Essay by Allen Best
Colorado Lore – August 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine
APRIL FOOL’S DAY spoofs can be as useful in predicting the future as more weighty prognostications. I say this from personal experience. For example, 10 to 15 years ago new golf courses were being announced at every turn along the I-70 corridor. So at a Vail-area newspaper, we eyed the Superfund site on the outskirts of Minturn and announced that a golf course would soon be built atop the consolidated tailings from an old zinc mine.
You guessed it. That’s exactly what is now proposed as part of a $1 billion real estate project now being plotted for Battle Mountain, the mining district that spawned the towns of Gilman and Red Cliff. The tailings pile sits along Highway 24, near a road that forks off for those wanting to climb Mount of the Holy Cross. But a golf course for millionaires built on poisonous rubble is just the start of the ambitious plans at Battle Mountain. A gondola is planned to arch up the mountainside to access castles with lofty views of Notch Mountain. A small ski area is also planned, along with somewhere between 1,400 and 1,700 homes. All of this is in the triangle of land between Minturn, Red Cliff, and the Vail ski area.
Beyond the mere spectacle of castles rising from old mines, there’s another reason that Leadville and Lake County should be following this project with rapt attention: It’s likely to have a huge impact on them. After all, the development is projected to generate 1,000 year-round jobs. Although people in Minturn think those jobs will fall into their laps, I see a continuation of trends of recent years – more commuters from Leadville.
This could, in turn, create more of the social and economic imbalance that Colorado’s archaic laws foster. You know, one town gets the sales and property taxes, and the next town gets the bills for providing schools, medical facilities, and social services. On the other hand, maybe this is just the critical mass that Leadville city officials have talked about needing if they are to get the bigger-box retailers that can keep sales tax revenues at home instead of bleeding to Salida, Frisco, and Avon.
Central Colorado has other connections to the land in question. Mining successes in Leadville caused prospects to slop over into adjoining valleys. What they found at Battle Mountain never rivaled the Cloud City’s good fortune, but the Eagle Mine, with its main adit at Gilman, did become the top zinc producer in the United States for many years until finally closing in 1979.
After that, Cañon City’s Glenn Miller “bought” the property and announced grand intentions – hauling the ore to Cañon City for processing into fertilizer, creating a ski area on the slopes, and reopening the mine. But the only thing he succeeded in doing was owing people money.
Then three lawyers from Denver were able to quietly wrest control of the various properties for back taxes beginning in the early 1980s.
In 1992, they got Vail Associates, as the operator of the Vail ski area was called then, to provide money in return for a stake. Vail began plotting how the property could connect to the proposed ski runs in what was then called Category III. This potential real estate connection became a central part of the theater during the 1990s as environmental groups tried to make Vail emblematic of skiing gone wrong. Skiing, they said, was all about real estate. (A tangential issue – if one more easily reduced to simplistic headlines – was the presence of lynx habitat.)
VAIL GOT THE SKI AREA EXPANSION, but only after formally pledging to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it would not attempt to connect the ski area to the private lands above Gilman.
That was in 1998, and in October of that year a cafeteria and other buildings atop Vail Mountain were set afire. Although a link has never been proven, in the public mind it was environmental activists.
Vail Resorts stayed true to its word. And thus its erstwhile partners – the three lawyers from Denver – sued the company and won in court.
Then, this year, the lawyers sold the property for $32.5 million to Florida-based Ginn Companies, a successful and respected developer in the Southeast. It would seem, at least from the perspective of Minturn leaders, to be a match made in heaven.
The company is a creation of Bobby Ginn, who wears expensive cowboy boots and speaks with a drawl warm enough to melt snow. A town council that less than a decade ago made a habit of making catty remarks about New Yorkers – a reference to the ownership group of Vail Resorts – is suddenly polite and almost deferential. The town that staked its reputation on its grimy, working-class past as a railroad and mining center is now embracing what is to be the ultimate high-end, second-home development.
Presenting his plans to the community at a town council meeting in early July, Ginn fielded marshmallow questions left and right. Ginn’s concept is a membership community, which is the fad sweeping the resort sector. You don’t just buy a home, you buy a membership in a private members-only community. The “club” gives you various exclusive benefits, like a members-only facility at the base of the local ski area, a members-only equestrian center, and members-only flyfishing opportunities.
Much of the land in question is located above 9,000 feet, some of it pushing 11,000 feet. So who would buy land at such high elevations? In a way, it seems bizarre, but then look at Breckenridge, Mt. Crested Butte, and Telluride’s Mountain Village – all of them are located above 9,000 feet.
SO MAYBE THE IDEA of people from low-land cities jetting in for retreats isn’t completely absurd. Still, the question remains: Is anybody at work on a pill that will speed the work of acclimation to high altitudes?
Two additional points are crucial to understanding the story. First, understand that this land is not now in Minturn. But by Colorado law, Ginn only has authority to build 200 or so units. And, while Eagle County has generally given developers much of what they wanted, an election last fall has turned the tables. Slow-growthers are now trying to run the show. Moreover, the lynx and wildlife issue looms large. There’s no good reason to think Ginn could build much unless he annexes to either Red Cliff or Minturn.
Minturn is the more logical choice, and water is the key. The saying is that in the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, but in this case, it’s for making strange bedfellows. In a complicated accounting, Minturn figures to get a $20 million sewer plant and sundry other municipal trinkets while also getting the means to realize the value of its water rights – a source of contention that was pivotal to the town’s sour attitude toward the Vail consortium in the late 1990s. Ginn, of course, gets part of the water, and also development approvals.
Does Minturn really get enough out of this deal? The devil of that answer will lie in the gritty details of negotiation as Ginn and the town officials work on an annexation agreement. At first blush, many outsiders think that the town will get taken to the cleaners on this one. But many in Minturn see this development as a wondrous opportunity.
Meanwhile, now that we’re getting a Superfund golf course. I guess it’s time to revisit past April Fool’s Day jokes. With Christo and Jeanne-Claude planning to drape the Arkansas River, I am reminded of the time I told of Christo’s visit to Vail. While skiing the slopes, I announced, Christo had noticed the mountain on the other side of the valley – a place called Bald Mountain — and had decided that for his next project, he was going to create a plastic toupee for it.
So perhaps it would be best not to mention any Bald Mountains in the area when Christo and Jean-Claude visit Salida on Aug. 1.
Allen Best has edited several newspapers in Eagle County, and now works along the I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Arvada.