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Column: Winter Park gondola to downtown is a pipe-dream game-changer

Patrick Brower

When it comes to calibrating the economic fortunes of the downtown area of the Town of Winter Park, nothing has been more lamented than the town’s very indirect connection to the Winter Park Resort.

To put it simply, Winter Park and its town center is not close at all to the base of the Winter Park ski area. Over the decades I’ve lived here this has continued to be a worrisome fact about the Alpine skiing experience in Winter Park. For business people in the town of Winter Park it’s been extremely irksome that the hordes at the resort have been blissfully unaware that a real town, with businesses and condominiums and homes, sat just another mile or two down the highway.

For the skiers, once they planted themselves at the ski area, it was just enough of a hassle to drive or trek or walk (it’s a long way on foot) or, well, whatever, to that town just down the road.



As the urban legends (rural legends?) would have it, half of the skiers who drive up to Winter Park to ski from the Front Range never venture to the Winter Park town core. I would love to have seen the real numbers, but I think this question fits into the “afraid to ask” category for survey takers.

When competing with resorts like Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, where the downtown business districts are at the bases of the ski areas, creating bustling ski area charm right next to the lifts, this separation of the ski area and the town was (and is) a problem.



But now, with the release of the most recent Winter Park Resort master plan, a key element envisions a direct link from downtown Winter Park to the Winter Park Resort proper.

I am referring here to the plan’s revelation (whispered about behind the scenes for many months, years even) of a gondola that will extend from the resort to downtown Winter Park to a resort-owned plot of land right next to Cooper Creek Square and the town’s parking garage. That parking garage is also home to the Winter Park Town Hall.

Aside from the many other positive aspects of this new master plan (expansion of skiing acreage with emphasis on the Vazquez area, summer activity expansion and more on-mountain amenities), this gondola-to-town aspect is the by far the most earth shaking. And it’s the most important for the future of Winter Park (the town), Winter Park (the ski area) and the Grand County economy overall.

It will chip away at the general impression that Winter Park is a ski place, but not a ski town. I think Winter Park and Mary Jane have the best skiing and snow in Colorado, but for many it’s been just that. The overall ski experience (exotic night life, walkable retail and restaurant experience and cozy mountain town atmosphere) has been lacking in Winter Park.

I’ll never forget during my first or second winter in Grand County (1979-80) one of the glitzy national ski magazines came out with an article ranking Colorado ski towns. Winter Park rated number one for skiing and was dead last for night life and the après-ski experience. This new gondola may actually help to change that.

I remember how for years Winter Park, and especially former ski area CEO Jerry Groswold, aspired to make Winter Park more of a “destination” resort. By that it was meant that Winter Park had plenty of day skiers (those Denver and Front Range skiers) but not enough overnighters to make it a ski town like Vail or Breckenridge. This new gondola may actually help to change that.

A gondola like this linking the town and the ski area has been a dream for years. I remember when a previous developer of the Beavers property envisioned a a chairlift from that side of the highway to a gondola link the ski area. But it never happened.

Now, at least, this dream has at least been put on paper and is part of a real plan. The million-dollar question now is how long will it take that plan to become a reality.

 


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