Safe Harbor? - Ski Mag

Safe Harbor?

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It's Christmas Eve in Sandpoint, Idaho. The wet snow in the Schweitzer parking lots is piled higher than the condos. You've skied thigh-deep cement all day, dodging snow ghosts in lake-effect fog. You're toast. Hungry toast. But no restaurants in town are answering. Jean's, the restaurant at the Green Gables hotel, is booked tight.

Your car's stuck in a foot of slush at the base, and a room at the Gables is $300. The down-mountain motel you're staying in just went bankrupt. Rumors are flying that the sale of the also-bankrupt Schweitzer to a corporation that will rescue it from management-by-mothball have fallen through again. The lifties have been surly.

It's very dark when you get your car unstuck and dodge giant luxo-utes for 11 scary, foggy miles down to Sandpoint. The coffee shop's open in the Quality Inn, but when you arrive, everybody else is leaving, the help wants to go home and open presents, and the hostess' body language says, go away.

After a hot turkey sandwich and a beer, you go back to the motel for MTV. The big storm tonight means even deeper skiing tomorrow, if you can get up the road to the lifts. Or to sleep. The guy in the motel's hot tub, peeking out from a foot of foam, looks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Sandpoint, Idaho. A forested town on a lake watched over by a great ski mountain. A place of small galleries, intimate restaurants, and exquisite shops. A place of old-fashioned community. A place to call home. A place of near-perfect beauty when the sun's out.

But the sun wasn't often out during the record snow year of 1998-99, when Seattle's Harbor Properties finally did buy Schweitzer Mountain, officially-hopefully-ending a decade of gothic weirdness for town and mountain. That weirdness took many forms, not all of them as benign as not being able to find a place to eat in a ski town on Christmas Eve. Perhaps its extreme was reached in the fall of '98, when two Silicon Valley cyber-millionaires started up a local church dedicated to racial purity. They mailed out slick posters, terrorizing the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce and local realtors and sparking fears of a resurgence of Idaho jokes on Leno and Letterman. There had been enough of those when Mark Fuhrman, fresh from the O.J. trial, retired from police work and moved to Sandpoint and got his own right-wing talk show on a Spokane AM station.

Weirdness is nothing new to Sandpoint. For starters, a significant portion of the locals really liked the '60s and have refused to move on. People who were deadheads before being a deadhead was cool still truck up and down the sidewalks. The Hayden Lake Nazi compound is 30 short miles to the south. And Sandpoint end-of-the-worlders were storing food in their crawl spaces long before anybody had heard of Y2K.

Much of the town's eccentricity is due to a chronic split in local wealth. At the depressed end of that split are the people who'd worked in timber or mining or the railroad when those fading industries supported north Idaho's economy. Along with minimum-wage seasonal workers, local stump farmers, and Social Security retirees, they are a substantial, if nearly invisible, part of the local population.

At the extreme high end of the split, and considerably more visible, has been the Brown family, who'd owned Schweitzer since the resort's founding by timber baron Jim Brown in 1961. For years, Schweitzer had been a modest local operation on a world-class mountain. But after Jim Brown's death, his heirs found themselves with a hundred million dollars or so of timber money. Today, ghosts of that money can still be seen dancing about in the wind-whipped mists of Schweitzer Mountain.

In 1989, when the slopeside Green Gables was built, it was the family's centerpiece for an elaborate multimillion-dollar expansion intended to establish Schweitzer as a first-rank destination resort. Its fairytale architecture, 82 rooms, grand lobby, and $150-a-place-setting china placed it among thworld's finest intimate and elegant ski hotels.

Unfortunately, that elegance had come at the price of other more essential amenities: parking lots, roads, express quads, and even, for a while, the unpainted south gable of Green Gables. The hotel's size meant that the place would return its investment about the time Captain Picard assumed command of the Starship Enterprise.

Not to worry, though. Even when the cash flow problems were at their worst, there were rumors that a giant gondola would soon be built from Sandpoint to the slopes. And even then, some people believed those rumors, because Schweitzer could have its moments of greatness. Three hundred inches of snow on a huge, wide-open mountain that's made for speed, a half-mile of vertical, sudden breaks in the clouds that fill the world with sunlit snow ghosts and the bright reflection of lake water-these things make skiers and investors believe that anything's possible.

When Harbor Properties offered $18 million to U.S. Bank for Schweitzer in 1997, Sandpoint was full of rumors about where the Brown family's money went, but two things were clear. First, Schweitzer had been a major money pit for almost everyone concerned. The master plan had been first-class all the way, but something was lost in the translation when cement was poured and lumber nailed up: Some of the condo projects around the resort core looked like self-storage compounds. Second, some of the Browns thought the resort was worth $40 or $50 million instead of the $18 million offered. A series of legal battles delayed the sale for two years, while family members tried to keep control of the resort.

In the meantime, skiing on the mountain continued, but without much spending on equipment or maintenance. Nighttime lift crews had been jettisoned as an unnecessary expense, and lifts were often shut down for long mornings while a storm's worth of wind rime was scraped off towers and bullwheels. Grooming varied according to machinery maintenance and operator mood.

During this time, people in Sandpoint who had invested life savings in small businesses, people who were selling real estate hoping for a resort boom that would have them driving Hummers to plastic surgery appointments, people whose house payments depended on decent winter jobs-they all watched while their dreams tanked. They joined the local unemployed, the ex-cops, and the hippies still partying like it was 1969 in that great community of people used to having their worlds shaped by the whims and miscalculations of the wealthy.

For years, the Sandpoint working poor had labored for contractors building million-dollar mansions next to decaying farmhouses. They had parked their old pickups next to shiny new SUVs. Those who'd invested in the area's future had watched their net worth fluctuate according to the schedules of lawyers.

The result: a certain amount of pinched helplessness among the locals and a certain amount of resignation and hostility to outsiders. It's fair to say that in the last 10 years, Sandpoint had been Schweitzer's abused stepchild.

Some people weren't complaining, though. The powder never got skied out. The weather required a Gore-Tex wardrobe, but new storms redecorated the whole mountain every couple of days. Wide-open intermediate runs, the lack of a fashion scene, and a community of racing kids and supportive parents made Schweitzer a resort that was friendly, funky, family, low-key, and little known.

Harbor Properties has come to change things. It's a development corporation with other successful ski properties-Mission Ridge and Stevens Pass in Washington State. It's got deep enough pockets to fix Schweitzer's parking lot, start looking at the next express chairlift, figure out what to do about the calving glacier that forms each spring on the roof of Green Gables (fairytale architecture and 300 inches of snow do not a fairytale make), and begin to market the place big time.

It won't be a quick or easy job. Schweitzer's two great bowls, consistent deep snow, and half-mile of vertical make it one of the top ski areas in terms of size-it's more than a thousand acres bigger than Telluride-but you get the feeling that lift and cat-track locations were determined by throwing lawn darts at an area map. A dive down the back side into North Bowl yields a thousand feet of elbow-scraping, grin-freezing, toe-curling turns through giant rocks and trees-nobody would say this isn't serious terrain-but aside from that, it's miles of intermediate cruising. Experts looking for all-day adrenaline are going to have to wait until Harbor builds express lifts to serve the headwalls of the bowls.

The resort core, anchored by the Gables and a well-planned day lodge, is approaching critical mass. An indoor theater, a spa, enough permanent residents to make the place feel like a cozy mountain community-these things will draw people to the mountain for something other than the skiing. One new bright spot is the Schweitzer Mountain Bed & Breakfast, a Tyrolean-style inn that is already booking for years ahead.

Harbor's real challenge will lie in its relations with locals and in convincing them that Sandpoint is a ski town, not just a summer lakeside resort with a winter slack season. It needs to actively address the north Idaho tribalism that-in addition to attracting survivalists and racists-has produced serious splits between town and mountain, locals and tourists, right-wingers and left-wingers, gallery owners and artists, and between all other conceivable ethnic groups that have seen themselves losing every time somebody else has tried to win. Even though Harbor's success will likely mean success for many Sandpointers, it's still a tall order. Development corporations are supposed to make money, and the more successful they are, the more changes they bring. Harbor wants to see the kind of changes that will bring a lot of prosperous, active, well-educated, nonparanoid, second-home-owning boomers into its fold.

Among the changes Harbor has instituted is employee drug testing, which has updated some of the town's calendars by 30 years and generated complaints among local civil libertarians. The Green Gables renamed the Selkirk Lodge for 1999-00, in a painful but fiscally realistic move, is going to be converted to time-share condos. Money has begun to appear for improvements-new groomers and plows, more lift maintenance, and better parking. But so far, the company hasn't made any dramatic moves, except to announce a program to sell $200 season passes. It's the sort of offer that will please a lot of locals and, most important, provide a clean break with the past.

Schweitzer is not going to overcome its history in a season. But if Harbor is looking 10 or 15 years into the future, Schweitzer could become the kind of resort that the Brown family tried to midwife a decade ago. And Sandpoint, a place of astonishing natural beauty, could become the kind of community that gets along well with its mountain, and has reason to.

It's springtime in Sandpoint, and Harbor is at the helm of Schweitzer. When the snow leaves the parking lots and the electric green of spring creeps into the lawns and the sun is shining on Lake Pend Oreille, Sandpoint looks like a cubicle slave's dream of the sweet by-and-by, especially if that cubicle slave's a skier. That's when you drive up to Schweitzer and ski in shorts on 200 inches of solid base topped with creamed corn. There's a high-speed quad and 2,400 feet of vertical and an acre of wide-open skiing for each vertical foot. There's a small bar in the Selkirk Lodge where you can drink beer in the late-afternoon sunlight with a bunch of grinning trust funders and ancient cackling hippies and smile down on the lake and its islands and its sun-gilded clouds and all the rest of private Idaho, and it is very, very good. ob. Schweitzer's two great bowls, consistent deep snow, and half-mile of vertical make it one of the top ski areas in terms of size-it's more than a thousand acres bigger than Telluride-but you get the feeling that lift and cat-track locations were determined by throwing lawn darts at an area map. A dive down the back side into North Bowl yields a thousand feet of elbow-scraping, grin-freezing, toe-curling turns through giant rocks and trees-nobody would say this isn't serious terrain-but aside from that, it's miles of intermediate cruising. Experts looking for all-day adrenaline are going to have to wait until Harbor builds express lifts to serve the headwalls of the bowls.

The resort core, anchored by the Gables and a well-planned day lodge, is approaching critical mass. An indoor theater, a spa, enough permanent residents to make the place feel like a cozy mountain community-these things will draw people to the mountain for something other than the skiing. One new bright spot is the Schweitzer Mountain Bed & Breakfast, a Tyrolean-style inn that is already booking for years ahead.

Harbor's real challenge will lie in its relations with locals and in convincing them that Sandpoint is a ski town, not just a summer lakeside resort with a winter slack season. It needs to actively address the north Idaho tribalism that-in addition to attracting survivalists and racists-has produced serious splits between town and mountain, locals and tourists, right-wingers and left-wingers, gallery owners and artists, and between all other conceivable ethnic groups that have seen themselves losing every time somebody else has tried to win. Even though Harbor's success will likely mean success for many Sandpointers, it's still a tall order. Development corporations are supposed to make money, and the more successful they are, the more changes they bring. Harbor wants to see the kind of changes that will bring a lot of prosperous, active, well-educated, nonparanoid, second-home-owning boomers into its fold.

Among the changes Harbor has instituted is employee drug testing, which has updated some of the town's calendars by 30 years and generated complaints among local civil libertarians. The Green Gables renamed the Selkirk Lodge for 1999-00, in a painful but fiscally realistic move, is going to be converted to time-share condos. Money has begun to appear for improvements-new groomers and plows, more lift maintenance, and better parking. But so far, the company hasn't made any dramatic moves, except to announce a program to sell $200 season passes. It's the sort of offer that will please a lot of locals and, most important, provide a clean break with the past.

Schweitzer is not going to overcome its history in a season. But if Harbor is looking 10 or 15 years into the future, Schweitzer could become the kind of resort that the Brown family tried to midwife a decade ago. And Sandpoint, a place of astonishing natural beauty, could become the kind of community that gets along well with its mountain, and has reason to.

It's springtime in Sandpoint, and Harbor is at the helm of Schweitzer. When the snow leaves the parking lots and the electric green of spring creeps into the lawns and the sun is shining on Lake Pend Oreille, Sandpoint looks like a cubicle slave's dream of the sweet by-and-by, especially if that cubicle slave's a skier. That's when you drive up to Schweitzer and ski in shorts on 200 inches of solid base topped with creamed corn. There's a high-speed quad and 2,400 feet of vertical and an acre of wide-open skiing for each vertical foot. There's a small bar in the Selkirk Lodge where you can drink beer in the late-afternoon sunlight with a bunch of grinning trust funders and ancient cackling hippies and smile down on the lake and its islands and its sun-gilded clouds and all the rest of private Idaho, and it is very, very good.

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