MCCALL, Idaho — This summer, hikers, horseback riders and other wilderness buffs are trooping into the lonely back country of a peak near here called West Mountain, as they have for generations.
But that loneliness may soon become a thing of the past. Plans are nearing completion to build a massive, year-round resort on the 7,672-foot-peak, featuring fishing, bicycling and other outdoor activities in summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. In fact, the WestRock resort, as it is being called, would become the first major ski resort built in the United States in 25 years.
The $563 million project has won tentative backing from Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne and jumped a variety of bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles to enter the final stage of the approval process. In getting this far, WestRock's backers have so far overcome opposition not only from environmentalists but a politically diverse coalition of local residents and state politicians.
Boosters see WestRock as the area's only hope for economic renewal and as a magnet for much-needed tourist dollars. Critics, meanwhile, worry the ambitious project — which bets on attracting more skiers daily than Aspen — is built on a shaky economic foundation and will cause more harm than good in an area wracked by high unemployment, a weakened tax base and few alternatives to a dying logging industry. They also question the solidity of the resort's main masterminds — a debt-ridden Mexican businessman and a controversial French developer.
"If the whole thing goes kaput, we're left holding the bag," says Charles Ray, a local electrician who heads up an opposition group called Citizens for Valley County, which thinks the project eventually will burden county taxpayers. The WestRock controversy highlights how the debate over economic development in rural areas of the American West — traditionally about mines and mills — hasn't really changed tenor, just focus. Nowadays, it's tourism projects that act as lightning rods, a trend that has helped discourage new ski resorts.
WestRock's ebullient Mexican chairman Alfredo Miguel Afif professes to not be bothered by the controversies and predicts people will flock to his resort. "We are building a paradise for those who prefer nature to bars," says 51-year-old Miguel, who argues that wealthy North Americans want more affordable ski resorts. The project calls for the construction of 20 lifts, mountaintop restaurants and a village of 3,460 housing units with 850,000 feet of commercial space.
It's a particularly ambitious project given recent woes in the U.S. ski industry. Hurt by sluggish snowfall in recent seasons, many resorts have been forced to discount lift-ticket prices and cut the number of runs they have open at any one time. Meanwhile, weary of rocky runs domestically, consumers and their travel agents have been trained to look for alternatives in Canada and Europe — which they can more readily afford in this booming economy.
Given such hurdles, some ski industry experts sniff at WestRock's chances to become a premier skiing destination. "They may have one good winter, but the next year nobody will go there," says Anette Hertz, manager of Ute City Travel in Aspen, referring to what she and many other industry officials consider to be WestRock's low ski-hill base of 4,900 feet, where snowfall isn't as reliable as at higher altitudes, they say.
So far, WestRock partners have spent around $24 million to turn their plan into a reality. They've recently signed a master development and investment deal with Phoenix developer Scott Lyon who, together with his father, built such well-known resorts as The Boulders at Scottsdale, Ariz. And they've put emphasis on winning over key Idaho officials such as Gov. Kempthorne, who has met with Miguel in Mexico. Backers are so confident in WestRock that they've offered to give officials in Boise a $500,000 check as an up-front payment on a five-year state land lease once the project is given the green light. That vote is expected in August, and if it goes in WestRock's favor, the company says it will begin construction immediately.
The idea for WestRock began with a Phoenix architect named Dennis Taggart, an Idaho native who grew up summering at his grandparents' place in the shadow of West Mountain, a wilderness of Ponderosa trees where elk and bear still roam. Taggart enlisted Don Weilmunster, a local rancher, who owned land at the base of the mountain abutting a man-made lake then called the Cascade Reservoir. Their plans took off with the arrival of Pierre Schnebelen, a Frenchman who had built up a midsize ski-resort empire under the tutelage of General Charles de Gaulle.
Schnebelen's detractors say his companies, which controlled assets at the resorts of Tignes, Val d'Isere, Val Thorens and Val Frejous at various points, got into trouble because they'd taken on too much debt and were poorly managed. Says Schnebelen: "I've never had financial or tax problems in any of my projects."
In the late 1980s, Messrs. Taggart and Schnebelen put together a ski resort project on West Mountain called "Valbois," or the "Wooded Valley," with Weilmunster offering his land without playing an operative role. Valbois relied heavily on the use of U.S. Forest Service land, triggering such a lengthy permitting process that the promoters still hadn't cleared regulatory approvals five years after it was proposed. Losing investor support during the delays, Valbois filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995.
In 1997, Schnebelen turned up in Mexico City at the request of Miguel, who was looking for a developer to help him build a resort and marina project in Cancun. An avid skier with property at Vail, Miguel instead became interested in reviving the ski resort idea at West Mountain.
Miguel had just finished reviving his own family empire. The Miguel companies, which did everything from making auto crankshafts to running a mobile paging service, ran up $320 million in debt during an expansion binge in the 1990s; Miguel vows to repay his debt in full.
The WestRock team has had its work cut out for it. State officials worry about the projection of as many as 5,510 daily skiers WestRock says it can attract, nearly double Idaho's own Sun Valley and more even than Aspen. Moreover they fret that a long stretch of the main route from Boise to the resort follows the contour of a steep canyon and can't be expanded to handle the volume of expected traffic.
That isn't all. Members of the Valley County Planning and Zoning Commission, which issues local building permits, worried that WestRock, which is expected to double the county's population of 8,000, wouldn't put up the cash needed to improve roads and build new schools. So Weilmunster, who took an active role in WestRock as its president, paid to have commission members flown to Telluride, Colo. to see for themselves how a small town can benefit from a ski resort.
The move backfired, says Lynette Adams, one of the commissioners. "Among other things, we found the real estate had skyrocketed to the extent that no one could afford to live there," she recalls.
Via Associated Press