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Moguls behind the moguls: Utah's ski resort owners.

Moguls behind the Moguls

One ski resort got its start when a man deeded 1,800 acres to the U.S. Forest Service for $1 and was extolled in the press as a man motivated by his "love of people." Never mind that inspiring his largess were his creditors who were about to repossess the land.

Another ski owner got too close to his property; he was accidentally electrocuted by a ski lift. A third became acquainted with his personal paradise because his wife grew up nearby. He lived to see the day when virtually no one knew of his ski property but millions knew him as a movie star.

These are the people who brought - and bring - skiing to Utah. Ski resort founders and owners are a diverse group, motivated by love of the sport, money, fun, publicity, risk taking. Part businesspeople, part ski bums, part entertainers, they come from New York and California, Louisiana and Utah. And all have the same goal: Making a success of the business while offering the majesty of skiing to those who love the sport.

Alta: A Resort with Soul

Alta, the nation's second ski resort, originally was a mining town that knew more ups and downs than the most mogul-filled ski runs. A group of Salt Lake businessmen were behind the formation of Alta. Particularly prominent was George H. Watson, the man who gave the U.S. government that big parcel of land. "His inspiration," writes Kelner, "was a shotgun, held by creditors, who were in the process of repossessing his vast holdings for nonpayment of the mortgage."

The founders "wanted a ski resort for the local people, and that is still our philosophy," stated Chic Morton, a Utah native and the man probably most closely associated with Alta in the minds of today's skiers. He's the resort's current president and retired general manager, who began working there in 1945.

Several of the local resorts have expanded in recent years or plan to do so. Not Alta. "We've developed all of the good skiing," said Morton. "It's going to stay pretty much the way it is." The hottest thing to hit the snow in recent years, high-speed detachable quad chairlifts, may never make it up Alta's hill. "We don't feel we have anyplace we want to put that many people in one spot at one time," said Morton.

It's the "Alta mystique" that's being preserved here. One of Morton's favorite descriptions of Alta came from a New Yorker who had been coming to the resort for years: "Alta has soul." Thanks to such Alta founders and stalwarts as Watson, Morton, Alf Engen, S. J. Quinney, and William Levitt, Alta's soul is still available for everyone willing to venture up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Snowbird: A Flagship Resort

Snowbird employs 1,800 people. It includes a 57,000-square-foot conference center, deluxe accommodations, a wellness center, and more than 500 annual inches of light, dry snowfall. Celebrating its 20th season this month, Snowbird is one of Utah's flagship resorts.

Dick Bass, Snowbird's president, started the year-round resort in the early '70s with the same vision and energy he applies to everthing he does. An oil geologist who wanted to teach prep school, Bass has dedicated his innate idealism to building a resort that he calls "the ideal place."

Solitude: Growing Up

Gary DeSeelhorst is working on establishing the personality if not soul for the resort he owns, Big Cottonwood Canyon's Solitude. Solitude began in 1959 as the dream of a Colorado bean farmer named Robert M. Barrett. He made his money from uranium mining and decided to spend some of it on a ski resort.

A native of Palo Alto, Calif., and a computer-company owner, DeSeelhorst didn't ski until the over-the-hill age of 36, right about the time Solitude closed. He quickly made up for lost time. With several partners he purchased Solitude from Barrett in 1977.

"I didn't decide until 1986 to make this my next lifetime," said DeSeelhorst. That's when he bought out his partners and became Solitude's sole owner.

Unlike Alta, Solitude is undergoing massive change. Three years ago it became the first Utah ski area to install a high-speed detachable quad lift. Some lifts were moved. "We wanted to change the mountain in how it skis," explained DeSeelhorst. Changes at the base parallel the changes on the hill. The resort's masterplan calls for replacing all the day facilities. Next on line is a European-style village, with 560 lodging rooms. Its construction will take five to six years. Solitude will go from being strictly a local ski resort to a destination resort with a strong local orientation.

These changes complement DeSeelhorst's philosophy about running a ski resort: "Skiing is entertainment. What we're selling is fun. People want to come off the mountain with a smile."

Snow Basin: Future Olympic Site

Utah's second oldest ski resort, Snow Basin has the distinction of having once been a municipal ski area. Ogden City bought the land in the 1930s because overgrazing was damaging the city's watershed area. The ski area's dedication ceremony came in 1941, but the war and weather delayed completion of the first lift until 1946.

In 1955, Sam Huntington leased the facilities, and a few years later bought them. It was while fixing a lift in 1962 that Huntington was accidentally electrocuted. His widow sold Snow Basin to a group of Ogden businessmen, who sold it to the developer of Vail in 1978. He, in turn, sold it in 1984 to the present owner, Earl Holding of Salt Lake City. Holding also owns the Little America hotels, Sinclair Oil, and Sun Valley.

According to administrative assistant Barbara McConvill, "The mountain differentiates Snow Basin. It continues to be interesting even when you ski it a lot." With 3,000 vertical feet and a 400-inch annual snowfall, the area provides very challenging skiing. If Utah gets the Winter Olympics, Snow Basin will be the site of the downhill events.

On the drawing boards is a year-round resort, with lodging, food, and a golf course, according to Rainer Kolb, general manager. Holding, with his experience at Sun Valley and the Little America hotels, knows about resorts. The master plan awaits finalization, and a land-swap with the Forest Service must still be completed before expansion takes place. With Holding's ownership, Snow Basin has the potential to become a major player in the local and national ski scene.

Sundance: Skiing and the Arts

Unlike the burst for growth that resorts like Snow Basin and Solitude are pursuing, Provo's Sundance has always taken a studied, somewhat wary approach to expansion. Best known as the home of actor/director Robert Redford and the site of his Sundance Arts Institute, Sundance is becoming a year-round resort and arts center. Theater is now performed there year-round, and 37 one- to three-bedroom cottages have been built to provide overnight lodging.

Contrary to popular belief, Redford was not the initiator of skiing at Sundance. The area was originally called Stewart's Flats, so named because a member of the Stewart family had a cabin there beginning in 1899. The Stewart family were surveyors and first came to the area while conducting a public survey of the area, according to Clare Jackson, Sundance's director of sales and marketing.

Eventually, the Stewarts bought the land and in the late 1950s and early 1960s built the first ski facilities. Redford became acquainted with the area's beauty when he married a Provo native. In about 1968, he bought the property from the Stewarts. Unique among Utah ski resorts, Sundance melds skiing and the arts into a compatible relationship.

Deer Valley: World Class Skiing

Deer Valley Ski Resort also reflects the interests of its owner, Edgar Stern, who until two years ago also owned San Francisco's renowned Sanford Court Hotel. Stern always aims his investments at the high-rent district.

His family founded New Orleans's first television station in 1948. In the early 1960s, he and his wife fell in love with Aspen, and moved there. There he became involved in high-priced real estate development.

He started an upscale housing development in 1963 called Starwood on a 1,000-acre ranch he owned. Wanting to look for other opportunities, he traveled to all the ski areas in the West. Park City Ski Area impressed him. The mining company had initiated skiing there in 1962, and Stern bought the resort in 1970. By 1974, there was financial trouble. He sold Park City Ski Area, but kept the property that a few years later became Deer Valley Ski Resort. Two years ago he sold 25 percent of his interest to Roger Penske, the race-car driver and entrepreneur, while retaining the remaining 75 percent.

When asked why he wanted to create one of the world's most exclusive ski areas, Stern said, "Nobody was doing it. I felt there was a market for it. We had been in the high end of the hotel business and had been very successful at that. I thought that same pattern would work in the ski business."

Has it ever. Deer Valley is regularly at or near the top of rankings of world-class ski resorts. Last year, skier visits increased 23 percent compared with the year before.

Deer Valley is probably as well known for its services and food as for its skiing, profiting from its owner's background in hotel management and his targeting of high-end markets. This is a resort that definitely reflects its owner's tastes.

Park City: Utah's Largest Ski Area

Stern sold Park City Ski Area to Nick Badami, a New Jersey native and chairman of the board of BVD Corp., a large apparel conglomerate. He retired and headed west, buying Alpine Meadows ski area in Lake Tahoe, Calf., in 1970. He bought Park City from Stern in 1975 and has made it a financial success.

When he took over, there were 238,000 skier days at a "low average price." Last year, Park City experienced 550,000 skier days at "prices competitive with the good destination resorts." His son Craig, killed in a helicopter accident at the resort two years ago, helped put Park City on the ski map through sponsorship of many competitions, including the Senator's Cup and the Special Olympics. It regularly hosts the opening round of the World Cup, attracting 350 journalists, including 250 from outside the U.S., making it the focal point of the ski world for several days.

Badami works to get as much control as possible of a business better known for its dependence on the munificence of Mother Nature and other unpredictables. "We have invested in snow making to set a standard of reliability," he said. A businessman at heart, Badami knows what it takes to make a sport a financial success. He sees the future of Utah skiing as especially bright: "an excellent image, the finest snow on earth, great mountains and fabulous transportation." Spoken like a true Utah ski resort owner.

Based in Salt Lake City. Alan Horowitz writes about computer technology and business.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Olympus Publishing Co.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:profiles
Author:Horowitz, Alan
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:Greatest snow on earth.
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