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Weather permitting: Utah's ski industry faces change, prepares for a sunny future.

From boasting the Greatest Snow on Earth to welcoming the world during the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah's ski product is among the country's best. And it's only expected to get better, says Nathan Rafferty, executive director of Ski Utah. "Our future is really, really bright," he says.

Utah's ski industry has seen an abundance of attention in recent years. Several resorts have received national awards and are consistently ranked among the country's best. National and international skier visits are trending up, and private companies who recognize the industry's excellence are investing millions of dollars to enhance infrastructure further.

But Utah's ski product isn't just a recreational boon for residents and tourists--it packs a strong economic punch of around $1 billion. "Skiing is such a great industry because we bring people in and give them great memories," says Rafferty. "And they come here, they spend their money and then they go home. We don't educate their kids here. They don't use our roads. It's such a great benefit to our state."

While Rafferty exudes confidence and excitement in Utah's ski product, he acknowledges there are many challenges to overcome--challenges like environmental impact issues, transportation planning and the whims of Mother Nature. But he says industry and public leaders are working hard to ensure Utah's ski industry stays at the top of its game.

Navigating Rough Terrain

One of the toughest issues facing Utah's ski industry is planning the future of Utah's Central Wasatch Mountains, There are many diverse interests and needs to consider--needs that extend far beyond the ski industry. From environmental concerns to backcountry recreation, the Central Wasatch Mountains are a critical part of Utah's future,

Leading the planning charge is the Mountain Accord, a volunteer group that is focused on finding solutions and compromises regarding Utah's Central Wasatch Mountains. Comprised of nearly 20 diverse organizations, ranging from ski resorts to municipalities to environmental groups, and involving nearly 200 stakeholders, the Mountain Accord aims to examine and plan the future of the Central Wasatch Mountains, ensuring Utah has clean water, a thriving economy and accessible recreation for years to come.

In late July, the Mountain Accord executive team unanimously approved its first major recommendation, which included a momentous land exchange deal.

"We think this will preserve the Central Wasatch Mountains far into the future," says Laynee Jones, Mountain Accord program manager.

The land exchange deal includes an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the four Cottonwood Canyons ski resorts--Snowbird, Brighton, Alta and Solitude. Per the deal, the four ski resorts will give up more than 2,100 acres that will go into permanent public ownership and protection. In return, the resorts will receive approximately 760 acres of federal land at the base of their resorts.

"The current Cottonwood Canyons is a patchwork of private and public land ownership," explains Jones. "This [deal] means that lands used for public water supply and public recreation are no longer in private ownership. The land exchanges are a way for us to preserve upper watershed land and recreational land that's important to all of us, while allowing the resorts to retain ownership of the base of their areas. This is a benefit for the public as well as the ski resorts."

The deal was also approved by several environmentally focused groups. "The big win for the environmental community is that the accord proposes additional environmental protections in the mountains that would prevent sprawling development where we don't want it, which has been an issue we fought over for many, many years," says Jones.

While many are excited about the Mountain Accord's proposal, the land exchange requires an Act of Congress before it can legally be implemented. Jones, however, is confident that the land exchange will go through. "It's an opportunity for us to glue in place what we have today for many generations to come."

Though the land exchange deal has been reached, the Mountain Accord team is far from concluding its planning work, says Jones. Several crucial and controversial issues remain undecided, such as transportation. The group plans to tackle that issue next.

"We really want to apply collaborative consensus building and ask for community involvement to solve transportation and other issues," she says.

Ski Utah's Rafferty, who is also is a member of the Mountain Accord's executive board, says transportation is his top concern. "In a word, transportation is my biggest fear," he says.

Transportation has long been one of the ski industry's primary challenges and most controversial issues. Travelling from the Salt Lake Valley to the mountain and around the resorts can be a nightmare for skiers and snowboarders. But developing transit and transportation that works efficiently and is environmentally responsible is easier said than done. There are several issues to consider, such as preserving watershed and backcountry recreation.

Mountain Accord members have already started exploring this tough issue, says Jones. The group is examining bus and rail transit improvements, a potential non-auto tunnel connection between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, as well as One Wasatch, the proposal to connect all seven resorts in the area. The Accord team will also examine improvements to cycling and pedestrian trails.

"We need to plan our transportation ahead of time, because it moves so slowly. If you want to put in light rail between resorts, it's going to take years. That's something that we need to be forward-thinking about," says Rafferty.

Park City Chamber President Bill Malone agrees. "Both the municipal and county governments here are discussing new, innovative and unique ways to transport our guests around town," he says. "These are exciting times to think about how we make the experience of a vacation in [Utah] even greater for our guests."

The Mountain Accord team is currently seeking public feedback regarding transportation on its website,

Battling Mother Nature

As the 2015/16 winter season approaches, Utah's powder hounds and ski industry leaders are anxiously awaiting the year's first snowfall--especially after last year's dry spell. Mother Nature dealt the industry a hard blow last season, with record-breaking high temperatures and low snowfall.

"Our skier business dropped 4.9 percent last year. The last time the snow was as challenging as it was last year was over 35 years ago," says Rafferty.

While Utah's unseasonably warm winters the past four years have challenged the industry and disappointed skiers and snowboarders, Rafferty says snowmaking technology has successfully kept the industry up and running. He compares last year's skier visitation drop of 4.9 percent to the 1976-77 season, when low snowfall led to a skier visitation drop by a whopping 40 percent.

"The big change between last year and 76/77 was we didn't have snowmaking infrastructure back then," Rafferty says.

"The commitment that the resorts have made to snowmaking saved our industry last year."

Malone agrees. "Technology and grooming techniques have continually gotten better at creating a ski and ride product that is exceptional, even in low snow seasons," he says, adding that the state's marketing efforts have also been vital to attracting national and international tourists in recent years.

"Local tax revenues grew last year despite the fact that both snowfall and skier days were down," Malone says. "To me, that is proof that marketing works."

Rafferty says Utah will have a phenomenal skiing and record-breaking winter tourism season this year, if Mother Nature cooperates. "If we have a decent snow year, we'll have a record season. I have no doubt in my mind. We've been waiting for what seems like forever, for people who like to go powder skiing, for an awesome snow year. We will have a record season if we have decent snow fall. We're ready for it."

Moving Full Speed Ahead

Though Utah's ski industry is facing its share of challenges, Rafferty says he couldn't be more excited for the industry's future. He believes Utah is poised to become the country's best skiing and snowboarding destination.

"There's a lot to be excited about--we have so much momentum. For a long time, Utah had a very good ski product, but it was second tier to our competition. In the last two years, over half of our ski resorts have changed hands, but not because people were trying to get rid of them--it's because businesses want to invest in Utah, specifically Utah's ski industry."

Rafferty points to the private dollars flowing into the state's ski resorts as a sign of the industry's strength and promise.

"We have the biggest infrastructure improvements going on this year since the Olympics," he says. "Vail, one of largest and best ski operators in the world, is investing $50 million this summer alone in their product in Utah. That tells me they're bullish on their opportunity in Utah."

Vail's $50 million investment is being put to use at its Park City and Canyons resorts. The two resorts officially merged in July and rebranded under the Park City name. They will be linked by a gondola and undergo several improvement projects that will integrate the resorts' existing structures, as well as complete a number of critical infrastructure upgrades. The $50 million investment is one of the country's largest capital improvement projects in the ski industry's history, says Rafferty. Moreover, it will create the country's largest ski resort, offering 38 lifts, 400 runs and more than 7,300 acres of skiable terrain.

"It's hard to overstate how big of a deal [Park City resort] is for the state of Utah," says Rafferty. "The infrastructure improvements that are happening between those two resorts and the press and the excitement extends beyond those resorts and beyond Park City--it really shines the light on Utah."

Malone says the Park City/Canyons merger and private dollars flowing into the ski industry will enhance the area's local economy. "The fact that private sector investment into our community over the past 10 years has been significant only shows that investors are quite bullish on the future of tourism in Summit County," he says. "This will have a significant positive economic impact on the ski and tourism industry."

Not everyone in the Park City community is excited about Vail's purchase of Park City Mountain Resort. Many local businesses fear being swept to the side by Vail and its long-standing business partners. In Utah Business magazine's annual Summit/ Wasatch regional roundtable (September 2015), Cathy Slusher, owner of C&S Creative, said, "Vail is a perfect example of zero trickle-down. While they employ temporary resort employees, everything comes out of Colorado. So we are not going to see a lot of trickle-down for the stable businesses, professional businesses, entrepreneurial businesses here."

She added, "The coffee deal was a perfect example where Vail got rid of Park City Roasters the minute they came into town and honored their Starbucks contract. We're seeing that everywhere with Vail."

Other ski resorts are also undergoing changes and upgrades. One highly anticipated renovation project is taking place at Snowbird, says Rafferty. Snowbird is slated to open its Hidden Peak facility this upcoming ski season. Sitting atop Snowbird's tram at 11,000 feet, Hidden Peak is a two-story glass encased structure that will overlook the Wasatch Mountains and Salt Lake Valley. The structure will be a place for skiers and snowboarders to relax and dine after a day on the slopes, and will also include a private dining area for parties and a 10,080-square-foot outdoor deck.

"[Hidden Peak] has been somewhat overshadowed by the other improvements, but it is an impressive building," says Rafferty. "The Hidden Peak facility has been in the works for 40 years, and it will be the crown jewel of the area. Snowbird is investing $35 million overall in their mountain this year."

Major infrastructure improvements are also taking place at Solitude Mountain Resort, which was acquired by Deer Valley Resort in May. And Utah welcomed the opening of its newest resort, Cherry Peak, last summer. Based in Cache County, Cherry Peak boasts a long run of 1.25 miles and is able to accommodate more than 1,000 skiers on 203 acres. It will be open to skiers this upcoming season.

"People may decide to come to Utah because they want to experience these improvements. And lots of people come here and they don't ski just one resort--they'll go to Salt Lake, Ogden, Provo and Park City. Overall, these improvements are going to be a great thing for industry as a whole," says Rafferty.

Though the industry has many challenges to overcome in the near future, Rafferty says there's so much to look forward to. "I'm really excited. I can't wait to see how well we're going to do."
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Title Annotation:UTAH RESORTS
Comment:Weather permitting: Utah's ski industry faces change, prepares for a sunny future.(UTAH RESORTS)
Author:Francom, Sarah Ryther
Publication:Utah Business
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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