How an ambitious but troubled plan to create an exclusive skiers’ paradise may revive—or cripple—one of Colorado’s last authentic mountain towns.
This article was a finalist for the 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the spread design category.
On a crisp, sunny day in February, Mike Jackson rockets up the slope of Battle Mountain on a snowmobile, sliding around lodgepole pine trees, leaving clouds of exhaust in his wake. He stops often, pointing out areas he’d like to take a chainsaw to, so he can unveil the ski resort that he—and so many others—see hidden in the virgin terrain. He shows off a powder-filled drainage that will become a wide-open bowl and an aspen stand that will be an expert tree run. And high atop the mountain is the meadow that will be the core of Battle Mountain Resort, where chairlifts will converge among multimillion-dollar homes.
A modest, 40-year-old man who looks like the younger, more rugged brother of Mad Men’s John Slattery, Jackson has spent nearly half his life dreaming about Battle Mountain, which is three miles south of Minturn in the Vail Valley. While working at Vail Resorts as a trail planner in the mid-1990s—he helped design Vail’s Blue Sky Basin—he kept hearing about the legendary land. At that time, Vail Resorts had an option on the Battle Mountain property, so one sparkling autumn day in 1995, he wandered up through golden aspen trees and hiked to the peak. “It was unlike any other property or place I’ve been to in Colorado, if not the United States,” he says. “There was not a sound. I couldn’t hear the traffic or see the road. The only thing I could hear was the wind blowing through the trees. I fell in love with it on day one. It wasn’t because I was seeing how the property would be developed, but just because of the beautiful views—both on the interior and exterior.”
The stunning views and terrain had enticed many over the years. Battle Mountain—named for a bloody clash over elk-hunting ground between Ute and Arapaho tribes in the mid-1800s—is one of the most coveted, disputed, and complex pieces of land in the Rocky Mountains. At more than 5,400 acres, its collection of bowls and open meadows mixed with drainages and glades is perfect for hiking, hunting, and, yes, skiing. (Minturnites long used the area as their shared backyard.) It’s one of the few large patches of private mountain real estate suitable for a ski resort left in Colorado, where the federal and state governments own more than two-thirds of the land west of the Continental Divide. It’s only a few miles—as the bird flies, or the gondola runs—from Vail and Beaver Creek, two of the swankiest ski resorts in the world. And it’s conveniently located less than two hours from Denver and about 30 minutes from the Eagle County Airport. Little surprise, then, that a federal judge once called it “some of the most valuable real estate in the state, if not the world.”
Many have tried to develop the land, and many have failed. But 16 years after Jackson first hiked the property, Battle Mountain might soon become the most expensive and glamorous ski resort in Colorado. It will potentially have 1,700 housing units—condos will likely cost north of $500,000; single family homes will probably start at $1 million—and a 674-acre, Jackson-designed ski area. It will be the largest new ski resort in Colorado in 30 years. And given the state’s dearth of private land, the Forest Service’s recent reluctance to lease more federal tracts, and the fact that the ski business is a mature industry, it could possibly be the last ski resort built in Colorado.
If developed as currently intended, the Battle Mountain resort will compare favorably with many of Colorado’s finest ski resorts. The peak reaches 10,960 feet, which is higher than Steamboat and has an Arapahoe Basin–like vertical drop of 2,570 feet. There will be three or four chairlifts on the mountain and a gondola running up from the base village. Twenty percent of the terrain will be for beginners, and the rest will be split between intermediate and expert. All in all, there will be about as much skiable terrain as there is at Colorado’s beloved Aspen Mountain. Still, Battle Mountain will be tiny compared to nearby Eagle County behemoths like Vail and Beaver Creek. “We’re not trying to re-create [Vail or Beaver Creek] or compete with them,” says Dave Kleinkopf, the project’s general partner and Jackson’s boss. “We’re trying to complement what’s already there with a private ski experience.”
That’s right, private. If all goes according to this pricey plan, Battle Mountain will be an exclusive, country-club-style ski resort—just the second in the United States—hosting a maximum of 2,300 skiers per day. (That’s about a tenth of the skiers Breckenridge can accommodate.) Lift tickets for the select few who want to rip the resort’s fresh groomers or get face shots in powder-choked bowls will run into the mid-six figures, and often more. (A house—or at least a condo—will come included.) Finally, the truly wealthy won’t need to rent a helicopter to find fresh tracks and avoid all those upper-middle-class skiers and riders clogging lift lines everywhere else in the state.
Driving past the sprawling development of Vail on I-70, the highway dips and veers toward Minturn. There’s not a hotel or condo in sight, just a quick turnoff to U.S. Route 24, headed toward Leadville. Across the Eagle River is the “Boneyard,” Vail Resorts’ dumping ground for Sno-Cats, snowmobiles, and general equipment. Past the Boneyard, a few buildings start to pop up, and after a quick bend in the road, there’s Minturn. This isn’t immediately apparent, because despite being more than 100 years old, Minturn doesn’t have a town sign.
What there is of downtown stretches for just a few blocks, and there are nearly as many storefronts with “For Lease” signs as ones that are occupied. Judging by foot and car traffic, the most popular place in town is the Shell gas station, Minturn’s de facto grocery, hardware store, and convenience shop. The town’s sidewalks, which famed urban planning writer Jane Jacobs called a community’s “most vital organs,” make Minturn seem diseased; those that do exist, on Main Street through the central business district, are rutted and unshoveled. Most of the streets in tiny Minturn are edged only by a shoulder, so walking around in summer can be nerve-wracking—and downright harrowing during the icy winter months. A few miles south of downtown is Minturn Middle School, the town’s last community school. It closed its doors for good this month.
Straight ahead, Battle Mountain rises above U.S. 24. Its broad shoulders dominate the landscape, and as the road climbs and winds, the ghost town of Gilman pops up across the valley. Gilman shut down after the Eagle Mine—for decades the lifeblood of the local micro-economy—closed its doors in 1977 and left behind still-perilous tracts of contaminated land.
Today, snowdrifts pile up on Gilman’s abandoned streets and graffiti mars the midcentury houses. Inside a building a newspaper rests on a table, next to an empty folding chair. Boots sit on steps, ready to be put on. Medical records litter a deserted hospital’s floor. Paper is strewn around the post office. A bowling ball lies stranded in a lane’s gutter, never to be retrieved. It’s as if the residents were going about their daily routines, and then suddenly stopped and left forever.
The people of Gilman and Minturn had been mining this mountain their entire lives, hacking out zinc and silver and lead like their fathers and grandfathers before them. Many didn’t know anything else. Zinc galvanizes steel against rust, and the 20th century—with its demand for skyscrapers, and for the tanks and guns and tools of war—helped the mine thrive. Owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, the mine produced nearly 13 million tons of ore and was, at one point, one of the largest zinc mines in the United States. During World War II, it was so vital to the war effort that some miners were exempt from the draft. What the miners didn’t realize while they were digging away was how the rest of Eagle County and Colorado were passing them by. In 1962, a former 10th Mountain Division soldier named Pete Seibert strung up a few ski lifts a couple of miles down the road to create Vail ski resort. Within two years, Sports Illustrated gushed, “Never in the history of U.S. skiing...has a bare mountain leaped in such a short time into the four-star category of ski resorts.” Vail became synonymous with skiing, Colorado’s new mountain industry—with its invitingly pure snow and dashing, ruddy-cheeked glamour—while Minturn and Gilman remained gritty, blue-collar mining towns.
At the close of the Vietnam War, zinc demand dried up, and the Eagle Mine plunged into obscurity. It shut down on December 16, 1977, costing 154 mineworkers their jobs. Those in Minturn, at least, still had their homes. Gilman, though, was a company town, so the residents were eventually evicted, the entrance to the town was blocked, and a sign was put up: “Town for Sale, 1,700 acres.”
New Jersey Zinc employed a skeleton crew until 1983, when it sold off the mine and Gilman to Glenn T. Miller, a Colorado businessman. Miller briefly re-opened the mine before closing it for good and selling it to a company named Battle Mountain Corporation. At some point, the dewatering pumps—which kept poisonous minerals such as arsenic and cadmium from dissolving into the water—were turned off. The pollutants soon started leeching into the Eagle River, which contributed to the decimation of the area’s renowned brown trout. The Environmental Protection Agency arrived to remove transformers containing PCBs, a toxic compound known to cause developmental problems in children. By 1986, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had sued Gulf+Western—which had acquired longtime mine operator New Jersey Zinc—for its decades of polluting and failing to clean up the mining waste. In 1988, the Eagle Mine, the town of Gilman, and the mining waste piles along the Eagle River were declared Superfund sites.
By now Minturnites were out of work, Gilmanites were homeless, and they all worried their drinking water had been poisoned. Gulf+Western and the EPA built a water treatment plant; they also excavated millions of tons of mine waste, consolidated it into one spot, and covered the area with three feet of clean soil. The cleanup pile was placed just 1,500 feet from Minturn Middle School. The Superfund remediation wasn’t thorough enough to allow people to live on the property or even spend an extended period of time there. The EPA’s Superfund Record of Decision from 1998 said there were “…basically no risks to a trespasser for the unlikely exposure of 90 consecutive days.” The partial cleanup “protects human health by limiting access to the area in the short term and requiring EPA, State, and local approval of development plans to ensure future users are not at risk from unacceptable exposures.” A gate now blocks access to Gilman, and no one except EPA officials and the land’s owners is allowed in.
With Gilman and the Eagle Mine gone, Minturn lurched toward the close of the century. Schools and businesses left, and its streets and sidewalks decayed. A prideful town that once scoffed at prefab ski villages, Minturn became a bedroom community for resort workers, mechanics, lifties, and bartenders. And while the town tried to maintain its sense of neighborliness—trick-or-treaters from across Eagle County return every Halloween to visit the ungated community whose homes are actually occupied—the town had no answer for the amenities of nearby villages. Minturn, which had once been the lettuce capital of the United States, started a farmers’ market in 1998; Vail and Edwards soon launched competitors. Today, despite Minturn’s membership in the Vail Valley Partnership—the area’s chamber and tourism bureau—the town isn’t even on the bureau’s local maps.
“What makes a family community?” asks Frank Lorenti, one of the more vocal Minturn residents. “A park. A rec center. Sidewalks. Bike paths. A school makes a community. It would be great if I could continue to send my kids to school in Minturn. But now I have to drive out of my ‘family’ town to do that. We used to have a dance hall and a movie theater. How have we gone backwards?”
On the morning of October 19, 1998, Mike Jackson drove to his job in Vail, where he was helping develop Category III, a 645-acre back-bowl area. He had been working on the project since 1994, shortly after graduating with a landscape architecture degree from the University of Arkansas. While most of his classmates designed golf courses or parks for their final projects, Jackson wanted to design ski trails. He hoped to be a visionary who could look at a wooded, uneven mountainside and figure out how to transform it into a destination where happy skiers and snowboarders ripped down his runs. Vail had been publicly discussing expansion, so Jackson finished his own project and came to Colorado to present it to the resort’s planning department. The Vail folks were so impressed by how similar his ideas were to their own plan that less than a month later, they put the kid on their payroll.
In the 1990s, Vail went from just another nice ski area to the 800-pound gorilla of Colorado’s ski industry. The company went on a buying spree, acquiring Arrowhead, Bachelor Gulch, Breckenridge, and Keystone, and in the process became one of the primary employers in Eagle and Summit counties. In 1992, a Denver company named Turkey Creek—which had been consolidating land on and around Battle Mountain—dangled a development option on the land in front of Vail. The property sat about a mile from the Category III project, which meant Vail could expand its acreage again, build an even higher-end base area, and connect it by gondola to Vail and possibly Beaver Creek. Vail snapped up the offer, dropping $4.5 million for a 50 percent stake.
Vail, though, kept its Battle Mountain option quiet because it might have endangered the Category III expansion, which was moving through the federal approval process. But after details on Vail’s expansion prospects for Battle Mountain emerged in a February 1998 court deposition, some biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service raised the concern that the development would threaten the local Canadian lynx population. Lynx were barely hanging on in the area, but the state was planning on re-introducing the animal. The FWS ended up approving Category III, as did the U.S. Forest Service. Environmental groups were enraged. That summer, Jackson and Vail employees drove past protesters daily on their way to work. The Defenders of Wildlife filed an injunction to prevent Vail from starting the expansion, but on October 14, 1998, a federal judge overruled the environmental objections. Vail started cutting trails two days later.
On the 19th, Jackson arrived at work to see Vail’s base area in chaos as smoke billowed off the mountaintop. “I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was. I went up to help direct traffic” while the fire department ran trucks up the mountain. Two Elk, a 550-seat ski lodge, was ablaze, as were ski patrol headquarters and four lifts. The damage cost the company $12 million. “We had seen some innocent protesting going into work,” Jackson says, “but this was something totally different.”
The Earth Liberation Front, an eco-terrorist group, soon released a statement to the Denver media claiming responsibility: “On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes on the night of Sunday, October 18th. Vail, Inc. is already the largest ski operation in North America and now wants to expand even further. The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state. Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated. This action is just a warning. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas. For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion.”
Vail rebuilt Two Elks and the chairlifts, but the company was spooked. The Earth Liberation Front arsonists remained at large. (They were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison in 2007.) In October 1999, Vail dropped its plans for the Battle Mountain development and publicly stated that it wanted to turn portions of the land into open space through a conservation easement. Turkey Creek responded by suing Vail for backing out of the development deal. As that court case dragged on, Category III was renamed Blue Sky Basin and opened to acclaim in 2000. Finally, in 2003, a judge ruled in favor of Turkey Creek.
Now Turkey Creek, which wasn’t interested in developing the land itself, needed to find a buyer—a visionary rich and bold enough to clean up multiple Superfund sites, knock down the ghost town of Gilman, secure hard-fought water rights, and convince Minturn that a ski development was in its best interests. For all its difficulties, Battle Mountain was still considered the holy grail of a potential ski resort. All it needed was a messiah.
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.
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?”
Minturn remains in limbo, and its residents are alternately resigned and upset. “It was too good to be true,” Frank Lorenti says. “They promised $180 million and it makes your hair stand up. This is a nice town, but we are desperate. We need the infrastructure. You look back, and what has it done for the town? Nothing.”
Floyd Duran, a lifelong Minturn resident who’s worked just about every job in the area—from the Eagle Mine, to the public works department, to his current trucking business—believes the project is inevitable. “The resort will probably go in eventually,” he says. “When you put $32 million into a piece of land, the person who invested that much is not just going to let it go. And it’s beautiful up there— the views are amazing. We’re just frustrated. What are we going to get out of all those promises?”
While it waits for a payoff that may never arrive, Minturn is refocusing on building its economy and attracting tourists. Nine new businesses have opened since last Christmas; one of the most successful is a secondhand store named Holy Toledo. And more than a century after its founding, the town finally is getting its first “Welcome to Minturn” sign this month. “If [the resort] doesn’t come, Minturn still has to operate and function,” says Jim White, the town manager. “We’ve done it since 1904 and we’re not going away. We’ll scratch and claw for new businesses. We’re telling the people who are spending their weekends in Avon and Vail, ‘While you’re at the resort, come see our real town.’ ”
As Battle Mountain’s boots-on-the- ground, it’s soft-spoken Mike Jackson—not Kleinkopf or Crave or Lubert-Adler—who gets buttonholed most often by aggrieved Minturnites. “Some people express frustration, so I listen to them,” he says. “I respond by telling them, ‘Well, it’s taken longer than we thought, but it’s definitely moving forward.’ Many are just encouraged that we’re still here and that the community will see the benefits from it.”
Still, on a Thursday night last February, Minturn is dead quiet. Inside the Minturn Saloon, only a few patrons are eating in the dining area. The bar is nearly empty, with eight drinkers hunched over on their stools. A middle-aged man with a head of dark, curly hair hits on two young women, their cheeks still pink from the slopes. The bearded bartender tosses back whiskey shots—served in plastic condiment cups—with two regulars.
It just 8 p.m., not a soul is in sight along Main Street. The stores that remain in business are closed; the rest sit empty. Down the street, inside Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ Bar, the only table of diners is packing up. At the Minturn Inn, there are no lights on upstairs. The only places open are the gas station and liquor store, its facade strung with Christmas lights.
Earlier this morning, Minturn and its neighbors, Vail and Beaver Creek, awoke to eight inches of fresh powder, a siren call to skiers and snowboarders. But tonight—while Vail and Beaver Creek are bustling with diners pouring out of white-tablecloth steak houses and into cocktail lounges and artificially divey bars—Minturn once again turns off its lights early, and waits.
Patrick Doyle is a senior editor of 5280. Email him at [email protected].