Gearing Up For Gold

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Toss a snowball off the backside of Snowbasin, right behind the start of the men's downhill course, and you'll hit the central business district of Ogden. It might even land on City Hall, where it would almost certainly get the attention of Mayor Matthew Godfrey. Every day, the town's chief administrator is reminded that the ski area is vital to the city's future. Come February, when the Olympic Winter Games XIX unfold on a world stage, TV cameras will be panning down on his community. Maybe then, Godfrey hopes, Ogden will step out from the shadow of Salt Lake City and Park City.

So where the heck is Ogden? And for that matter, what is Snowbasin? Few skiers have been to either, but the Olympics will certainly change that. Ogden is 35 miles north of Salt Lake International Airport and 17 highway miles west of Snowbasin, which makes it the closest city to the premier Olympic alpine events¿the men's and women's downhill and super G races. Until now, Ogden hasn't exactly been on anyone's list of preferred ski destinations. But with close to $100 million pumped into on-hill improvements at Snowbasin over the past four years, and with two neighboring ski areas also ready to expand, the time has come to shake hands with the best little ski town that no one's ever heard of. Ogden has a definable downtown, with wide boulevards and moderately high-rise office buildings (including a regional IRS office) and a wide area of post-war bungalows. It also has a few neighborhoods of somewhat neglected Victorians and a nondescript industrial and livestock district that is now largely abandoned. The city is surrounded by natural beauty, bounded on the north by snow-capped Mt. Ben Lomond, on the west by the Great Salt Lake, and on the east by the Wasatch Range and national forest. If you drive an hour out of town, you can stand on the site where, in 1869, the famous Golden Spike was driven into the ground to mark the joining of two tracks for the first transcontinental railway. In the ensuing seven decades, Ogden was a center of rail commerce in the West.

In those early years, the place acquired a reputation as a boisterous and even scandalous town. A decidedly non-Mormon element¿prostitutes, cardsharps, robbers and even opium dealers¿moved in with the railroad and took over 25th Street. Now the one-time Red Light district has been renamed Historic 25th Street, and its vintage buildings have been spruced up to house antique shops, gift boutiques, galleries, restaurants and nightspots.

Since 1939, Snowbasin has been a gathering place for locals from all walks of life. Students from Weber State University share the hill with military types from Hill Air Force Base, a smattering of geeks from technology companies (including Iomega, the disk-drive maker) and a lot of hard-working blue-collar folks who keep horses in their yards. Though many of the 77,226 townspeople don't have a lot of discretionary income, most are still inspired to get their kids into skiing. The driving force behind that is an annual junior skiing program, sponsored by the local newspaper, Standard Examiner, in cooperation with the city recreation department. For four decades, the program has offered subsidized, low-cost ski instruction for youngsters. And with up to 700 participants each season, it has created entire generations of Ogden skiers.

Now that Snowbasin is poised to boom, Ogdenites who've had this area all to themselves for so many years, with nary a liftline even on weekends, will have to share more of the bounty with other skiers. And Snowbasin is ready. Two new base lodges have created a worthy portal for a remarkable lift system that includes two gondolas and a jig-back tram, which access 3,200 acres of open bowls, thigh-burning chutes and endless cruisers.

But Snowbasin¿which is owned by Sun Valley, Idaho, owner Earl Holding¿isn't the only game in town. Just a few miles north in Ogden Valley, Powder Mountain is making s own statement. With four chairlifts, snowcats for guided backcountry skiing and a heliski operation that takes skiers to powder fields at 9,422 feet, this area boasts 5,500 acres of terrain, 2,800 of them with groomed runs. Even tiny Nordic Valley, just down the road, may not be inconspicuous much longer. Though it now has only two double chairs and 85 skiable acres, Nordic plans to expand its terrain significantly and to add a Scandinavian-themed "Lillehammer Village," complete with cobblestone walkways. When you consider their proximity to Ogden¿both areas are within 20 miles¿you might well conclude that this valley is The Next Big Thing for Utah skiing.

The task for Mayor Godfrey is to see how far Ogden can ride on the coattails of the Olympics. Campaigning as a reformist to shake up the old guard, Godfrey was a neophyte to public office when he was handily elected 18 months ago at the age of 28. The youngest mayor in the city's 150-year history is under the gun to revitalize the city's downtown and stimulate tourism. Godfrey has generated a whirlwind of incentives to entice new business into the city's downtown, parts of which are clearly in need of resuscitation. He's negotiating with the Utah Transit Authority to get public bus transportation to the slopes, perhaps Ogden's greatest need as a ski town on the verge. A self-described occasional skier, Godfrey says that people who read brochures about the Olympics might get the impression that Snowbasin is practically a suburb of Salt Lake City. The mayor is working to reverse that image. To underscore Ogden's place in the skiing universe, he has created a new city logo with an icon that he calls a "sunflake"¿half snowflake, half sun.

As the crow flies, Snowbasin is just one vertical mile above the city. But to reach the resort, you have to drive 25 minutes up Ogden Canyon. A recent proposal to connect the city's benchlands to the ski area by tram was shot down by vocal opponents, who fear that it would destroy the quiet nature of the town, bringing unwanted traffic and spoiling a pristine, sub-alpine environment. "We don't need big-city problems here," groused one letter-writer in the Standard Examiner.

But Ogden certainly has them. Over the past four years, it has seen the headquarters for large industries such as Thiokol (manufacturer of snow-grooming machines) come and go. It has seen major retailers such as Nordstrom and J.C. Penney pull up stakes, leaving the single downtown shopping mall nearly deserted. It has seen a large military depot disappear because of federal base closures. If it weren't for the presence of Hill Air Force Base, with 17,000 people, and Weber State, with a similar number of students and faculty, Ogden's economy would be in the dumps.

Residents gripe about the problems, loudly and frequently, and it takes a little coaxing for them to acknowledge what a good thing they've really got here. Every form of outdoor recreation is at their doorstep. The Ogden and Weber rivers intersect in town, offering Class II rapids for paddlers and trout-rich riffles for anglers. Pineview Reservoir, eight miles up the canyon toward the ski areas, is a boating wonderland.

The last segments of a 26-mile hiking, cycling and equestrian loop are almost completed. And in just minutes from virtually any point in the city, you can be cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.

In pricey ski-town terms, the cost of putting down roots here is ridiculously small. Decent three-bedroom, two-bath homes go for around $125,000. Two hospitals provide readily accessible medical care; food and daily essentials are relatively cheap; and Salt Lake International Airport is only 30 minutes away. Thanks largely to the presence of the university, there is a vibrant performing-arts community. And the pride of the city is its recently reopened Peery's Egyptian Theater, an ornately appointed building with an adjoining conference center. Of course, indoor sports are big as well, and The Ice Sheet near the university will be the venue for all Olympic curling events.

Similar in style to Park City's vintage main street, Historic 25th Street is working its magic on out-of-towners and business entrepreneurs alike. The district's four blocks are anchored on the west by Union Station, now restored and containing several museums and a visitors center, and on the east by the Ben Lomond Historic Suite Hotel, a classic property that traces its heritage back to the late 1860s. With 144 rooms and a hot new blues social club, the vintage hotel is getting a makeover just in time for the Olympics. Manager Jim Budge is a Texas transplant who has become one of Ogden's biggest boosters. Budge takes his job as a caretaker of the city's history seriously, and he is a fountain of factoids. "Did you know that Weber County has the largest per capita population of quarter horses of any county in America?" he asks. "We've got rodeos, cowboys and cowgirls, ridin' and ropin'¿a big slice of the Old West," says Budge, who wouldn't be caught dead without his boots. "C'mon," he says, taking a visitor by the arm, "I'll show you our rodeo arena." And he does.

Ogden will certainly have a chance to put its best foot forward during the Olympics. For at least seven days, starting Feb. 10, Snowbasin is scheduled to host the men's and women's downhill, combined and super G races. Curling events¿from training to finals¿will keep The Ice Sheet occupied Feb. 7-22. As many as 28,000 spectators, plus volunteers and media, are expected daily at Snowbasin. Another 6,000 spectators and media are projected for the three curling sessions each day. Ski teams are expected to stay in Ogden Valley, close to the mountain, or at the Olympic Village in Salt Lake City, but an entourage of sponsors, media and officials will easily fill Ogden City's 1,800 beds. And Ogden will be doing more than just lining the streets with banners and flags to welcome guests. It is throwing a huge bash Feb. 6, when the Olympic torch arrives in town, and Feb. 9, the day before the first ski event.

No doubt that the Games will establish the city as a worthy ski destination, even if tourism is just one element of its livelihood. One thing that no other ski town can claim is its own Jurassic Park. The George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park, a city educational facility run by a non-profit, philanthropic organization, is near the mouth of Ogden Canyon. Its life-sized replicas loom above the trees and bellow menacingly at passers-by. This year the park is laying plans to stay open in winter, even with snow covering the heads of the dinosaurs, so that skiing families can take their little monsters to meet the big ones. And with T-Rex pointing the way, it's pretty hard to miss the road to Snowbasin.orts are big as well, and The Ice Sheet near the university will be the venue for all Olympic curling events.

Similar in style to Park City's vintage main street, Historic 25th Street is working its magic on out-of-towners and business entrepreneurs alike. The district's four blocks are anchored on the west by Union Station, now restored and containing several museums and a visitors center, and on the east by the Ben Lomond Historic Suite Hotel, a classic property that traces its heritage back to the late 1860s. With 144 rooms and a hot new blues social club, the vintage hotel is getting a makeover just in time for the Olympics. Manager Jim Budge is a Texas transplant who has become one of Ogden's biggest boosters. Budge takes his job as a caretaker of the city's history seriously, and he is a fountain of factoids. "Did you know that Weber County has the largest per capita population of quarter horses of any county in America?" he asks. "We've got rodeos, cowboys and cowgirls, ridin' and ropin'¿a big slice of the Old West," says Budge, who wouldn't be caught dead without his boots. "C'mon," he says, taking a visitor by the arm, "I'll show you our rodeo arena." And he does.

Ogden will certainly have a chance to put its best foot forward during the Olympics. For at least seven days, starting Feb. 10, Snowbasin is scheduled to host the men's and women's downhill, combined and super G races. Curling events¿from training to finals¿will keep The Ice Sheet occupied Feb. 7-22. As many as 28,000 spectators, plus volunteers and media, are expected daily at Snowbasin. Another 6,000 spectators and media are projected for the three curling sessions each day. Ski teams are expected to stay in Ogden Valley, close to the mountain, or at the Olympic Village in Salt Lake City, but an entourage of sponsors, media and officials will easily fill Ogden City's 1,800 beds. And Ogden will be doing more than just lining the streets with banners and flags to welcome guests. It is throwing a huge bash Feb. 6, when the Olympic torch arrives in town, and Feb. 9, the day before the first ski event.

No doubt that the Games will establish the city as a worthy ski destination, even if tourism is just one element of its livelihood. One thing that no other ski town can claim is its own Jurassic Park. The George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park, a city educational facility run by a non-profit, philanthropic organization, is near the mouth of Ogden Canyon. Its life-sized replicas loom above the trees and bellow menacingly at passers-by. This year the park is laying plans to stay open in winter, even with snow covering the heads of the dinosaurs, so that skiing families can take their little monsters to meet the big ones. And with T-Rex pointing the way, it's pretty hard to miss the road to Snowbasin.