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An Afternoon with Jim Jackson (2001)
A hopeful ski area developer spills his guts (from 2001).
Note: This story first appeared in the San Juan Mountain Journal in 2001. We’re re-running it here and now to provide some historical background to the story about Silverton Mountain Ski Area changing hands.
"I was sleeping right there," Jim Jackson says, pointing to a spot in the snow marked only by a cinder block. "The first indication I had that something was happening was the sound of the Weber grill flying by my head.”
Within seconds, the front windows of the cabin were blown out and shards were hitting the back wall next to Jackson like shotgun pellets. The roof was torn off, snow filled the ruined structure, and Jackson was covered with snow.
That was three years ago, a winter that began much like this one: early snowfall followed by a drought. The drought was followed by a big storm, filling the massive starting zone of the slide with a volatile combination of snowpacks that broke off, travelled down the steep channel into the valley bottom, shot back up the opposite slope, and demolished the cabin of Biz Williamson and nearly took Jackson's life.
The cabin has been rebuilt. The front edge of its deck sits only about ten feet back from where Jackson was sleeping that night. And a log and earthen "splitter" sits smack dab in the middle of the old cabin site, designed to dissipate the slide's destructive power the next time it runs. But the splitter is only about six feet high; and the cabin still seems to be situated in a very precarious spot. One can't help but wonder how long it will be before it gets smacked again.
Large windows give Jackson a very clear view of the Cabin slide.
Jackson is the prospective developer of a year-round recreation area- Jackson insists that his development is not "just another ski area"--on the Storm Peak Massif, an area of mostly steep terrain that includes Storm Peak, "Velocity Peak," and Boulder Gulch.
Williamson's cabin, which Jackson often calls home, sits along the South Fork of Cement Creek, a drainage which forms a steep valley right in the middle of the Massif, and which terminates in a massive wall of rotten, volcanic rock that was once home to the North American Speed Skiing Championships. The Silverton Scenic Tram, the centerpiece of Jackson's project, would terminate near the top of that wall, just up the ridge from the starting zone of the Cabin slide.
Perhaps there's some irony in the fact that the terrain Jackson hopes to develop nearly took his life. But while this gregarious former speed skier talks of that harrowing night with an air of fear and awe, the experience clearly has not dampened his enthusiasm for his project. "I look back," Jackson says, maps, studies, and plans of his project spread out on a table before him. "I'm 50. I've devoted my whole life to this.”
Although the statement may be hyperbolic--the idea for the project was first "germinated" in 1992--it is clear that Jackson, otherwise known as Velocity Peak, Inc. (VPI), has spent a huge amount of money, time, and energy on the plans for the Storm Peak Recreation Area.
"Fundamentally, I've given a lot to this thing," he notes, passion and intensity apparent in his voice. And after eight years of mapping, planning, working with consultants, and after examining every inch of the terrain by helicopter and on skis, Jackson doesn't want to see things fall apart now.
Carrie Cline of the Silverton Standard and I have been invited to the cabin to see exactly what Jackson's been working on since 1992 and to find out what he hopes to do next. He would like to set the record straight regarding his ambitions. He feels that certain sectors of the press, particularly since Aaron Brill has proposed a ski area on one edge of the Massif, have not treated his project fairly, this publication included.
"This is not a hobby," Jackson emphasizes, refering to a past comment in the Journal.
After seeing VPI's prospectus, attached studies, and maps, it is clear that this, indeed, is not merely something to occupy the time of a former ski bum. This reporter stands corrected.
Jackson has spent over $25,000 on mapping alone and he has commissioned a number of economic impact and feasibility studies with such well-known organizations as Design Workshop and Beach Resource Management.
He has been acquiring land in the area for years and now owns a number of mining claims in the Colorado Basin vicinity. In the meantime, he has constantly been in search of investors, a necessity if he is to come up with the necessary capital for the project, an amount that could be as high as $100 million.
The investors are interested, according to Jackson, but are waiting for Bureau of Land Management permits to be finalized before making a commitment. It is that permitting process that Jackson is now facing and that has flushed this project, which up until now has been relatively secret and the subject of rumor and speculation, out of the woodwork.
Jackson is a nice guy and forgives even as he chastises me for that earlier comment. He is tanned and healthy looking, younger than his fifty years. And on this particular, sunny afternoon (with a big storm reportedly approaching), he is candid and open about his ambitions and shares information with the local press without reservation.
But the lasting impression that one walks away with after an afternoon with Jim Jackson, is that this guy is absolutely committed to, even obsessed with, getting his project off the ground.
Jackson's vision is a multi-faceted one that encompasses portions of the south, east, west, and north sides of the so-called Storm Peak Massif. Under his conceptual master plan, the project's physical center would sit on the flank of Storm Peak and a total of 10 chairlifts, one gondola, and a tram would radiate out into the Cement Creek and Animas River drainages. Gladstone, under this long-term vision, would be developed, along with an area near Storm Peak's summit. There are even plans for Tower Lodge, which would sit on a ridge near Tower Mountain.
But the centerpiece of the project, and the crucial element, according to Jackson, is the Silverton Scenic Tram and its accompanying base area. The 120 person tram would begin in Silverton's Memorial Park and extend to the shoulder of Storm Peak. From there, three chairlifts would reach out to the south, west, and east, accessing varied terrain.
Finishing out Phase One of the plan would be a base area located in and around Silverton's Memorial Park. A 150 room hotel, an Olympic size swimming pool (open to the Silverton public), a restaurant, tennis courts, a health club, and more would be included in this area.
The emphasis, Jackson repeatedly emphasizes, will be on sightseeing and he says the tram will offer, "something so irresistibly dramatic that it begs for people to come here." The tram would take those people to the view from 13,351 feet that, even cynics must admit, is breathtaking.
The additional three chairlifts will comprise the year-round aspect of Phase One, giving access to a variety of ski terrain in Boulder Gulch, a portion of the Cement Creek drainage, and a low-angled bench near the tram's termination point. If the project ever makes it to phases two and three, it will provide lift access to a huge variety of terrain and aspects making for a European style ski experience. Although Jackson's ultimate vision includes that expansion, he would be satisfied with much less.
"If all we did was Phase One, that would be fine, too," Jackson explains as he looks at a large map, crisscrossed with lines that represent chairlifts. Even this scaled-down version would more than pay for itself, according to the Prospectus. And it would bring a myriad of economic benefits to the people Silverton as well, says Jackson.
"What it really comes down to is this: Are you really for Silverton's survival?” That statement by Jackson sums up his view of his project's impact on Silverton's economy and why the locals should support the plan.
Jackson calls Silverton's current state a "death spiral" that, if not stopped, will create a modern ghost town. "How worse can it get before something gets done?" he asks, and points to his project as something that can, eventually, reverse the spiral downwards. "The tram becomes an engine to jump-start the economy.”
The Velocity Peak plan rests on the premise that Silverton already has the visitors--600,000-1 million per year according to Jackson--but that within the current tourist dynamic, each of those visitors only spends a short amount of time and money here. The money that is spent here, he says, makes a quick exit to Durango or Montrose.
A scenic tram, however, would "accomplish a change, if not reversal, in the existing visitor dynamics. Simply put, the two hour tourist/visitor must become enthusiastically motivated to remain in Silverton longer-ideally as an overnight guest," reads the VPI prospectus sent out to investors.
It becomes clear, after analyzing the prospectus, why Jackson wants to avoid the "ski area" label. The summer operations, and their ability to snare the huge summer visitor base, are crucial for the financial success of the project.
Of course, Jackson is a skier, and the winter side of things is important for him as well. He thinks the tram will "regionalize and connect the existing winter recreation markets of Telluride and Purgatory" to create a winter economy and a new ski experience in Silverton.
Or, in Jackson's words, "All of the summer tourists would pay the light bill so that we can ski all winter.”
Silvertonians, meanwhile, are asking what they will receive in return for a tramway stretching through their northern view. They are getting mixed answers. Property values will almost certainly increase pulling property taxes along with them. The population will rise and there will be a flurry of development. The tax base will increase, giving the town and county greater revenues.
And there will be more jobs, first with initial construction, then with actual operations. Velocity Peak's financial projections estimate $2.4 million being spent on payroll in the first year of operation alone. Initially, the promise of money for this cash deprived town sounds good to most, but others wonder what toll the community will pay and worry about becoming just another mountain resort town.
"I know this town has a deep-seated apprehension of becoming another Aspen, Telluride, or Vail," replies Jackson. "Which is why we haven't glossed this over with real-estate development.”
This is where Jackson is likely to run into problems. To locals, he emphasizes the revenue, amenities, and jobs he will bring to Silverton. To investors, the emphasis shifts to the real money maker for this type of development: real estate. "The investor is not only compensated by his investment in this project," reads the pro-forma, "but also by what his investment in this project does for his subsequent investment in the land development associated with this project. "...it is clear that these visitors, who come to Silverton...also provide a strong potential market for second homes. A market that does not currently exist because there is not four season draw to the area.”
With the ski industry failing to attract more skiers in spite of area expansions and improvements, it is only with the peripheral developments that Jackson's investors could hope to make money. According to the National Ski Area Association, of which Jackson is a member, skier numbers last year in the Rocky Mountain Region were the lowest they've been since 1994. Given those figures, many question whether the Storm Peak Recreation Area could attract the numbers it needs to be economically feasible.
As for the millions of dollars planned for the payroll, much of that would certainly go toward generally low paying service jobs. Critics say this is exactly what Silverton does not need. To his credit, Jackson's prospectus does include a provision for the construction of low-income, employee housing.
Walking the line between promised economic development and runaway, trophy-home development takes an enormous sense of balance. And that's just one of the challenges Jackson's going to face in the near future.
Obstacles and Hurdles
"I've done my homework at no expense to the taxpayer," notes Jackson, pointing to his stack of maps, studies, and other products that he and his team of consultants have produced. Indeed, much work has been done by Velocity Peak, Inc. But the difficult part of the process is just beginning.
First, there's land, or the lack thereof. Jackson's plan calls for a tram base area that would cover parts of Memorial Park and much of the surrounding property. Memorial Park, of course, is owned by the town. And mining companies own the remaining property. The proposed tram also crosses several mining claims through which easements must be granted.
He'll need to purchase, lease, or gain access to those and other properties before he can begin construction. That won't be cheap. Mining claims that the owners may have once begged to unload for a pittance have doubled and even tripled in price since competing developer Aaron Brill began acquiring land in the area. And when the public catches wind of Jackson's plan, claims around Storm Peak are likely to get even more expensive.
Which brings up another stickler of an issue for Jackson: money. The tram alone will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million. In addition, Jackson will have to find financing to build his luxurious base area, three additional lifts, and to continue buying land. Even the Environmental Impact Statement, according to Jackson's own estimates, could cost around $2 million.
Just to complete Phase One alone, Jackson will have to come up with about $100 million according to his prospectus. That's enough money to finance operations for the Town of Silverton at current levels for about 70 years. "This is a very large undertaking for any one entity," remarks Jackson in a gross understatement. The cost must be spread out to various investors, he says. Thus far, none have committed. "Investors have responded favorably," says Jackson. "But they aren't jumping in until we get the permits.”
He also plans to pursue government loans, grants, and other forms of assistance.
Jackson says that, in this respect, "The endorsement of the local community is paramount. It's not a complex proposition.”
This may be one of Jackson's greatest challenges: convincing a town that has practically adopted as its official motto the phrase,"We don't want to become another Telluride," to throw its support behind a major ski area/year-round resort development.
Thus far, public sentiment is difficult to gauge. Until just recently, the Velocity Peak plan has been mostly kept hidden from the public and has been ground up into various mutations by the rumor mill. Opinions of the project have been based more on speculation than on an actual proposal.
Jackson kept the project under wraps for nearly a decade and may have done so for another had his dreams not been so rudely interrupted by another prospective ski area developer. Along came Brill with a proposal for a much smaller area that happened to lie within the proposed boundaries of Jackson's project. Jackson was forced to act, and, along with Brill, recently submitted his proposal to the BLM. Jackson now has no choice but to lift the veil of secrecy and take his proposal to the people.
This interview with Silverton's two newspapers is the preliminary step in that process. Next, says Jackson, he will go to the town and the county and hold a meeting, open to the public, where he will present his plan.
When Brill held a similar meeting in April, the locals generally responded with a flood of support. That support has largely sustained itself up until now. If Jackson gets a similar response, it will surely build investor confidence and could give him a boost in the BLM permitting process. If not, the deal could be off.
Whereas Brill has insisted he will open his ski area on private land with or without a BLM permit, Jackson's project is inconceivable without utilizing public lands. Therefore, the ultimate, big decision for him will be made by buearocrats at the federal level.
Sometime next week, the BLM will issue a Notice of Realty Action for both projects. The release of the NORA will be followed by a 45 day public comment period. That will begin the long process of scrutiny by the BLM which will include analysis of environmental, social, and economic impacts.
Jackson seems somewhat apprehensive about presenting his plan on the local level and potentially opening himself up to attacks and tough questions. But his feelings about goings on at the federal level are much stronger. He speaks of the NORA as a potential "deal killer," and he has no patience for "staunch environmentalists" who may use the process, and the recent reintroduction of the threatened Canadian Lynx, to stop his project.
"The idiots who put the Lynx here should be shot," says Jackson, his voice changing tenor. He goes on to ask why a sensitive species was placed in a mining impacted area such as the western San Juans in the first place. He emphasizes that the Storm Peak area, with dozens of abandoned, often unreclaimed mines, is by no means pristine wilderness. "To champion the lynx as a fly in the ointment to stop this is preposterous," he continues.
Jackson believes that the greatest threat to his project, and to a prosperous future for Silverton, is outside opposition, particularly on environmental grounds. Jackson hopes the community will stand up to that yet unseen opposition. "Would this be the thing that breaks the back of this thing?" he asks. "This is where the community has to say that it should be done because it represents our only foothold in the marketplace we rely on. If environmentalists, through the NORA, shut this down, what is there left to fall back on? More grants?”
When he addresses the Silverton public, Jackson is likely to make the following point: "You may not like the tram, but you have to respect what it does for you. I'm trying to help the idea along that all of us have something to gain here."
As the mid-January sun beats down, Jackson gazes up at the ridge where the slide that nearly ended his life originated . There iss omething a little off-kilter in his voice. It is something like fear, a little like frustration, and edging toward anxiety.
But it isn't clear where the fear comes from. Is it the immense loading zone of the Cabin slide? Or does it come from just slightly farther down the ridge, at the starting zone of a much smaller slide where Brill's avalanche control lieutenants have just finished setting off explosive charges?
The press has often characterized Jackson and Brill as bitter rivals in a race to realize the commercial skiing potential of the Storm Peak area. While neither is quick to praise the other, they both try to avoid the "rival" label. At the same time, there can be no doubt that Jackson would have preferred that Brill stay in Montana, far away from his dream. Because in the end, it was Brill who brought this to a head and it was Brill who forced Jackson to act ahead of his schedule.
Or, as Jackson puts it, "I've spent a lot of time doing this. Now it's coming to a head and I've got Aaron Brill in my hair." But Brill is just one of the thorns in Jackson's side. Add to that the issues of money, of land acquisition in a speculative climate, of potential local and environmental opposition, and of the lynx, and Jackson has reason to be scared. Jackson's fear is understandable. After all, his decade-long dream is about to reach its moment of reckoning.