FRISCO, Colo. --
Winter storms are a matter of course in Colorado, and ski resorts
build business on reports of heavy snows. Skiers generally flock to
the mountains in greater numbers during storms, looking for fresh
powder and pristine conditions.
But that largely
was not the case with three recent storms, including two blizzards,
that collectively dumped seven feet of snow on Denver and the
foothills and paralyzed much of the state. In addition to creating
havoc at Denver Airport and on highways, the storms had a chilling
effect on the economically crucial holiday ski season.
to say exactly what impact the storms had on business, but groups
that promote skiing in the state said they expected some negative
results when major players such as Vail Resorts and Intrawest
release stockholder reports later this winter.
focused on the shutdown of Denver Airport just days before
Christmas and on the hundreds of
flights canceled during a similar storm just a week later. But the
traffic snarls also rekindled a statewide debate over a mounting
problem for the ski industry: an overburdened transportation system
that many say is already discouraging in-state skier traffic and
may be discouraging repeat visits to a state that depends on
billions of dollars in economic rewards from snow.
highway infrastructure, which serves most of the major resorts
through the I-70 corridor, has become increasingly crowded, often
leading to backups even in good weather.
For example, as
the lifts closed at Copper Mountain a week ago Sunday, even with
only wind and cold to combat, skiers sat in traffic for nearly four
hours as they tried to make their way back to the Front Range. Some
drivers spent more than two hours trying to negotiate the drive
from Frisco, near Copper Mountain, to the Eisenhower Tunnel at the
Continental Divide, normally a 20-minute drive.
delays have an economic downside. They are often blamed for missed
flights and reduced time on the slopes, and some state economists
worry that they may discourage skiers from picking Colorado as a
destination. Those problems are greatly exacerbated by major
storms. Though highway crews worked around the clock to keep I-70
open, skiers who ventured west during the recent blizzards faced
long delays in reaching resorts, and many visitors saw their
vacation time cut short.
Matt Sugar, a
spokesman for Winter Park, where Intrawest operates a popular
central-mountain resort, said the number of skiers declined 10% in
a single day last week after an avalanche closed U.S. 40 at
Berthoud Pass for eight hours and trapped several motorists in
"It has been a very mixed bag for the industry,"
said Molly Cuffe of Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents
resorts and other ski-related businesses. "The resorts with drive
market from the Denver area were impacted by the storms in a
negative way for the short term. But the destination markets saw
very little cancellation. There was only a 5% cancellation at
She said regional
airports continued to operate during the storms, helping to keep
traffic up for Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs. Though thousands
of passengers were stranded at Denver Airport in the pre-Christmas
storm and hundreds more flights were cancelled a week later, Cuffe
said resorts generally gave the airport strong marks for handling
weather, traffic and the millions of visitors who descend on
Colorado each ski season.
resorts were not interrupted by the storms. They continued to cater
to tens of thousands of daily visitors who managed to reach the
resorts despite the storms.
Rethinking transportation options
prodded state and business leaders to assess transportation
vulnerability in a state where a thriving ski industry is vital to
officials said last week they were conducting a detailed assessment
of the blizzard responses by the city and particularly by Denver
Airport, which is a overseen by the city government.
Sarah Moss, a
spokeswoman for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, said the assessment
would also consider economic impacts on the city and region, as
officials decide what, if any, policy changes are needed to handle
storms in the future.
Officials at the
Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau said they did not expect that
storm-related issues would have a significant economic impact on
the city, and they noted that under normal circumstances Denver
Airport has one of the best on-time arrival records of any national
"You have to
remember that this was the second-worst storm the city has seen in
December in the past 60 years," said Rich Grant, a CVB
There are also
environmental concerns, said Gregg Cassarini, a smart-growth
campaign manager for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, an
organization of nonprofits that work to balance environmental and
economic concerns. The coalition has been trying, unsuccessfully,
to persuade state officials to build a public rail system in the
mountains rather than pour billions of dollars into highway
But so far,
resort operators have not endorsed rail despite its higher
reliability in bad weather, and despite growing traffic problems.
But Cassarini said that several resorts had recently joined a
coalition of local municipalities that were pushing for short-term
highway improvements while also exploring public transit
storms, he said, might help draw attention to transportation
even in best-case scenarios, it will be at least 10 years before
one shovel of dirt is turned on any highway or train project here,"
Cassarini said. "The storm may sharpen the focus, but ... I think
it has just not become enough of an economic issue yet for the ski
resorts to get involved."
To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].