Snow King Mountain Resort’s plan for a gondola remains on track after the Town Council approved a lease to build the base and accompanying ticketing facility in town-owned Phil Baux Park following months of back-and-forth over the details.
But the decision for that lease — along with two other leases between the town and resort owners — didn’t come without contentious and vigorous debate about concessions some councilors wanted from “the Town Hill” in exchange for good value on the leases.
Specifically, Councilor Jim Stanford was adamant the lease include language that would ensure affordable skiing options for Jackson residents.
Stanford said the final version of the lease meant that the people, through the town government, was “continuing to subsidize Snow King ski area.”
He encouraged language requiring Snow King to either bring back the once-available two-hour pass at a rate to be determined by the hill’s officials, or a reduced rate on half-day passes, which currently stand at $49. A full-day pass costs $59, and Stanford argued that $49 was too much to pay for people who just want to ski on their lunch hour or a parent who wants to take a couple runs with a youngster who would be off the ski hill in search of hot cocoa after a mere few runs.
Mayor Pete Muldoon and Councilor Arne Jorgensen initially supported Stanford’s idea, though they didn’t take the same line-in-the-sand stance. The pair agreed that newly added language requiring Snow King to address the affordability issue in some way was sufficient. All three said that they weren’t trying to set Snow King’s prices but rather wanted to ensure that the King remains the Town Hill and affordable for locals who want to use it, even if just for an hour or two as their day allows.
The gondola lease, along with two other leases, ultimately passed after much discussion and debate amongst council members and Snow King officials. One of the leases is an amended ongoing lease for the Snow King Sports and Events Center that raises the monthly rent from $100 to $1,000 a month. Snow King officials said they currently rent the center for $1,000 per night.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the gondola and amended Snow King Sports and Events Center leases, with Stanford being the sole vote against. Stanford voted in favor of the unanimously passed tubing park lease.
Stanford insisted during deliberations over the lease for the gondola to be based in Phil Baux Park that Snow King wasn’t giving enough in return for using public land. After amendments were made during Monday’s meeting to the gondola lease, the final version that was voted upon didn’t include wording requiring Snow King to revive its two-hour passes. Rather, the language of the motion that was passed read: “The lease shall be revised to include a requirement that Snow King provide product flexibility in regard to lift ticket availability, including but not limited to consideration of a flexible half-day and/or one- or two-hour lift tickets.”
“I’m disappointed,” Stanford said. “I’d hoped that we could have done better. I feel that we’ve had a negotiation here where we’ve largely allowed one side to dictate the parameters of how that negotiation will take place. ... We, the public of the town of Jackson, is continuing to subsidize Snow King ski area. And I could live with that, I would support it ... if I felt that the skiers of Jackson were getting a good deal in return. But instead, that’s not what’s happening here.”
Other council members, including Jonathan Schechter, had doubts about the lease but felt the good outweighed the bad.
While noting that he would still vote in favor of the lease for the gondola base in the park, Schechter said, “I’m feeling a sense of weariness” regarding the Snow King issues.
Schechter added that his unease about the vote relates to his perception that “for many years now, Jackson Hole has seemed to attract people who want to exploit the community.” Though he didn’t point his finger at Snow King, Schechter noted that his aim is to keep the ski hill affordable for residents of the town.
Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson was enthusiastic for the council to approve the gondola lease, both for the public’s benefit and for her own personal reasons.
“I’m excited for this because I look forward to riding a gondola with my father and son, who otherwise couldn’t ski Snow King together today, because it is not safe for my family for a 5-year-old to go up the Summit lift with my 70-year-old father,” Morton Levinson said. “I think providing more access for our community to Snow King, for those that might not be able to access it right now, is important.”
Mayor Muldoon acknowledged that any agreement the two sides would arrive at wouldn’t be perfect for both, but added: “We’re trying to strike a balance here ... and it’s certainly not as simple as saying, ‘We’re giving up too much.’” He then called for the vote, which passed 4-1.
The initial lease term is for 19 years, with an option to renew for 49 years as long as Snow King remains in compliance with terms of the lease, at a cost of $3,000 a month. That cost will rise by 2.5% annually or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater. There will be no rent increases for the first two years of the lease, as Snow King will shoulder the cost of Phase 1 of improvements at Phil Baux Park, including landscaping and removal of the ballfield. The length of the lease and the renewal option align with Snow King agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the upper portion of the mountain.
As with the discussion surrounding the gondola lease, Stanford was unhappy with aspects of the Snow King Sports and Events Center lease. One of the things he zeroed in on was the town’s access to the facility when it’s not ski season and isn’t being regularly used by the ski club and Snow King. During debate about the issue, Snow King Vice President Ryan Stanley said the resort would be happy to make allowances to set aside a number of days throughout the year when the town could use the facility for free.
“That’s very charitable, considering the town owns the space, but thank you,” Stanford replied sarcastically.
Snow King officials were happy to get their leases to proceed with gondola construction and other business on the mountain, even if the process had a few bumps in the road.
“We’re very encouraged, and very excited with the outcome,” said Snow King board member Jeff Golightly, in a Tuesday interview. Golightly has helped represent the resort throughout the process of negotiating with town staff and Town Council.
“We look forward to investing in the community,” Golightly said.
Some details, such as when gondola construction might begin and a potential opening date, weren’t immediately available, though Golightly said the resort is working to decide those things.
“We’ve had less than a day since we completed these leases,” Golightly said. “Internally, we’ve already had meetings all the way up the chain. We anticipate having clarity very shortly. But to give any specifics right now would be premature until we have some time to sort through it.”