History of Winter Park Resort

As one of the oldest ski areas in the state of Colorado, Winter Park Resort has had a long and storied history. You probably already know that it averages over 320 inches of annual snowfall, 300 days of sunshine, has over 3000 acres of ski-terrain, has the best snowfall quality, quantity, and consistency of any major Colorado ski resort area (according to Zrankings: https://www.zrankings.com/resort/snow), and is one of the prettiest ski mountains on the planet (according to us). But did you know that it is Colorado’s longest continually-operated ski resort, or that the city of Denver created Winter Park – and almost lost it? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The beginning of the Winter Park Resort starts with construction, and completion of the Moffat railroad tunnel. Prior to that time, the only access (other than an un-serviced dirt road) into the region was a very steep, very slow surface train that traversed the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass. A small, isolated, and obscure rail town, Arrow, was situated about half-way up the west side of the pass. It acted primarily as a lumber mill for the railroad from 1904 until it burned to the ground in 1920. The tunnel was built from 1923-1927. Crews were housed at encampments at the East Portal (near Boulder), and the West Portal (present-day Winter Park base area), working inward from either end.

The pioneer tunnel was officially “holed through” on February 18, 1927. The final blast of dynamite was set off by President Calvin Coolidge pressing a key in Washington, D.C., and the program was broadcast by radio from under the heart of James Peak. How crews were able to meet-up in the middle, underground, without any deviation, and without using standard surface-navigation techniques is one of the engineering marvels of this period.

Anyway, during this period tunnel crews worked year-round, and in the winter West Portal crews were able to take advantage of the natural ski runs (sheep trails and meadows) that adorned the nearby mountain. On longer off-shifts, many of those workers found their way into Denver and probably bragged about the great powder runs that loomed above their camp. And so slowly the word got out.

Regular use of the tunnel began in mid-1928. In 1929 a group of diehard Denver skiers formed the Colorado Arlberg Club. In 1933 they built a clubhouse near the tunnel’s West Portal (where Winter Park base area stands today) and began working on turning sheep trails into ski runs. They were mainly a recreational group that headed to the mountains for weekend skiing. Although the railroad gave reliable access to the West Portal region, the highway over Berthoud Pass was not kept open on a regular basis until 1933. Prior to that time, some Club members would drive up the pass as far as they could, then ski the unmarked trails down to the Club.

Beginning in the mid-30’s, George Ernest Cranmer (1884-1975) became the driving force behind the city of Denver’s development of Winter Park Resort. When he was a young man, Cranmer had watched in amazement as Karl Howelson, a former circus performer known as the Flying Norwegian, improvised a ski jump on the lawn of the Colorado State Capitol, which was smothered in snow after the blizzard of ’13. Skiing wasn’t completely foreign to the state’s mining communities, which sometimes relied on crude Nordic equipment when other means of access to civilization were cut off. But for many years, the idea of skiing as recreation in Colorado was confined to a few hardy enthusiasts like Howelson, who helped organize ski-jumping exhibitions and winter carnivals in arcane locales such as Hot Sulphur Springs.

Cranmer was a graduate of Denver’s East High and Princeton who’d made a bundle in the stock market and retired at the age of 44. He’d then turned to politics, becoming Denver mayor Ben Stapleton’s campaign manager, which won him the slot as the park’s boss. He was the point man for several of the most notable accomplishments of Stapleton’s five terms in office, including the creation of Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Valley Highway and the expansion of Denver’s mountain parks system.

By the late 30’s, Cranmer persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to grant the City of Denver a special-use permit for 6,400 acres of terrain towering above the West Portal. He cut a deal with the Moffat Tunnel Commission to lease nine acres at the base of the mountain at no charge. He raised more than $14,000 for lift equipment through “subscriptions” from local swells and businesses, such as the May Company and Denver Dry, and worked with the state’s congressional delegation to get grant funds from the federal Public Works Administration. And on opening day, he stood in front of the throng and rhapsodized about the future of skiing in Colorado. Winter Park, Cranmer said, would be not just for locals, but for “the millions of Americans living in the flat country to the east to enjoy really good skiing… Possibilities for future development are unlimited.”

But unfortunately, revenues and subsidies for the ski area were not unlimited. Moreover, The lift equipment had cost more than anticipated, leaving no funds available for building trails and other amenities; Cranmer had to tap into the mountain-parks budget and dispatch “volunteers” from the city parks department to get the slopes ready for business. The tows broke down frequently and had to be replaced, piece by piece. At the end of the first full season, the ski area had drawn around 11,000 skiers but was running $15,000 in the red.

Winter Park continued to struggle through the war years that followed; skiers determined to visit the place had to deal with a rubber shortage and then a coal strike that temporarily sidelined the ski train. Cranmer continued to push for better facilities and more trails, but the project received only driblets of money from begrudging city officials, who didn’t see much point in raiding municipal coffers to prop up a “sports park” seventy miles away. (Over the first 75 years of Winter Park’s existence, Denver invested a grand total of less than $300,000 in the operation.)

The lack of city support outraged several prominent members of the Arlberg Club, who’d dug into their own pockets to help launch Winter Park. In 1947, around the time that Stapleton and Cranmer were leaving office, they came up with a plan to save the ski area from Denver’s tightwads: form a nonprofit to run the resort. A nonprofit could raise money without putting the city into debt; it could reinvest any profits in upgrading the facility without fear of having its funds raised by the city; it could hire employees and make purchases without following increasingly cumbersome city regulations; and, if business was exceptionally good, it could even make some payments back to the city.

Created in 1950, the Winter Park Recreational Association hustled to make the resort viable in the increasingly crowded post-war ski industry. Under the direction of its first chairman, Allan Phipps — Arlberg member, Oxford scholar and later a co-owner of the Denver Broncos — the all-volunteer board launched a capital campaign that gave the place much-needed new lifts and trails. The ski area’s new executive director, Steve Bradley, brought in a host of innovations as well, including a professional ski patrol, a ski school, and the Bradley Packer — a gravity-driven grader, piloted by a single skier, that pioneered the art of snow grooming.

In 1970, the board president, Jerry Groswold, embarked on a six-year gauntlet of permits and construction headaches that led to the opening of the Mary Jane ski area, which nearly doubled the skiable acreage of the resort. The addition also gave mogul-happy masochists a new mantra: No Pain, No Jane. Mary Jane and subsequent developments significantly boosted the resort’s revenues, but little of that cash found its way back to the City of Denver. Some went to debt service and resort operations; some went to purchasing land around the base of the mountain from the Moffat Tunnel Commission, from the city itself, or from the Forest Service through land swaps. By the early 1990s, the WPRA was feeling sufficiently bullish about the resort’s prospects to approach city officials with a plan to buy the asset from the city for $53 million, in payments spread out over sixteen years. But the plan was scuttled by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb who favored keeping the ski area and using funds for Department of Parks and Recreation capital projects.

Strictly speaking, the ownership is more layered than most people realize. Most of the ski area’s acreage is still Forest Service land, operated under a special-use permit. The rest is in the hands of the WPRA, which acts as the city’s agent, but the nonprofit can’t turn around and sell the resort without city approval. Use of Winter Park funds for Denver’s Parks & Recreation capital projects meant that WPRA had precious little resources for continued development of the resort. The City’s solution to this puzzle was to find a corporate partner to team with the WPRA to operate the resort. In 2000 the city signed on with Intrawest, the then-largest ski operator in the world. The company proposed to lease the ski operation from the WPRA, commit to investing $50 million in the mountain in the first ten years, and pay rent to the city (the “third-party beneficiary” of the arrangement), amounting to about $2 million a year in the first decade, plus a $3 million payment upfront. Intrawest would also have the right to buy land from the WPRA and develop it, providing the infusion of real-estate revenue that had long eluded the resort. No longer directly involved in operations, the WPRA would be restructured as a five-person board appointed by the mayor, charged with making sure that Intrawest met its obligations under the lease.

Over the next 16 years Intrawest spent freely on Winter Park, increasing what the resort has to offer. The construction of several new high-speed lifts, such as the six-passenger Super Gauge and the Panoramic Express, increased uphill capacity to 38,000 skiers an hour, with many of them headed to recently opened areas of the mountain — the expanded Parsenn Bowl, glade skiing at Eagle Wind, ungroomed backcountry double-diamond runs on the Cirque. Additionally, Intrawest developed an entire village of retail, restaurants, and condos around the Zephyr Lodge and the Vintage Hotel. Other projects, such as the Cabriolet gondola was greeted with mixed reviews. Intrawest was a publicly held company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, before its purchase in 2006 by New York-based Fortress Investment Group LLC, which took it private and left it with large debt-loads. Intrawest was then hurt by the real estate crash of 2008. Ski area residential property sales that had been a basis of revenue for the company plummeted. In early 2010, the company avoided a threatened foreclosure at its sprawling Whistler Blackcomb resort near Vancouver that created a public relations headache just as the twin ski mountains were getting ready to host Winter Olympics ski events. In a 2014 IPO, Intrawest raised about $188 million, less than expected, after lowering its initially announced price for shares. Following the IPO, Fortress still held about 65 percent of its shares. A mediocre 2015 ski season was the final coffin nail for the company. Fortress was forced to shed Intrawest resorts including Copper Mountain and Whistler Blackcomb to help pay off debt. It was subsequently lost to Japanese telecommunications and energy giant SoftBank Group for $3.3 billion.

In April 2017, Aspen Skiing Company and KSL partners agreed to buy Intrawest for $1.5 billion – the biggest deal in ski resort history. Originally Aspen Skiing Co only wanted Winter Park, Steamboat and Intrawest’s Canadian Mountain Holidays helicopter skiing operation. The Roaring Fork Valley resort owner offered as much as $1.129 billion for the three properties. The company also offered as much as $878 million in cash for just Winter Park and Steamboat. But Intrawest wanted to sell the entire company — six resorts in Canada, Colorado, Vermont and West Virginia, 1,113 acres of land, the 12-lodge CMH and a real estate business — in a single transaction. Industry-insiders suggest that significant attention will be devoted to future development projects at Winter Park and Steamboat. Since the announcement earlier this year the town of Winter Park has seen a substantial increase in development projects including housing, shopping, and community center projects. A comprehensive bus-line now connects the resort to most areas of the town. At the resort, a long-overdue ski trail was constructed this summer that strategically connects Mary Jane – Winter Park areas. The commercial area of the ski base is now 100% full. New projects currently under discussion include construction of a major hotel.