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Purgatory and Silverton Mountain float interest in Silverton’s community ski hill

Two southwest Colorado ski area operators are interested in working with the Town of Silverton to grow the remote community’s Kendall Mountain ski area into a year-round amenity

The Town of Silverton is exploring expansion of its local Kendall Mountain ski area and two of southwest Colorado's ski area operators have expressed interest. (Provided to The Colorado Sun)
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Durango’s Mountain Capital Partners and local Silverton Mountain answered Silverton’s initial call for possible partners at the 16-acre Kendall Mountain ski area. And the two operators have different visions for the community ski hill. 

Mountain Capital Partners, or MCP, which owns Purgatory and seven other ski areas in four states, sees opportunity in a proposal for five new lifts and 300 acres of ski terrain climbing up toward the summit of the 13,451-foot Kendall Peak. Aaron and Jen Brill, the owners of the 18-year-old Silverton Mountain ski area about 10 miles out of town as well as a vast heliskiing operation in Alaska, think a smaller option with maybe just one new lift supports community interest in affordability and family-centric terrain.  

Landscape architect and land-use planning firm DHM Design Corp. also responded to the town’s request for potential partners. Grand Junction zipline course developer Bonsai Designs expressed interest in helping the town develop year-round recreation at the community ski area. Nebraska marketing agency Maly Marketing responded with an offer to help the town develop its messaging. 

The town’s Kendall Mountain Recreation Area Master Plan Committee on Tuesday appeared pleased at the initial response to its call for partners, especially the interest from the two closest ski area operators. 

“I don’t think we could ask for a better scenario,” said the committee’s Sue Morris during a meeting on Tuesday. 

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In 2017, Silverton residents began studying options for Kendall Mountain, a one-lift ski hill with about five groomed trails that hasn’t changed much since it was built in the late 1960s. A community survey showed overwhelming support for investing in Kendall Mountain and making a year-round, family-focused amenity that could also help grow a year-round economy. 

The town secured a planning grant from Great Outdoors Colorado and hired resort planning firm SE Group to outline possible expansion opportunities at the ski area that now can handle about 160 visitors a day. The resulting 68-page viability study sketched two possibilities for pushing skiing up the steep slopes above the town. One proposal creates 800 acres of skiing accessed by four chairlifts, with a price tag north of $25 million for the community of 600. A second proposal weaves 300 acres of skiing between privately owned mining claims with five lifts, including a beginner chair at the base. The ideas detail new base buildings and an array of summer draws like ziplines and an alpine slide. SE Group estimated annual visitation to Kendall Mountain would likely need to be 71,000 to 116,000 for the town to break even on its investment. (For context: The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad hosts about 200,000 riders in its summer-to-fall season, many visiting Silverton.)

Last year the town, which has an annual budget around $2.2 million, sent out a call for possible partners. The Request for Information asked interested parties to detail their experience working with federal land managers, their approach toward sustainable development, previous projects and impacts on a local community and possible challenges they see in the SE Group’s proposals in the viability study.

On Tuesday, the seven-member committee decided to focus on the two ski area operators and circle back to DHM, Bonsai and Maly once a more clear direction for the ski area was identified. The members have been surveying town leaders in other resort communities in the West — like Crested Butte, Telluride, Steamboat Springs and Park City, Utah — hoping to learn from the growth and challenges of ski towns that have developed more quickly than Silverton, a remote village isolated from nearby Durango and Ouray by mountain passes. 

One member cited how community ski areas can change over the years, pointing to Jackson, Wyoming’s Snow King, which in 2018 floated plans to grow from its local-hill roots into more of a destination, with a top-tier ski racing training facility, summer amenities, a planetarium and a gondola. Another committee member told of crowds overwhelming resort downtowns in the busy summer and winter seasons. Another warned of real estate speculation that follows development and spikes home prices. 

Committee member Sallie Barney said she was pleased to see local operators familiar with Silverton and its challenges step forward. 

Committee member Kevin Farmer emphasized the need for a partnership, not a deal for an investor seeking to develop real estate at the base of the ski area. 

“They are really going to be a partner with the community,” Farmer said.  

“We are very close to distilling who we are and what we want,” Morris said.  “The last piece is a refinement for getting our concept plan together and seeing what’s possible and available.”

Ultimately the committee will craft a plan that requires approval by a community vote.

Mountain Capital Partners, led by investor James Coleman, has grown its collection of ski areas from New Mexico’s Sipapu and Pajarito Mountain to include Purgatory and Hesperus in Colorado, Arizona’s Snowbowl and most recently Nordic Valley and Brian Head in Utah. The company’s response to the town’s questions identifies challenges that include “competing interests in the community,” and “navigating the web of private mining claims” when expanding terrain. 

“Given our connection to the community and surrounding area and thereby our understanding of the issues paramount to the community, and, importantly, our passion for skiing,” MCP’s submission reads, “we are confident that we can be consensus builders in the community and carry Silverton’s vision of the town and ski area forward.” 

Mountain Capital Partners, in its submission to the town, called SE Group’s sketch for five lifts accessing 300 acres “a sufficiently viable option” for expansion and providing a return on investment. That SE Group plan has 250 acres for intermediate, advanced and expert skiers.

Coleman said in an interview that he was not committed to any plan, including SE Group’s viability assessment options. 

“We are not far enough into it. We work with SE Group a lot and we know they do good work, but that doesn’t mean we won’t put our own flair into it and do our thing. I’d imagine we would have our own tweaks,” said Coleman, who is working with SE Group in developing Nordic Valley and says he has adjusted their plans with his own ideas.

Coleman said his team is often approached by communities asking for help developing more year-round economies. MCP’s work at Sipapu in Vadito, New Mexico, and Pajarito in Los Alamos, New Mexico, illustrate his team’s ability to foster year-round economies, Coleman said.

Coleman said he thinks an expanded Kendall Mountain could draw 100,000 visitors a year — the benchmark SE Group says Silverton needs to support new development. And he said the town won’t need major development to accommodate those visitors. (Silverton has about 175 beds in its collection of lodges, hotels and motels plus 42 homes available for short-term rental that can accommodate more than 200 guests a night.)

That’s enough, Coleman said.

“There’s a decent bed base there to build this infrastructure and not have to build any additional bed base,” Coleman said.  

Coleman sees similar opportunities in Silverton with what his team has done in smaller New Mexico communities. He said he moved his family and business from Texas to Durango in part because of its proximity to Silverton. 

“Silverton is a wonderful place. Having Silverton so close to Durango was an important part of our decision to move here,” he said. “We really do see how we can be able to benefit the town … and we take that role very seriously. We think it’s a really neat thing that we are able to give back to these smaller communities.”

Aaron and Jen Brill taught their son to ski at Kendall Mountain before taking him onto their steep ski area just out of town. The Brills’ one-lift ski area has revitalized the winter economy in Silverton. Their initial proposal, Aaron Brill said, was in response to town surveys showing residents eager to grow ski opportunities for kids and families. The Brills’ proposal suggests the SE Group’s expansion plan is too much and notes “other suitable configurations exist to meet the town’s primary goal” of affordable, community-oriented development. 

“It’s exciting that Silverton has options to choose from with MCP and their large ski resort concept and us with a smaller-scale family concept,” said Brill in an email. “Ultimately it will be up to the town to determine if MCP’s proposal is the right fit. MCP does a great job with their larger, full-service resorts and we are 100% supportive of enhancing skiing for the kids, so we are cheerleading the process wherever possible.”

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