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

Just Six weeks later, hammered by the plummeting real estate market, Ginn started to miss payments on a $675 million loan from Credit Suisse. Two of his properties in the Southeast eventually sought bankruptcy protection, and one was sold. Another resort, Ginn Hammock Beach, opted to rename itself. (Ginn could not be reached for an interview.) Newspapers nationwide decried Ginn; a 2009 New York Times story noted that fewer than one-tenth of the homes at three Ginn properties had actually been built. “His more recent projects were envisioned beyond market realities,” says Tobin, the Florida Realtor and blogger. “Bobby was a visionary. But as Nietzsche said, ‘The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.’ ”

In September 2009, Lubert-Adler, the Philadelphia investment company that backed many of Ginn’s projects, installed Crave Real Estate as its new project developer for Battle Mountain. The team was led by Lorne Bassel and Dave Kleinkopf, two seasoned ski-resort developers who had helped develop base areas at Winter Park, Copper, and Snowmass. With the U.S. economy still struggling, the developers played out a scene that echoed the Eagle Mine closing 23 years earlier. Crave cut its project staff to a skeleton crew of two (one of whom was Jackson) and sold off its extra snowmobiles and construction equipment as Battle Mountain grew quiet.

This past July, the company announced it was dialing back Ginn’s ambitious plans. “Bobby had a very appropriate development scheme given the time in 2005,” Kleinkopf says. “[But] his development required too much water. The marketplace isn’t looking for a large hotel surrounded by golf courses in the Colorado mountains. Our concept is less Florida, more Colorado.” The revised plan removed the golf course, which was too water intensive. It cut the skiable terrain almost by half, from 1,300 acres to 674 acres, and reduced the number of chairlifts from 11 to three or four. It replaced the planned non-native vegetation with plants indigenous to the Rocky Mountains. The most modest section of the mountain, by Bolts Lake, would be developed first. Houses near the top of the mountain, and the cleanup of Gilman, would have to wait until the economy improved.

Crave also decided to remove more than two-thirds of the resort’s commercial center. Instead, Minturn would become the resort’s commercial hub. “We will be pumping our economic dollars into the town,” Kleinkopf says. “This is a very real town, over 100 years old. We want to enhance it. If I come out to the resort, I’m not going to spend all of my time in Minturn, but I will definitely spend a few nights there.”

Kleinkopf is optimistic they can sell the project’s homes to people who live and work in the Vail Valley, not just absentees. That may be wishful thinking. A 2004 study from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments showed that 49 percent of the housing units in Eagle County were second homes that are unoccupied most of the year. Seventy-six percent of the Eagle County homes that cost more than $1 million were owned by second-home buyers. If Battle Mountain’s real estate offerings go north of $1 million—which is likely—it could mean that less than a quarter of those homes will be occupied year-round, robbing Minturn of its hoped-for community vibe.

Although Crave has made little physical progress on the mountain, it has seen two recent victories. In the summer of 2010, the company finally secured essential water rights, a major coup. And in February it received encouraging comments from the EPA on its cleanup proposal for the Superfund sites. Crave has worked on revisions and is awaiting further EPA input.

“Water rights in Colorado are gold,” Kleinkopf says. “We now have the water to build the project—it was a huge win.” He hopes to begin construction on the Battle Mountain resort in three to five years, after the economy has recovered and home buyers are ready to drop millions on property in the Vail Valley again. “To be honest,” he says, “there’s no market anyway right now.”

However, concerns remain. Several lawsuits from a mysterious man named Jeff Tucker—who claims to own part of the land—are unsettled and could threaten the annexation agreement. The Eagle County assessor recently announced that real estate values had declined 30 percent—the highest rate in Colorado. And the Yellowstone Club—the only other private ski resort in the country—filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 and was later reorganized by an outside investment company. “There is a social element of skiing that these places miss,” resort analyst Ford Frick, of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver, told Skiing magazine in 2009. “We all like that powder run in the trees by ourselves, but a whole day in the trees by yourself can get creepy. And who wants to go to a bar at the end of the day that has two people in it?”