village. Ever,” he said. “It’s simply about being sustainable. About the modernization of a ski resort that’s been neglected for a long time unfortunately. That’s the goal: to keep Snow King alive. It’s the oldest ski resort in Wyoming and I would like to see it not cease to be a ski resort.”

Councilman Jim Stanford, like Lenz, also lives near Snow King. He says the King is near and dear to his heart and looks forward to delving into the “intersection of development rights and what the community wants.” He added that he wants to be especially intentional about viewing Snow King as a sum of its parts—ski area, hotel, Love Ridge condos, ice rink, Crystal Creek Capital’s project.

“This was envisioned as a holistic ski area working with and in the town,” Stanford said at the council’s last meeting with Snow King representatives. “We keep hearing that Snow King loses money but there is a project coming before us tonight that presumably makes money, and the real estate development rights and the commercial often gets left out of the conversation when we are talking about trying to make the ski area work. I would like to look at it comprehensively.”

160921coverfeat-5Jackson resident Ben Read has lived in town, nearby the King, for 15 years. He is suspicious of the proposed business model of the new owners but understands the need for some improvements to the aging hill.

“From the point of view of those of us who have watched Snow King over the many years, it seems foolhardy at first glance for many millions of dollars to be spent there on upgrades. Beaucoup dollars are being spent. But given the past, there’s still a feeling that re-grading the bottom of the hill, building an obstacles course and the high-tech Cowboy Coaster can’t really, like putting lipstick on an overloaded cornice, make a difference to the bottom line,” Read wrote in a December letter to the editor. “On the other hand, what’s there now is anachronistic and worn-out looking. To see a revitalized Snow King is also appealing. What really matters is that we go into this with our eyes very wide open.”

SKMR says they will continue public outreach. As for Snow King losing its roots, Stanley thinks it will always be the local’s hill. “The town hill is the people that hike up it every day and have a chat with their best friend on the way up. The town hill is the people who skin up and down the mountain in the wintertime. The town hill is the Pica’s Margarita Cup, and the Ski and Snowboard Club hosting their events. The town hill is the Emily Coombs Foundation and her efforts to bring hundreds of kids to skiing that couldn’t otherwise afford it,” Stanley said. “We’ve been supporting these things in a big way. It’s still going to be the town hill. That’s the key to our success.” PJH

Three public information meetings are scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, September 22, October 14, and November 14 at King’s Grill next to the Rafferty lift.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Peck Family as one of Snow King Mountain’s current owners. The Peck Family was bought out of the operation in 2014.]

Comments

comments


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login