GRAND JUNCTION — Cody Wells lifts his welding helmet and takes a step back from the massive steel wheels dangling from the girders of the Leitner-Poma of America warehouse.
“It’s like a mad-scientist piece. There’s not another one like this anywhere,” he says.
Wells is welding together two bullwheels — one on top of the other like a stack of cookies — to create a pivot point inside a midstation for the new six-seat chairlift at Alpine Meadows in California. The double bullwheel is the first of its kind for the lift manufacturer and the first for any resort in North America.
Wells is adjusting his weld to accommodate for the metal expanding as it warms during his fiery fusing. He would be happy if the seam between the two stacked bullwheels stays within 1/16th of an inch of perfect.
“But I’m shooting for perfect,” he says.
“That’s the art right there,” says Daren Cole, the 25-year ski resort industry veteran who took the reins at Leitner-Poma of America in March. “These guys, they’re craftsmen. They’re artists. My brain gets tied in a knot thinking about their work sometimes.”
Leitner-Poma is on the cusp of a historical boom as an army of those artists not only builds chairlifts for ski resorts locked in an industry-shifting, investment-driven battle for skier loyalty but also prepares for a surge of urban transportation systems that could redefine the way Americans move across cities.
At the company’s sprawling campus in the shadow of Grand Junction’s Book Cliffs, those metal artists use custom-built machines, robots, lasers, plasma cutters and welding torches to build chairlifts, gondolas and, recently, urban transportation systems used around the world.
Every project is built to spec, with its own particular design, engineering and layout. And business is booming in a resort industry arms race that has titans Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. funneling record investment into their mountains.
Just like the armsmakers who win in wartime, Leitner-Poma of America is thriving as resort operators big and small replace and burnish chairlifts.
“Last year was one of our biggest years ever,” Cole says of the 120-worker company that landed in Grand Junction in 1981. “This year is softer, but I anticipate the next couple years will be big.”
Leitner-Poma of America is the North American branch of France’s Poma S.A. and the sister company of Leitner A.G, in Italy. The company is part of Italy’s 3,500-worker High Technologies Industries Group, or HTI, which includes Prinoth snow groomers, Demaclenko snowmaking systems and Leitwind gearless wind turbines. Last year the family-owned HTI Group reported its 2017 revenue topped 1 billion euros (roughly $1.1 billion) for the first time, a 16% increase over the previous year.
Skiing is Leitner-Poma of America’s bread-and-butter. Three years ago the company acquired Salt Lake City’s Skytrac, the leading manufacturer of simple, affordable fixed-grip chairlifts that work for small resorts or zones that don’t see huge traffic. And this year, Skytrac is having its biggest year ever, Cole says.
“We have 10 projects right now, and probably six of those are fixed-grips,” he says, noting that Skytrac is installing a new fixed-grip to replace Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s 1979 Teocalli chair. “That’s a shift from last year, when we saw a ton of new technology and a ton of new, big, big lifts.”
The last boom in the North American ski lift industry came in the early- to mid-1990s, when resorts replaced those slow, fixed-grip chairlifts with the now-ubiquitous detachable chairlifts, which allow for higher speeds because chairs are removed from the spinning cable to load and unload skiers.
All those detachable chairs are coming up for replacement right about now, which is fueling a second boom for Leitner-Poma and its Austrian rival, Doppelmayr. And resort operators like Vail Resorts — which has somewhere around 400 chairlifts under its domain, following its acquisition this summer of 17 Midwestern ski areas — and Alterra are driving record investment as they upgrade that aging infrastructure and entice pass-buying skiers with shiny new lifts.
Vail Resorts is investing $175 million to $180 million in capital improvements for 2019-20. Alterra is directing $181 million toward its 14 resorts for the upcoming season, part of the operator’s plan to inject $555 million in its ski areas over the next five years.
But it’s not all about high-dollar replacement. Cole’s team can refurbish existing lifts and provide lower-cost, fixed-grip chairs in addition to high-capacity detachable installations.
And he’s growing a list of U.S. resort clients that are not just signing multi-year contracts for lift replacements and upgrades, but they are also inking deals with Prinoth for grooming machines and Demaclenko for snowmaking. His company recently unveiled a digital platform for resort operators to track automated snowmaking, grooming and lifts from a single dashboard that ties in all of HTI Group’s technology.
“Now we are working on multi-year, multi-lift, multi-resort contracts,” he says.
Leitner-Poma of America last year built the new gondola at Winter Park for resort operator Alterra. The company also built and installed two of the largest lifts in the country at Copper Mountain, part of a multi-year, $100 million, on-mountain investment by the resort’s owner Powdr Corp. Copper’s new sixpack American Flyer ranks as the longest bubble-enclosed chair in the world, and its new American Eagle combines sixpack chairlifts with eight-person gondola cabins.
Both the new Copper Mountain chairs feature Leitner-Poma’s first direct-drive systems in North America, a technology that comes from HTI Group’s wind turbine business and uses less energy by eliminating a gearbox to power the lift. And this summer, Cole’s team built a new fixed-grip triple chairlift accessing the steeps spilling from the 12,337-foot Tucker Mountain at Copper.
The surge in lift-business signals a rebound from the recession-triggered collapse in 2008, when lift building stalled.
“Nobody was doing these big capital projects for a number of years, and it’s worked its way back to where it was in the ‘90s, when everyone was putting in these new detachable chairlifts,” says Peter Landsman, the Jackson Hole skier who maintains a database of lifts in North America and tracks lift installations at his comprehensive LiftBlog.com.
The new chairs at the base of Copper Mountain and Winter Park mark a renewed focus by resorts eager to grow lift capacity out of base villages. That focus on base-area capacity is shifting lift-upgrade plans and priorities higher on the mountain.
“We put in these new chairs, and dynamics of the whole mountain can change,” Cole says. “So what we are asking resorts now is how they can look at this lift, this lift and this lift that were next on their list but consider that traffic patterns are completely different.”
For example, after several years of replacing four-pack chairs with high-speed six-pack lifts on all five peaks of Breckenridge ski area, the resort in March submitted a proposal for a new lift for Peak 7 that was not part of the resort’s 2007 and 2013 master plans submitted to the Forest Service.
“I think everybody is sort of reassessing everything right now,” Landsman says.
One of the brightest horizons for Leitner-Poma of America is urban gondola transportation using a three-cable system its sibling companies Poma and Leitner have developed in cities across the world. Aerial tramways are huge internationally.
Poma built and operates a 10-gondola network in Medellin, Colombia, that is a big part of the urban transportation system for the 240,000-resident city. Leitner and Poma have cable transportation systems in Algeria, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France and Italy.
Cole says interest is growing in the U.S., where his company operates the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City and the automated people-mover system at Miami International Airport.
His company is talking with Oakland about gondolas connecting the proposed Oakland A’s stadium with downtown. He’s studying a possible gondola across the Potomac River in Washington. There’s a proposal to string gondolas between L.A.’s Dodger Stadium and downtown. Another would connect Staten Island in New York with Bayonne in New Jersey. Utah transportation officials have identified a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon as an option for reducing skier traffic on the avalanche-prone route.
In Colorado, talk of Telluride-like gondolas connecting mountains and communities have long lingered in Winter Park, Steamboat and the Roaring Fork Valley.
A developer in Loveland wants to build a gondola connecting Northern Colorado Regional Airport with The Ranch and The Brands West villages. Cole thinks the pie-in-the-sky tinge of urban aerial transportation could be fading as communities large and small grapple with auto traffic.
“I’d say in the U.S., right now there are probably 12 to 18 proposed aerial cable systems out there,” says Cole, who expects the first American city to install an urban gondola will trigger a deluge across the country. “So that’s a huge focus for us. The challenge can be that you go into some of these places and you say ‘gondola’ and they think Venice with the boats going through the canals.”