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Veteran resort operator proposes to lead Granby Ranch out of chaos

Andy Wirth, a former executive at Steamboat Springs, Intrawest and Squaw Alpine, is vying to manage skiing and golf at Granby Ranch as the resort's owner navigates foreclosure

A chairlift at Ski Granby Ranch in early December 2018. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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 A Colorado ski industry veteran has assembled a team that wants to run the ski area and golf operations at Granby Ranch even as the longtime owner of the resort navigates foreclosure

“The circumstance of Granby Ranch is relatively tumultuous. The current situation does not deter us at all,” Andy Wirth and his son Jace wrote in a bid submitted last week to run Granby Ranch’s recreation amenities.

Wirth spent nearly 25 years with Steamboat ski area and Intrawest before captaining California’s Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows for several years. His son Jace, who grew up on the family’s ranch near Clark, has an MBA from the University of Denver and spent three years helping to develop a resort in China that will host events for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The two are working with the lender, who is foreclosing on the property to replace the existing management of Granby Ranch’s ski and golf operations.

Andy Wirth worked with Steamboat ski area and Intrawest before leading California’s Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort. He has assembled a team to help manage Granby Ranch ski and golf operations. (Provided by Andy Wirth)

Marise Cipriani last year said she was walking away from the nearly 5,000-acre property where she had spent 25 years struggling to develop a four-season resort with a proposed 4,000 homes. Lenders didn’t like the deed-in-lieu of foreclosure deal that delivered the resort as payment for debt and in January moved to foreclose on Cipriani, citing nearly $63 million in debt.  

The California-based lender, Granby Prentice, is foreclosing on a series of loans provided to Cipriani since 2005, totaling $47.6 million, not counting $15.1 million in interest and fees. The lawsuit filed in January asked a Grand County judge to approve a receiver to guide the foreclosure process. Granby Prentice is foreclosing on the real estate owned by Cipriani though her Granby Realty Holdings and not the ski area or golf operations. Granby Prentice created GP Granby Amenities Holdings LLC last month and tapped the Wirths’ newly formed Ridgeline Executive Group as a consultant to guide resort operations. 

Jace Wirth spent a few years working with Genting Resort Secret Garden in China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. (Provided by Jace Wirth)

The layers of real estate and operational companies at Granby Ranch — for example, Granby Realty Holdings is the real estate owner and Granby Ranch Amenities manages the ski and golf operations — coupled with the layers of 10 different metro districts at Granby Ranch, makes for a complicated scenario. Add in a lender creating even more operational entities — using, inexplicably, the same names — and the network of operations at Granby Ranch needs a flowchart. 

Last month Granby Prentice filed a motion to stay the judicial foreclosure and is working with the Grand County Treasurer and Public Trustee Christina Whitmer on pursuing a possible nonjudicial, county-guided foreclosure with the county.

“It’s faster and cheaper that way,” said Randal Lewis, the court-appointed receiver in charge of protecting the value of the Granby Ranch real estate during the foreclosure process. 

Whitmer said she is working with Granby Prentice’s attorney to make sure documents for a county-guided foreclosure are in compliance with state law. The lender has not filed to start the public foreclosure process, she said, but they have expressed an intent to do so. 

The Granby Ranch community is controlled by the Headwaters Metro District, which leases the ski resort and golf course property from Cipriani’s Granby Realty Holdings in a deal that has Granby Amenities managing the recreational facilities. The long-term lease arrangement would eventually transfer the ski area and golf properties to homeowners whose fees support the lease payments. The board has two members, both of whom work for Cipriani. 

“It would be nice if homeowners had a position on the Headwaters board,” said Granby Ranch resident Steve Conrad. 

Conrad said he is “excited, but cautious” about the Wirths helping to guide the recreational operations at Granby Ranch.

“On its face, this is pretty encouraging,” he said. “But we need to know who is going to be pulling the strings and who is going to be developing the property. Who is going to be investing? If there is no capital for investment, this will just be hiring people to manage the same operations with inferior infrastructure. We need snowmaking pipe. The lodge needs improvements. The sewer is defunct. The elevator is nearing the end of its useful life. We need lots of capital.”

Granby Ranch’s Quickdraw Express in December 2018. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

And Cipriani has not invested in recent years. The Town of Granby is demanding that Cipriani pay $3 million to repair crumbling roads and has stopped issuing building permits until the money is paid. Cipriani has $1.7 million in bonds for repairs and the surety company that issued those bonds is reviewing the town’s call for the funds to fix streets and other public infrastructure inside the resort development. That’s just one of her major issues, which include a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Texas woman who died after a chairlift malfunction in December 2016. 

The Wirths, who say they are “very aware” of the need for upgrades and maintenance at the ski area, say it’s too early to start talking about how they would manage the ranch’s recreation or where they would direct investment. They are asking the Headwaters Metro District board for details about the operations to better develop a plan. 

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They visited over President’s Day Weekend and saw a busy ski area “with tons of laughing and tons of smiles,” Jace Wirth said. 

“When we talked with folks on the chairlift and at the base area, they said ‘This is where I want to bring my family to learn how to ski. It’s affordable and easy here.’” Jace said. “Over and over again we heard about how Granby Ranch is mellow and it’s about family and friends and that’s why people wanted to be there.”

As Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. consolidate more resorts into their Epic and Ikon pass programs, smaller, independent resorts are maneuvering in the shadow of the clashing giants. With more passholders crowding major resorts, the smaller hills are finding a growing population of skiers interested in dodging crowds at independent ski areas, like Monarch, Loveland, Ski Cooper and Granby Ranch. 

“Vail Resorts and Alterra, they are doing a fantastic job competing on that grander stage but that does not mean they have usurped the opportunities for places like Granby Ranch,” said Andy Wirth, who helped Denver’s KSL Capital Partners grow California’s Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort before it was acquired by Alterra Mountain Co. in 2017. “They are actually creating opportunities. Should we have the honor of working with the team at Granby Ranch, we do see real opportunities not despite the competitive environment, but because of the competitive environment.”

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