Squaw Valley lures high-end travelers to Village; idea not embraced by all

TAHOE CITY -- The face of Squaw Valley is changing.

The site of the 1960 Olympics and one-time large parking lot at the base of the mountain is now filled with four-story buildings housing hundreds of high-end residential units, upscale shops and restaurants. Plumpjack and the Resort at Squaw Creek also have plans to expand, including more hotels and luxury homes on the ridge between Squaw and Alpine.

The race to make Squaw Valley a year-round destination resort inevitably affects the local community. Development proponents argue growth is good for the economy -- it brings jobs and more tax revenue for schools, infrastructure and transportation.

Critics believe tourist development comes at the expense of the environment, quality of life and the town's original character.

In this article examining development at Squaw, the issue is looked at through the eyes of Hal Clifford, Colorado-based author of the "Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment."

Clifford, a former editor of the Aspen Daily News and Ski magazine, has been writing about the ski industry for more than 25 years. He decided to write "Downhill Slide" after noticing an alarming trend among ski towns -- they were losing their unique charm as the corporate ski industry strove for more and more growth.

"I really care about mountain communities and I became concerned about what I was seeing in a lot of the places I went," Clifford said from his home in Telluride, Colo. "They were being urbanized."

Clifford's premise is twofold. Skiing began to stagnate in the early 1980s as the baby boomers, who made up the bulk of the sport's participants, started to age. In order to maintain its customer base and increase profits, the industry turned to another business -- real estate. Skiing became secondary to selling homes, condos and commercial space; it was simply the bait to attract buyers.

"Skiing is no longer an end in itself for those looking to profit from it; instead, skiing has been transformed into a come-hither amenity to sell real estate," Clifford wrote in "Downhill Slide."

As a result, ski towns have seen an increasing amount of development. This not only brings city problems, such as traffic, higher costs of living and pollution, but threatens the essence of the town that made it attractive to people in the first place.

"There is a real cost to converting a ski town into a year-round, full-to-the-gills resort," Clifford wrote. "The town's atmosphere and fabric are transformed. Life in the ski town starts to look a lot more like the daily rat race anywhere else."

Clifford's book focuses on what he calls the Big Three -- Vail Resorts, Intrawest and American Skiing Co. -- publicly traded companies which together account for one in four lift tickets sold in the United States. Out of the three, Clifford is most impressed with Intrawest.

"They are very good at what they do. They are extremely good at selling their product," he said.

Intrawest's product, in addition to ski resorts, is the Village, a planned pedestrian community consisting of residences, shops, restaurants, and galleries. When construction began in spring 2000, Squaw Valley was Intrawest's seventh village. Today, Intrawest counts 17 villages in its portfolio, including Mammoth, Whistler Blackcomb in British Colombia, and Colorado's Cooper Mountain.

According to Intrawest, the aim of these villages is to create an intimate, European-alpine community that will provide visitors with a unique experience reflective of the area.

"Our goal is to create an environment where people come and experience the region and create great memories," said Tom Jacobson, vice president of Intrawest Resort Development Group, an informal yet energetic man, as he sat in his small office munching an apple. "We are after only one thing -- to have customers, when they are in the village, to feel good."

To achieve this desired effect, Intrawest carefully designs a plan that outlines exactly what types of businesses go where, matching up commercial tenants with the appropriate neighborhood -- a chocolate shop in the courtyard Gathering Place, a backcountry gear outfitter on Extreme Avenue, and a bakery and cafe in the arrival zone.

To Clifford, all of this is a deliberate attempt to manipulate visitors into spending money. Much like a cruise ship or Disneyland, every store is perfectly positioned to create an artificial world that lures tourists into staying put and opening their wallets. Indeed, the theme of the Village at Squaw Valley is, "Imagine never having to leave."

"The 'village' is not a village at all," writes Clifford, but a carefully designed money-making machine. "Everything is just where it should be, where you'd like it to be without ever having thought about it."

Intrawest executives, though, contend visitors benefit from the shops and restaurants.

"My hope is we can delight day skiers after a hard day of skiing with the offerings in the Village," said Michael Ferensowicz, director of commercial development.

While Intrawest maintains that each village is unique, Clifford worries the company's efforts to bottle what a ski town should be and replicate it across the board are leading to the homogenization of mountain communities.

"Intrawest is becoming cookie-cutter developers. This is a great loss to people who care about places and its true originality," he said.


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