GRANBY — From atop a snowy knoll along the icy headwaters of the Colorado River, Derek Wilson beckons across a field of beeping, growling earthmovers.
“Really, our plan is about what people want,” says Wilson, an executive with Sun Communities, the nation’s largest builder of manufactured home communities that is betting big on the expanding recreational vehicle movement.
And Sun is staking a claim in Granby with an audacious plan for RV slips, rental cabins, for-sale villas and glamping spots surrounding a resort clubhouse with a swimming pool, a bowling alley, a bistro and store, fishing ponds and an affordable mobile home community. It’s a resort development concept unlike anything in Colorado, arriving in the middle of a sweeping renaissance in Grand County.
The River Run Resort — with a combination of 1,100 RV berths, campsites and cabins — is a cornerstone in the revival of Granby, which has long languished as both a pass-through and bedroom community for workers around the Winter Park resort. With an everyman appeal, the project promises to fuel Granby’s growth into a vacation gateway and outdoor-recreation anchored community.
“I thought that type of visitor, the RV visitor, would be a great for igniting our downtown,” said Paul Chavoustie, a developer and business man who was instrumental in landing Sun Communities and the RV resort plan. He now is Granby’s mayor. “A density of 1,000 to 1,100 sites, with two or three people per site adds a critical mass to really make our downtown something special.”
The River Run Resort is pretty much the polar opposite of what was planned more than a decade ago for the former Horn Ranch. During the last boom, developers of the nearby Grand Elk golf community bought the cattle ranch and began work on what they called Orvis Shorefox, a gated, high-end golf and equestrian community with top-shelf fly fishing, targeted to a few deep-pocketed buyers. They installed water and sewer lines. They paved the golf cart paths and bolted benches next to the tee boxes.
When the bottom fell out of the luxury market in the high country in 2009, the Orvis Shorefox bankruptcy marked one of the largest in Grand County history. A decade later, the property has moved from a bank, to a Florida real estate investment trust to the Town of Granby to Sun Communities.
And the plan now is more simple, with offerings that appeal to not just one buyer, but almost everyone passing through Granby at the intersection of the Fraser and Colorado rivers, a portal to Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park and Winter Park.
“Do you want to own a vacation cabin? Do you want a rental? An RV slip? A combination? Look at most markets, and what we’ve learned is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. That’s what we think makes this community so appealing,” Wilson said.
It’s been a long road to this point for Granby. Really for all of Grand County. While resort communities in Summit, Eagle and Pitkin rebounded swiftly after the recession, Grand County took its time. Granby especially. Long a bedroom community for nearby Winter Park and a drive-through town along the resort-dotted U.S. 40, high-end golf communities sprouted on the southern edge of town in the early 2000s. But Granby’s core flanking the highway remained largely untouched.
The Orvis Shorefox plan promised economic vibrancy, but the bankruptcy left the 1,553-acre property at the corner of U.S. 40 and 34 derelict. The paved cart paths were choked with weeds. CNL, a Florida real estate investment company that loaned the Grand Elk developers $40 million, took over the property in 2010.
“We hit the timing completely wrong,” said Steve Bromberg, who was the general manager of both Grand Elk and the Shorefox project when the economy tanked. “Now, I think they are hitting the mark. They are filling a void that Grand County has in pricing. The plan now will help the local community as well as visitors.”
CNL was the largest ski resort owner in North America during the recession, overseeing a stable of 16 ski resorts and seven ski resort villages, including Crested Butte Mountain Resort and the Village at Copper Mountain. In late 2010, CNL listed the Granby property for $60 million but in 2016 the price dropped to $15 million, not including the ranch’s enviable 233 acre-feet of water rights.
Chavoustie studied CNL’s board-meeting minutes. He saw that the CNL resort investment was set to expire around 2016 and the board was pushing to liquidate its non-performing assets to begin paying back investors. He approached the Granby town board with a plan to negotiate for the property and they gave him the green light.
The Town of Granby scored big as CNL closed its trust, buying the property and all its water rights for $4.5 million in 2016. A few months later, Chavoustie was elected mayor and by the fall of 2016, Granby residents had access to the property’s trails and riverfront.
Granby put out a request for a buyer, proposing an RV resort with a mix of camping sites and cabins. The plan was to cluster as many visitors as possible on a portion of the parcel and retain the rest as open space for recreation.
Earlier this year Granby sold 400 acres of the Orvis Shorefox spread and about 150 acre-feet of water to Sun Communities for $5.25 million. The town sold Sun another 60 acres for about $1 million for a 310 modular-home community in a county where the average home price this summer topped $582,000.
With the extra money made on the sale, Granby paid off all its debt from rebuilding its town hall, which was leveled in 2004 by an irked local welder and the armored earthmover he called “Killdozer.” The town has a cache of extra water and 1,100 acres it plans to set aside as open space for recreation.
“It worked out really well for us,” said Granby Town Manager Aaron Blair.
Blair’s office walls are papered with hand-scrawled charts, notes and lists. A diagram of dreams, most well underway, that promise to change Granby. Like public art projects, new trails and parks and a transformed downtown. When Blair came aboard, he aligned with Granby’s board and mayor in not following the golf plan originally sketched for the sprawling ranch north of town.
The Grand Elk and Granby Ranch communities on the south edge of Granby offer golf. A few miles up U.S. 34, Grand Lake has two of Colorado’s most popular lakes and serves as a summer gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. At the other end of the county, Winter Park has its ski resort.
“Looking at the project, we wanted to bring diversity to the marketplace. Something different,” Blair said. “So the RVs, the glamping, the adventure center, the short-term rentals, we just saw this as a different kind of resort. Basically, it’s a large outdoor hotel. We think this allows us to put our own, distinct mark on the county.”
There are a lot of new marks in Grand County these days.
- Winter Park ski area has a new operator, with Alterra Mountain Co. investing more than $28 million on a new base-area gondola.
- The Town of Winter Park is booming, with cable and telecom magnate Bob Fanch, the owner of the 6,000-acre Devil’s Thumb Ranch, investing heavily in downtown.
- Buz Koelbel, whose 19-year-old, 1,100-acre mixed-use Rendezvous community is growing between Winter Park and Fraser, recently announced plans to build a new downtown welcome center surrounded by, possibly, 10 new condos.
- The owners of downtown’s Cooper Creek Square have broken ground on a new transportation center for buses running the length of the Fraser Valley between the ski resort and Granby.
- Developer Brian Novak is building 56 condos above new retail at his Arrow at Winter Park project on the resort town’s rapidly changing downtown main street.
- Grand Lake on the other side of the county this summer won state designation as Colorado’s 22nd Creative District, opening up grants and funding to support a new live-work project for artists, spurring the region’s creative economy.
- The longtime owner of the Granby Ranch community, Marise Cipriani, is negotiating the sale of her nearly 6,000-acre ski and golf resort.
And right in the middle of the swirl of development are Granby and Sun Communities.
“I think River Run fits the character and diversity of experiences folks can have around Granby and it’s creating a sense of community that is still affordable,” said DiAnn Butler, who heads Grand County’s economic development efforts.
As Grand County grows, affordable housing is scarce, mirroring an increasingly critical issue across the Colorado high country. Sun Communities is building a modular home community — called Smith Creek Crossing — for Granby, with 310 homes. Another developer is planning about 200 new affordable apartments to Granby, which counts about 2,100 residents.
“We’ve been able to pull off more affordable housing per capita than anyone else I’m aware of,” Chavoustie said.
Last year Grand County real estate buyers spent $632.9 million on 1,799 properties, up more than 40 percent from 2016, according to sales statistics collected by Land Title Guarantee Co. That’s almost even with the previous high-point set in 2007, before everything crumbled. Sales through October this year were $576.1 million, setting a pace for a record year.
As the Grand County market heats up, Granby remains an island of affordability, with a median home price of $269,000 so far this year. River Run Resort and Smith Creek Crossing hope to float that affordability. The resort will offer for-sale cabins — modular homes designed and built by several different companies — starting around $300,000, Wilson said.
Michigan-based Sun Communities owns 370 communities in 31 states and Canada’s Ontario, including 109 RV resorts. In October, the company reported $852.9 million in revenue for fiscal 2018. The company in the last few years began investing heavily in RV parks, hoping to tap the surging RV economy. The RV Industry Association reports more than 504,000 RVs will be shipped to dealers in 2018, marking a ninth consecutive record for the industry and more than double the number shipped in 2011.
The company is expanding Larkspur’s Jellystone RV park to 600 sites from 150 after paying $7.4 million for the 69-acre campground in 2016. Sun has mobile home parks in Evans, Firestone, Thornton, Pueblo, Fort Collins and Dillon. The 99.6 percent occupancy of its 2,335 mobile home sites in Colorado marks the company’s highest occupancy rates across its network, according to the publicly-traded company’s earnings report.
Earlier this year Sun opened Cava Robles RV Resort in the Paso Robles wine country of Central California. The resort offers 310 RV and trailer sites and 22 cabins, with prices starting at $69 a night for the camping sites and $129 for the cabins.
But River Run Resort, the largest ground-up project in the 44-year-old company’s history, will be Sun’s flagship community. Part of the resort is scheduled to open next summer. The project’s broad appeal, with overnight camping and cabins for both rent and sale, provides some immunity to an economic downturn like the last one that stung that previous owners of the property, who bet it all on luxury buyers, Wilson said.
“We think we have some built-in resiliency here,” he said.
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