Growing the Distance


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Park City is a complicated place these days. A decade of rapid growth has sent real estate prices soaring and the population booming. As a result, the town’s social dynamic has radically changed. Witness the introduction of a second grocery store, which forever changed the political process. It’s now possible to buy a week’s worth of groceries without bumping into a city official, meaning that political debate has moved from the produce aisle to more formal and often less friendly settings.

Where once everyone who lived here worked here, now employees of local shops live next door to people who work in Salt Lake or telecommute to Los Angeles. Close to half of the residential units in town are vacation homes, and some of the owners have never seen their yards without snow on the ground. Those residents who moved to town in unheated VW buses are a little skeptical of those who arrived in leather upholstered Range Rovers¿and vice versa. Each type’s experiences and involvement in town are radically different. And most surprising is the number of people who live at the base of one of three local resorts¿Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), Deer Valley and The Canyons¿but don’t ski at all. Now, the only common denominator that unites all locals is a commitment to the type of life this community provides.

“The common thread is this incredible attraction people feel for the mountains,” says local real estate broker and development consultant Bill Coleman. He and his wife drove into Park City on their honeymoon in 1970 and lived most of that first winter in a camper parked in the PCMR parking lot. Between the two of them, they worked at just about every job in town. It was going to be a one-year hiatus before moving on to careers. Almost 30 years later, they’re still here. “We promised each other we would leave when the first traffic light went in. Then I ended up on the city council and voted to install it. Four traffic lights later,” he says, “this is still a very seductive place. It’s got a heartbeat that pounds so loud there’s just no escaping it.” In the face of rapid growth, Park City has done a commendable job of protecting the distinct look and feel of the historic mining town crowded into the steep, narrow canyon that parallels Main Street. The whole of “Old Town,” a mile long and a terraced 1,000 feet wide, is a National Register Historic District. And Main Street, along the base of the canyon, is still lined with side-by-side wooden storefronts. Some side “streets” remain blocks-long stairways¿instead of roads¿because they are too vertical to drive, and Victorian houses from mining days climb the steep canyon walls. New houses have filled in vacant lots, and the debate on the appropriate scale of the recent construction is constant, but most new commercial buildings blend in with their century-old neighbors. And while more people now live in newer neighborhoods, Old Town remains the heart of Park City¿and skiing remains its soul.

Just a mile apart, the bases of Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort bracket Old Town like bookends, and just 3 miles south of town is The Canyons. The arms race among the three resorts is putting high-speed detachable lifts where only climbing skins had gone before.

At the top of McConkey’s Ridge, two new lifts¿McConkey’s at PCMR and Empire Canyon at Deer Valley¿physically connect the two resorts. Only a frequently crossed “out of bounds” rope at the ridge and accounting issues are blocking an interchangeable pass. The addition of a few lifts reaching northwest could create a similar ski connection between PCMR and The Canyons’ planned expansion into White Pine Canyon. So while each resort retains its distinct personality, the boundary lines are getting fuzzy.

The improvements are blending the three resorts into a single ski experience. A 10-mile continuous stretch across the back of the Wasatch Range connects Deer Vley’s Mayflower Bowl to The Canyons’ Murdock Bowl, with lift service in place or planned for all of it. Season pass holders used to defend their resort of choice with religious zeal, but now there’s a demand for multi-resort options. The community’s gone ecumenical. The proximity of the three resorts makes it easy to hit them all in a long weekend. PCMR offers a wide variety of terrain from expert to beginner, in many cases from the same lifts, making it possible for skiers of various abilities to ride the “6-pack” lifts together. Deer Valley offers an exceptionally refined ski experience on and off the hill, with some of the best restaurants in the area in its day lodges. And because it doesn’t allow snowboarders and limits ticket sales on busy days, crowding is rarely a problem. Best of all, and contrary to popular perception, Deer Valley is not just a cruiser’s paradise: It boasts challenging steeps and glades.

In its previous incarnation (as Wolf Mountain), The Canyons was strictly a locals’ day area because it offered some of the cheapest tickets in Utah. Now that it’s on its way to becoming a destination contender, it draws a mix of locals and visitors, with a heavy dose of snowboarders who come to play on the terrain of Peak Ninety-nine-90.

With ever-burgeoning expansion, Park City offers a unique mixture of traditional ski town aesthetic and upscale suburb amenities. And while many long-time locals lament the boom, newer recruits are drawn by the balance of ski-town life and big-city career opportunities. Almost every household has at least one member who commutes to downtown Salt Lake, just 32 miles west on I-80. What as little as three years ago was open ranch land between Park City and I-80 has become a sprawling suburb with a population of about 8,000. This area is complete with malls, freeway motels and more fast food outlets than you can shake a greasy french fry at. It’s big enough to have its own ZIP code, but so new it doesn’t have a name. And growth is in no way slowing down. As the 2002 Winter Olympics near, high-profile events are ever more common, and Park City is frequently in the media spotlight. But residents remain unimpressed by celebrity. Park City is where President Clinton’s credit card was refused in a Main Street bookstore, and where the movie stars attending the Sundance Film Festival stand in line with locals waiting for a table. Odds are good that this unimpressionable attitude will change. All of the alpine events for the 2002 Olympics will be at PCMR or Deer Valley, except for the downhill and super G (which are being held at nearby Snowbasin).

The jumping and bobsled site is just 4.5 miles north of town. The result is a growing excitement edged with apprehension: There is a real fear that if planners aren’t careful, the Olympics will ultimately detract from what drew locals here in the first place. Over the next three years, Utah will be overhauling all the town’s access roads simultaneously, and the city has a shopping list of capital improvements a mile long. Public construction leading up to the Games is expected to tally $100 million over three summers, and private construction isn’t slowing down either. The crowds and traffic jams of the Games themselves may feel like a tranquil respite compared to the preparations.

But for now, even with the boom, the attraction of the mountains is still here. The powder still comes, it just gets tracked out more quickly. It’s still possible to put in 20 miles on singletrack bike trails and only touch pavement a couple of times, all within a stone’s throw of Old Town. And it still snows in June, making the unpredictability of mountain life the only sure thing.

At the end of a powder day, Deer Valley’s parking lot reflects Park City’s diversity. Rusted-out Subarus are parked next to new Mercedes SUVs. Their owners are dressed in duct-taped North Face and the latest from Bogner. They are locals¿regulars on the hill¿and recognize each other. Their parallel universes intersect deep in the trees in those secret shots only the locals know.

¿and recognize each other. Their parallel universes intersect deep in the trees in those secret shots only the locals know.

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