Executive decision: Skico to expand snowmaking after lackluster year
The Aspen Times
After coming off a dismal 2017-18 ski season due to a lack of snow, Aspen Skiing Co. is redirecting $5.5 million in capital expenditures this summer to expand snowmaking for next ski season.
At the beginning of this season, Skico was limited in what terrain it could offer; Snowmass only opened with the Elk Camp Meadows beginner area, and Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk delayed their openings.
The effort this summer will fill in spots at those ski areas that will better connect terrain and provide skiing to the bottom of the hill. Skico has realized that this season is the poster child for the threat climate change poses on the industry.
“We are focusing on pipes, pumps and guns,” said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. “We saw this as a wake-up call for potential future years like this.”
Christian Knapp, chief marketing officer for Skico, announced his company’s snowmaking investment at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s “Eggs and Issues” breakfast meeting Wednesday.
“It was not the best season we’ve had,” he told the crowded room at the Doerr-Hoiser Center. “But we got through one of our more challenging years.”
One of the reasons the season was still somewhat of a success was what Knapp described as a “Herculean effort” by Skico’s snowmaking and on-mountain crews, who were able to effectively manage and conserve what snow there was.
But it’s not enough going forward.
Hanle doesn’t know the acreage breakdown for this new phase of snowmaking.
“It’s not a huge number, but it is critical terrain,” he said.
Hanle said Skico will double its pumping capacity at Adams Avenue at Snowmass so there can be a full connection to the top of the Elk Camp Gondola.
At Buttermilk, snowmaking will be expanded in the lower half of the mountain at Lover’s Lane and the Toilet Bowl area to connect to Homestead Road and to the bottom.
At Aspen Highlands, the area that will be focused on for expanded snowmaking is in an area known as the “hot flats” near the NASTAR course and Prospector Gulch.
It’s often an obstacle because that area melts quickly, Hanle said. Snowmaking won’t go all the way to the top of the Exhibition chairlift, but there is usually enough to manage as long as it doesn’t have to get moved farther down, he added.
Expanded snowmaking at Aspen Mountain will occur in 2019, when Skico starts updates to its master plan.
Despite the lackluster season, the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has been busting at the seams, reported its director, John Kinney.
He said on nearly every level, the 70-year-old facility is at capacity, especially as new connections and routes to cities have been added, as well as service in the offseason months.
Last month, the short-term and economy parking lots were full for the first time ever, which indicates that usage on that front is growing, as well, Kinney said.
He noted that 40 percent of the resort’s visitors come through Sardy Field.
With four airlines controlling 81 percent of the commercial market in the United States, the corporate jet industry is growing, which also is necessitating an expansion. Currently, there is one fixed base operator who provides private aviation. A second one is part of the proposed expansion.
Kinney said he expects a report from the FAA in the next two to four weeks regarding the expansion plans.
The next step is to get a project management team in place, via a request for proposals process. Then later this year, planners will define what the airport’s character and vision ought to be.
A team for the runway design also will be assembled. Next year, a team will be put together to design the terminal.
Kinney said the wild card is funding. The majority of the project would come from the FAA, which has hundreds of millions “lying on the floor” from its billion-dollar budget. He said the key is getting Aspen-Pitkin County at a competitive vantage point and have its story ready to tell.
The expansion would be the largest infrastructure project on the Western Slope in decades, second to the Glenwood Canyon interstate thoroughfare, according to Kinney.