JHNG Article: Snow King offers new plans for hill

POSTED: WEDNESDAY, MAY 9, 2012 12:00 AM
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Snow King’s owners unveiled ambitious new plans Monday for the Town Hill, including installing zip lines, an alpine coaster and a bike park they hope will make the ski area profitable.

Snow King managing partner Manuel Lopez and co-owner Clarene Law said they hope to partner with local government and community groups to raise the money necessary to pay for projects.

“This is the introduction to the dance,” Law said. “This is going to take a lot of collaboration.”

On Monday, Lopez and Law — along with Sebastian Lopez-Wilson, Manuel’s son — described plans for the hill. They said Snow King needs new features to be profitable and to ensure it remains open in the winter.

Their vision is an attempt to link the historic hill to the rest of town, attract new users and open new activities across the entire site, they said.

“This is the only way I see that it’s going to be possible to keep it open,” Lopez said Tuesday. “It has to be sustainable. I think it can be profitable.”

Before the 2011-12 ski season, Snow King’s owners threatened to close the ski area, saying it was a $500,000-per-year drag on the resort.

Although owners worked with community members who wanted to take control of the hill, the resort ultimately opened Snow King for skiing.

The plan to keep the ski hill financially viable focuses on five areas: an activity center near the hotel, a camp near the top of the Rafferty lift, a gateway into the property at the corner of Cache Street and Snow King Avenue, a yurt area on the south side of the mountain and another activity area at the summit.

“We would like to bring out our strengths,” Lopez-Wilson said. “The location in the center of town, it’s highly visible from everywhere in town. It’s easily accessible by any means of transportation. It has steep and challenging terrain. It’s a ski-racing destination. It’s the community hub. It’s the Town Hill.”

Near the existing hotel, Lopez said, he hopes to build a ropes course, a free-ride bicycle park, a zip line and an alpine coaster.

Lopez-Wilson described the latter as a mix between a roller coaster and an alpine slide that could be used year-round.

Construction of those improvements could start as soon as next year, he said.

Lopez said he hopes to improve the Panorama House, the existing structure at the top of the mountain. He wants to run water lines to the top of the King and stretch snowmaking to the top of the ski hill

The proposal included a small cluster of yurts on the south side of the mountain. Lopez-Wilson said this area likely would see more trails for Nordic skiing and bicycling and possibly could include dog sled tours to the yurts.

“When you’re back there, it feels very isolated, but it’s very easily accessible,” Lopez-Wilson said Monday. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

The summit also might be tapped to serve as the takeoff point for a zip line that would run to the base of the mountain, a drop of roughly 1,500 feet.

Near the middle of the mountain, west of the Rafferty lift, Lopez envisions an area for camps. He mentioned a small amphitheater for lectures or weddings as well as space for selling food and drinks and giving skiers and bikers a place to rest.

That area might also serve as a location for a new horse corral and an area for a bicycle and terrain park.

That part of the mountain would need water and power, Lopez said.

He said he might try to work with the town, which has a tank on Snow King, to provide water. Power would have to be brought to the site from the base.

For the area near the corner of Cache Street and Snow King Avenue, Lopez-Wilson outlined plans to remove the parking area and create room for concerts and other events.

He also said that area would be the landing zone for the pair of zip lines, one from the top of the mountain and another from near the top of the Rafferty lift.

“It will be a huge visual cue that could be natural marketing,” Lopez-Wilson said. “Anyone who comes into town will see a huge zip line coming down from the top of the mountain.”

Lopez and his son said the improvements are intended to appeal to a wide range of users and to introduce Snow King as destination for sports other than ski racing.

“Freeriding is a trend that is becoming a norm and a necessity in our industry,” Lopez-Wilson said Monday. “To maintain our relevance and move into the future, it’s really something we need to address while still maintaining our focus on snow sports.”

Though they probably will need approvals from town and U.S. Forest Service officials to offer the added attractions, many of the proposed uses would fall within the existing master plan for the site.

Under the approved master plan, Snow King still has the ability to develop a large amount of square footage and new recreational activities.

The resort has more than 620,000 square feet of potential development that could still be built as part of its original master plan, a document approved in 2000 that granted Snow King the ability to develop more than 900,000 square feet of commercial, residential and lodging space.

Town Planning Director Tyler Sinclair said the recreational amenities, such as zip lines, bike park and alpine coaster, likely would be allowed under the existing resort plan.

“Really, everything he was talking about falls under that general category, which falls under allowed use outside building footprints,” Sinclair said Tuesday.

Even though it is allowed under the master plan, Sinclair said new development still would need to go through some kind of public review process.

Forest Service officials could not be reached by press time.

The extensive list of new amenities and facilities on the mountain is the latest plan keep the struggling ski area operating.

Last year, a deal collapsed that would have seen the ski area run by a nonprofit group called Friends of Snow King. Members of the Jackson Hole Land Trust also negotiated with Lopez to preserve parts of the ski area.

Lopez said he is still in talks with an unnamed group to buy the hotel, but he would not offer any more details about the status of those negotiations. Lopez said the buyers likely would be involved in the project simply because of its proximity to the mountain, but he was unsure of exactly how that relationship might play out.

“The talks are in good shape,” he said.

The proposed changes mark a big shift in the historic ski hill, changes its owners say are necessary to help the community ski area survive.

Last year, Lopez said the mountain saw a sizable increase in revenue from an outpouring of community support. Ski area officials launched a promotion last ski season encouraging residents to buy season passes to help the mountain keep its lift running.

The ski area has been a significant feature of the town since skiers began hiking up the mountain in the 1920s.

The first ski jump was constructed in 1926.

The mountain, sometimes called Kelly’s Hill or the Town Hill, was officially renamed Snow King in 1938.

A year later, the first lift — a rope tow purchased from an oil drilling company in Casper — opened to the public. It was powered by a tractor and could carry 18 to 20 people at a time.

A recent report, commissioned by the Teton County Historic Preservation Board, said the ski area is a “cultural landscape” that is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

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