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Town backs King's grant
Council supports request for $1.5M state grant for Town Hill bike trails, snowmaking.
By Benjamin Graham, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 20, 2013
A clarification was added after publication to the end of this story — Ed.
Developers of Snow King Mountain climbed one step closer Tuesday night to obtaining public funds to build infrastructure on the Town Hill.
The Jackson Town Council unanimously agreed to apply to the state for $1.5 million on behalf of Snow King Mountain Recreation. The investment group hopes to use the money to add a series of downhill mountain bike trails and new snowmaking pipes to the ski area.
“Snow King Mountain has to have the opportunity to be a sustainable enterprise,” Mayor Mark Barron said before the council voted.
To do that, there needs to be investment in snowmaking capabilities and in the expansion of summer recreation on the mountain, he said.
“Everybody up here wants you to succeed,” he told Manuel Lopez, president of the group.
Lopez and his partners have for years lost money running the ski area, but subsidized it with revenue from Snow King Mountain Resort. The group sold the lodge last fall.
They now await the verdict of the Wyoming Business Council and the State Loan and Investment Board. The business council could make a recommendation to the board in May.
The proposed changes, which also include utility work and improvements on the road that leads up to the Rafferty chairlift, are part of a larger facelift planned for the Town Hill aimed at making it profitable.
The projects in the grant are estimated to cost $2.35 million. Snow King Mountain Recreation has said the balance will be paid for with a local match.
But the approval hasn’t come without doubts over the future of the mountain.
Lopez came before the Town Council two weeks ago, only to be told that he needed to return with a more detailed business plan.
All of the improvement will belong to the town if the project fails, Councilor Jim Stanford said Tuesday.
Portions of the bike trails that cross Snow King Mountain Recreation land will be leased to the town. The town will then lease those parts back to Lopez.
The Town Hill also faces several challenges to becoming financially sustainable by itself, Stanford said.
“The water to the top of the mountain is overdue,” Stanford said, referring to snowmaking. The council voted to increase the water rates earlier in the meeting, and that the price will continue to go up, he said.
He also pointed to the cost of a lift ticket for downhill bikers, which the business plan lists as $30. Lopez expects the addition of the trails to bring in 15,000 riders and $250,000 by year two.
“When I look at the price of ticket … I have some doubts,” Stanford said. Snow King would be competing with Grand Targhee Resort and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, as well as Teton Pass, where cycling is free, he said.
Stanford asked that staff look into gathering the numerous groups and business involved with Snow King for a meeting to discuss its future.
“Let’s talk about our community vision for Snow King,” and build some consensus, he said.
“That would increase my comfort with continued public investment in the mountain.”
The Town Council’s decision came after a wave of community members wrote letters and spoke during public meetings in favor of the proposal.
“Every year we are at the mercy of Mother Nature up there, and I’m a little nervous about this year,” said Heidi Tobin, president of the Jackson Hole Snow Devils. “From a Snow Devil standpoint and keeping the hill climb going, I’m in full support of this grant.”
The bike trails would help Snow King make Jackson a mountain bike mecca, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, Jeff Golightly, said.
“Many of our visitors are looking for multiple locations when they’re traveling around the Yellowstone area,” he said. “We’re very close to being a mountain biking destination. I think cycling publications are going to start paying attention to Jackson.”
Dozens of residents emailed their support to council members. But a few pointed to the group’s past management of the Snow King Sports and Events Center. The town was owed about $130,000 in back rent from Lopez and his partners.
Lopez’s group owns and has development rights to 48 acres at the base of Snow King, he said. He has a 40-year track record of managing the mountain, a point that Barron underscored.
“Snow King partners put the land under the Snow King Center,” the mayor said. “Snow King partners paid market rent for the Snow King Center and provided discounted rent to tenants. Manuel Lopez and Deborah Lopez have done nothing but provide excellent service to the community.”
Still, Lopez said the evolution of Snow King is necessary.
“Underlying all this is the need to change,” he said.
“We have to go for other possibilities ... while maintaining all the traditional aspects of the mountain.”
Snow King hosts 46,000 to 47,000 skier days each year, he said. In its best year, the mountain reached 60,000.
“In general, a ski area that does less than 150,000 doesn’t make it,” Lopez said. “To expect that we would go up from 47,000 to 150,000 [with these improvements] is unrealistic.”
That’s why the additional summer recreation activities are needed, Lopez said.
Last month, the Town Council agreed to let Lopez build a zipline that begins and ends on town land. Other changes planned for the mountain include a ropes course, a climbing wall and an alpine coaster, among others. The estimated cost for the capital improvements is more than $14 million, which will come from private funds, according to Snow King’s application.
“Snow King is the billboard for the town of Jacksn,” said Ryan Stanley, Snow King Resort recreation director. “We are a gateway and a bridge to nature that we think can spur development in that part of town.”
But that might not be possible without the added attractions, including the bike trails.
“Without the bike component of it, the [grant proposal] is not as economically viable,” Stanley said. “By combining these two elements, it makes the whole package a viable business plan.”
Lopez’s partners include Clarene Law, Rich Sugden, Max Chapman, Bill Resor, Peter Wold and the family of Roy Peck.
Lopez and his partners settled their $130,000 debt with the town of Jackson for a year’s worth of unpaid rent on the Sports and Events Center. They did so by handing over equipment used to run the ice rink. The list of assets totaled $144,000 and included bleachers, a fork lift and an ice resurfacer machine, among other items. Also, the spelling of the name of one of the partners has been corrected.