TELLURIDE – With the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. in the process of drafting a new ski area master plan, Telski CEO Dave Riley put a blunt question before the Telluride Town Council: Is council ready to resume master planning the base of Lift 7.
A council that ran into a buzz saw of controversy surrounding Lift 7 Master Planning three years ago, on Tuesday agreed only to ponder that question at a council retreat two weeks from now.
To which Riley responded: “I think that’s a good start.”
Talks between Telski and the Town of Telluride have been nonexistent since the collapse of an effort by the town to plan the future of the Lift 7 base. Riley told council Tuesday that he and his staff have spent most of the previous three years working instead with the Town of Mountain Village while it drafted its Comprehensive Plan.
Riley explained that the U.S. Forest Service has asked Telski to update its ski area master plan and the company has been in the process of doing so for the past five years. Once completed, a plan for the future of the ski areacould take anywhere from ten to 15 years to implement. Planning should ideally be conducted jointly by the ski area and the two towns at its base, Riley said, and with with the Mountain Village Comprehensive Plan now complete, Riley, as a courtesy to Telluride, said he was before council to gauge whether or not the town was ready to move forward with its own planning for the north side of the ski area, particularly at the base of Lift 7.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t spent a lot of time in in this forum during the past three years,” Riley said. “I have been very involved with the Town of Mountain Village process. I think it’s been apparent the ski area has been concerned about the bed base balance and how it will work out in the long run. Telluride, Mountain Village and the ski area are critically important to solving these problems. We have focused on Mountain Village because there was a process to focus on. When I first came here, there was a process to focus on in Telluride and then it stopped.
“I think we are at a point in time where its right for the ski area and the Town of Telluride to sit down and figure out how to help each other and be honest about where our challenges are. I’m not trying to be heavy handed here.”
With a number of capital improvements/upgrades needed at the ski area, Riley, said that Telski is trying to figure out how to best invest its resources for capital improvements. While many of the improvement details need to be hashed out, Riley observed that one of the most essential upgrades is to snowmaking infrastructure on the Telluride side of the mountain. This includes actual snowmaking equipment and the installation of a new pump house to draw water from the upper San Miguel River and pump it to the ski area’s storage ponds on the mountain.
The underground steel pipes that connect the north side’s snowmaking, Riley said, have a lifespan of 20 years and most are older than that. When there is a leak and a repair is needed on the pipes, Riley likened it to trying to weld potato chips together. The worst case scenario for that snowmaking infrastructure would be a combination of the pipeline breaking in early December, crews unable to fix it and then low natural snowfall, meaning the north side may not open all year because it has no snow.
“That possibility is very real,” Riley said.
Obviously the need to upgrade the north side’s older lifts is an issue as well.
“The infrastructure on the north side of the mountain is aged and we have some of the same concerns for the other side of the mountain and, in some cases, we have addressed some of those,” Riley said. “I’m not proposing anything here. I want to have a dialogue with town council to help the right solution emerge. If there isn’t any appetite for any of this stuff, I am OK with that. We want to understand what the vision is.”
Riley said if there is a desire by Telluride to improve the base of Lift 7, it would “accelerate” Telski’s ability to invest in the infrastructure on this side of the mountain.
“Obviously what was planned last time, wasn’t acceptable,” he said. “I have some ideas on how to approach that area that might be acceptable.”
Riley fielded a variety of questions from council during the discussion including the costs of lift improvements, the right mix of hot beds that may work for the Lift 7 area as well as questions about Telski’s overall goals.
Some members of council were openly unenthusiastic about opening a conversation that was so controversial in the past, with Councilmember Bob Saunders telling Riley that it would be up to Telski to get support from the community to make it happen.
“If you want support for this, you have to get it from the community,” Saunders said.
“I agree,” Riley said. “The right kind of project in front of Lift 7 that has the character of the community and that provides guest accommodations, I think the vast majority of Telluride will accept it if it is really thoughtfully done You could take this on yourself or put it in front of the community for a vote.”
Councilmember Ann Brady said it should be up to council to move beyond a plan that was effectively shot down three years ago.
“We need to be open to having this conversation,” Brady said. “We need to be able to sit down and, perhaps, put it as a goal. We need to be open to conversations and not just reject them.”
For the ski area, Riley planning for the future requires a degree certainty – particularly with respect to land use. The base of Lift 7 should have guest accommodations, he argued, “at a scale that's tasteful and that every body is happy with.”
Hearing the word “certainty,” Councilmember Thom Carnevale expressed caution.
“I not sure we can ever really count on certainty,” Carnevale said. “We can count on a direction and we can agree to a plan but within two years the circumstances could change. It troubles me a little bit that you are so concerned about certainty. I don’t think you will ever get that.”
“I am here to open the conversation back up,” Riley said. “I am just trying to help you guys understand what we are talking about and the challenges we are facing.”
Mayor Stu Fraser summed up the conversation by saying it was up to council to decide if Lift 7 planning is something it wants to tackle.
“We can’t go around burying our heads in the snow anymore,” Fraser said. “We need to ask ourselves what we want out of it and what do we have to do to get something out of it.”