Strength In Tradition

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When storms sweep down from the North Atlantic and the Arctic into St. Anton, Austria, locals know their Lechtaler Alps will be one of the first ranges hit, and they'll be pelvis-deep in pulverschnee (powder snow) within a few hours. Juergen Pirker is the director of the private-lesson desk for the Arlberg Ski School and a St. Anton native who not only knows when to expect deep snow, but where to find the best of it. It's part of his job¿and a big part of his life.

Out of the 31 square miles of slopes Pirker has at his disposal, on a powder morning he chooses St. Anton's Schindlerspitze, a burly peak full of beautiful ungroomed bowls and steep canyons reached by the Shindlergrat triple chair. When the 9,222-foot Valluga summit opens, he likes dropping off the backside for big off-piste on his way to the neighboring slopes of Zurs. And he knows that the next day he can still hop on the Gampen and Kapall high-speed lifts and link up a series of sweet, untracked lines between snowfences to a knoll overlooking St. Anton. "It's a great view of the resort," he says. "From here you can see everything." He indicates the tidy array of buildings and all the work going on to prepare for the World Alpine Championships to be held this January. It's an impressive spectacle.

Terraced into the base of the massive Arlberg Pass at 4,278 feet and surrounded by majestic mountains, St. Anton is situated in the far western end of Austria, in the state of Tirol. Small and stunning, with steep roofs, muraled stucco and finely detailed woodwork, the village blends seamlessly into its fantastic setting. The central part of town is an old-world, pedestrian-only mall presided over by charming, hand-frescoed shops and gasthofs (small hotels).

St. Anton is connected by history and ski lifts to five other nearby villages (St. Jakob, St. Christoph, Stuben, Zurs and Lech). Together they're known as the Arlberg region, in honor of the eponymous pass, which is so integral to local history. The area's earliest records date from 1207. By the 1300s, a treacherous trade route, first for salt and eventually textiles, stretched over the Arlberg Pass. In the late 1800s, at huge cost, a long railroad tunnel was drilled through the pass. By 1884 the trains brought not just material goods but tourists, changing St. Anton forever. The town became one of the birthplaces of skiing, and the Ski Club Arlberg, founded in 1901, is one of the oldest in the world. Today you regularly see long-time locals wearing the club sweater, a discreet gray pullover with red and white stripes.

Juergen Pirker wears the sweater. Tall and strong at 45, with a ruddy face and ready smile, he is a state-certified mountain guide and ski-school supervisor, with a wife and family, a small lodge and a computer business in St. Anton. He also finds time to serve as a member of the Tourist Office board. The Tourist Office, funded by St. Anton, handles all of the resort's marketing and reservations, the kind of functions that in Vail are handled by the resort association and Vail Resorts, the resort owner.

In European resorts, however, the lifts and slopes are often individually owned by a number of farmers. In St. Anton, the Arlberger Bergbahnen is a locally controlled company that is the main owner and operator of all 85 interconnected lifts in the vast Arlberg region. It also leases the slopes from various local owners. The company is primarily owned by two families, with a small number of local shareholders. One of the real challenges here is for the tourist office, the Arlberger Bergbahnen and the town government to all work together.

St. Anton's 12-member town council is elected every five years, with a mayor chosen by the council members. Any Austrian citizen who is a full-time resident of St. Anton the year of the elections is eligible to vote. As in most American resorts, the council has the final say on issues facing the community, and direct voter referendums are rare, eveduring the last few busy years, when major decisions have been made. Deciding to bid for the World Championships was a big commitment for a small resort, spearheaded by ski racing great and St. Anton native Karl Schranz. "I felt like the village needed it to remain competitive internationally," explains Schranz.

Hosting such an event is a major feat anywhere, but in St. Anton organizers have taken the task to new levels. Annalisa Wieser is an American who has been working in the St. Anton Tourist Office the past few winters, watching the process. "Lifts are being replaced, a new run cut, lights installed and a finish-area stadium and World Championship Hall are being built," she says with awe. "In addition, the Tirolean and federal governments are spending $120 million to move the railroad tracks from the middle of town."

That last project is the grabber. Vail, which hosted the 1999 World Championships, spent considerable sums in preparation, a total of $24 million, on everything from facilities such as wax rooms and bleachers to a new downhill course, additional snowmaking and lodging. But what is happening in St. Anton is the same as if Vail had received financing for its dream of submerging Interstate 70, which runs prominently through town, in a giant tunnel and covering it over with sod.

Though St. Anton is dependent on the train, many villagers have wanted to relocate the tracks for a long time. While this won't seriously inconvenience visitors arriving by rail, it will substantially reduce noise and give ski-in/ski-out access to more of the village. But it requires moving the rails from one side of the narrow Rosanna Valley to the other and is the type of hugely expensive undertaking that seems like a pipe-dream¿that is until a bid for the enormously popular World Championships comes along.

Ski racing is huge in Austria, and hosting the World Championships here is comparable to staging an Olympics in most other countries. So St. Anton used that leverage to get the state and national governments to pay to move the train line. Deciding what to actually do with the rails is a good example of how business gets done in St. Anton. The first option selected by the town council amounted to building a tunnel around the tracks in their historic location. It wasn't universally popular. "Then they decided on the current solution, due to immense pressure and also some demonstrations from local citizens," explains Pirker, who knows local politics as well as he does the local mountains. Some of the strongest feelings over the issue centered on property compensations; those who would suddenly have a railroad running across their pastures or tunnels through their gardens wanted settlements.

Though difficult, this matter would have been even more complicated in U.S. resorts than it was in St. Anton, where nearly all private property is owned by natives or long-time locals, as opposed to investors from around the world. Though it's technically legal for any European Union citizen to purchase property in Austria, in St. Anton it's extremely rare for even other Austrians to actually do it, simply because locals will usually only sell to other locals. While this kind of approach can't be codified, it has been unofficially adopted in numerous Austrian resorts, where the communities are small and close-knit.

In America, this would be a violation of property rights and deemed exclusionary. Similar charges have been made about the Austrian national government, where a new right-wing coalition has alarmed many in St. Anton, in Austria and in the world with its intolerant rhetoric about foreigners and immigration. Even the new government's supporters have rued its chilling effect on tourism.

But the ownership restrictions in St. Anton have some very salutary effects. Property isn't treated as a speculative commodity, and lodges and homes aren't traded like so much dot-com stock. Profits come from operating a business, not from selling it, and homes are owned for generations by the same families. Although second-homes are now allowed in St. Anton, none are the kinds of palaces you see at American resorts. And the epic employee-housing problems that plague the Vails and Aspens are also unheard of in St. Anton, where all employers house their own workers, often on premises.

All of these policies help keep growth in check and preserve a close community, where those who have made and maintained the resort aren't driven out by spiraling real estate costs.

The result is a village steeped in history and tradition, with an intimate knowledge of itself and its mountains. Nearly all of its citizens are as concerned about its well being as is Pirker. That makes it not only a great place to live, but a wonderful place to visit.ot from selling it, and homes are owned for generations by the same families. Although second-homes are now allowed in St. Anton, none are the kinds of palaces you see at American resorts. And the epic employee-housing problems that plague the Vails and Aspens are also unheard of in St. Anton, where all employers house their own workers, often on premises.

All of these policies help keep growth in check and preserve a close community, where those who have made and maintained the resort aren't driven out by spiraling real estate costs.

The result is a village steeped in history and tradition, with an intimate knowledge of itself and its mountains. Nearly all of its citizens are as concerned about its well being as is Pirker. That makes it not only a great place to live, but a wonderful place to visit.