The Last Resort

How an ambitious but troubled plan to create an exclusive skiers’ paradise may revive—or cripple—one of Colorado’s last authentic mountain towns.

June 2011

Enterprising white men have been exploiting Colorado’s mountains for generations. First it was trapping, then mining, and then, in 1936, the Pikes Peak Club hatched the ski industry when it strung up the first rope tow a few miles west of Colorado Springs. Another rope tow was installed at Berthoud Pass a year later, and soon the ski business boomed. More than 175 ski areas eventually opened in Colorado, some of them (including Vail) started by 10th Mountain Division soldiers returning from World War II.

Colorado’s ski and snowboard industry now hosts around 12 million skier visits—more than a fifth of all skier visits in the United States—and has an annual $2.6 billion economic impact. Last year, SKI magazine readers ranked six Colorado resorts among the nation’s top 10. The state’s identity is so wrapped up in skiing that out-of-state vacation bookings soar whenever TV viewers see early-season snowstorms during Denver Broncos games.

Of the more than 175 ski areas started in Colorado, only 26 are still operating. (Both the pioneering Pikes Peak resort and Berthoud Pass are closed.) Eight of the remaining resorts—Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Snowmass, Steamboat, Vail, and Winter Park—are behemoths that draw more than 70 percent of the state’s skiers. With lift tickets cresting the $100 mark at several resorts in 2010, the sport’s demographic has become more exclusive: mostly upper-middle-class and higher. Total visits to Colorado ski resorts, meanwhile, have flattened over the past decade as baby boomers are aging out of the rigorous sport; about 10,000 boomers a day are now turning 65. Throw in climate change and I-70’s horrendous traffic, and there is fear that skiing is on a downhill slide. But as long as snow still falls, at least one demographic will always want to ski: the wealthy. Enter a man named Bobby Ginn.

A laid-back, country gentleman who made his fortune, twice, by developing swanky golf courses and resort communities in the Southeast, Ginn arrived in Colorado in 2004, looking to expand his empire. His record was spotty: In the 1980s, he had bought several resorts and residential developments in Hilton Head, South Carolina, before seeking bankruptcy protection during the savings and loan scandal. Vendors and some Ginn employees never got paid for their work. (“Honk if Bobby Owes You” became a popular bumper sticker in Hilton Head.) Ginn resurrected his career in the ’90s by developing high-end resorts in Florida, South Carolina, and the Bahamas, several with the backing of Philadelphia investment company Lubert-Adler. Ginn was a poster child for the high-flying real estate market and spared no expense marketing his brand: He bought a NASCAR team in 2006 and sponsored PGA tour events at his Jack Nicklaus–designed courses. “Bobby was a visionary,” says Toby Tobin, a Florida Realtor and blogger who’s written more on Ginn than anyone else—much of it negative. “He could look at a pile of dirt and see a castle.”

Turkey Creek sold its land on and around Battle Mountain—including Gilman—to Ginn for $32.75 million in 2004. Given the land’s lawsuit-heavy history and Superfund status, it’s tough to say whether that price was low or high—for all its promise, many still view the land as literally and figuratively radioactive. Ginn, though, wanted to bring his signature aesthetic—lush grounds, huge houses, stunning golf courses—to the mountains. He showed up in Minturn dressed in jeans and cowboy boots and quickly starting scooping up local talent and property. He hired Mike Jackson to help design his ski runs. Less than a year later, he hired Cliff Thompson, a longtime Vail Valley newspaperman, to handle publicity—shortly after Thompson wrote a wry story about Ginn’s purchase of the property. (“They hired me because I know where the bodies are buried,” Thompson jokes.) Ginn paid Minturn town councilman Tom Sullivan $6.5 million for the Minturn Inn and two other properties, to house himself and his new employees. He brought in about 75 legal, environmental, architectural, engineering, and business consultants to work on the project.

Eagle County zoning law allows only one house per 35 acres on unincorporated land. Because Ginn wanted to build more densely than that, he had to persuade Minturn to annex his property into the town, which would more than double its footprint and potentially triple its population.

Minturn still had post-traumatic stress from its last dealings with a ski company, when Vail Resorts muscled the town out of water rights from an Eagle River tributary in the late 1990s. After the town spent more than $200,000 fighting the resort, it had little choice but to hand over most of the water rights. “It was very costly, and at that point in time, the town of Minturn didn’t have a lot of money,” says Alan Lanning, the former town manager. “It was absolutely a financial issue—they had more money. I say to this day I think we would have won the case if we had the resources.”

Ginn had similar financial strength. As Thompson—the future Ginn spokesman—wrote in the Vail Daily in March 2005, “Ginn’s plan certainly represents an economic mismatch. Minturn’s annual town budget is $1.25 million and the town has 11 full-time employees. Ginn’s company has 1,500 employees and its 2004 sales were $1.25 billion—1,000 times that of Minturn’s budget.”

When Ginn finally unveiled his plans to the Minturn town council, it took ski-industry glamour to new heights: A $1 billion resort, featuring 1,700 housing units, would be spread among three sites. Up to 250,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space would form a substantial commercial center. A championship-level golf course would wind its way through the valley floor. And at the center of the property stood a massive hotel complex that looked like an alpine castle fit for an Austrian prince.

On top of that, Ginn promised Minturn just about everything. Scholarships for area kids. Memberships for town residents to use the ski resort for just $50 annually. A new wastewater treatment plant. New open space and bike trails. A 20,000-square-foot recreation/community center. And of course, new sidewalks.

The developer ultimately pledged Minturn $180 million worth of benefits, equivalent to 144 years of the town’s budget at the time. Even better, it wouldn’t be a one-time economic boost. Two financial impact studies put the town’s annual surplus from the resort between $4.5 million and $8.1 million. The 20-year fiscal impact showed a surplus of nearly $70 million.

Presented with those numbers, many Minturnites didn’t see it as much of a choice. Besides, if they didn’t annex his property, Ginn could take his money and head a few miles south to the neighboring town of Red Cliff, leaving Minturn stuck with all the resort’s traffic but few of its financial benefits.

The deal was appealing enough that the town council unanimously voted to approve the annexation. A citizen group led by Frank Lorenti demanded the issue be put to a town vote, and on May 20, 2008, Minturn residents filed into town hall. The $180 million was equivalent to divvying up $150,000 in benefits to each resident. Property values would soar. They’d have a private ski and golf resort at their disposal. The Superfund sites would finally be cleaned up.

There still were concerns among community members, many of whose relatives had eked out a hardscrabble existence for more than a century. If home prices rose too much, it would be cost prohibitive for young families to buy in, and longtime residents would be inclined to sell. Renters would be forced out. Developers were already eyeing parcels of land in town. Locals feared that second-home buyers would grab up all the housing and destroy the community’s fabric.

A record-setting 367 residents cast their ballots. When the votes were tallied, 87 percent supported the annexation. That night, the celebration spilled into Chili Willy’s, a local restaurant. Ginn Resorts employees Mike Jackson and Cliff Thompson toasted with longtime Minturn residents, celebrating everyone’s good fortune. Drinks were on Ginn.