Plan first approved in 1984 never saw the light of day

While the $600 million Base Village, a joint venture of Aspen Skiing Co., KSL Capital and East West Partners, is currently rising from the bottom of Snowmass Ski Area – having just restarted after a multi-year pause – there have been several Base Village near misses since the incorporation of Snowmass Village almost 40 years ago.

Chief among them was a project for which developers Jim Light and Jim Chaffin received approval from the Snowmass Village Town Council in 1984. It included 300 units, or about half the density allowed with the SkiCo/KSL/East West Base Village plan that at buildout will span 1.1 million square feet.

Light reflected on “what could have been” following last week’s ceremonial groundbreaking of the project at the ski area base that restarted in May after eight years of construction inactivity. He said Chaffin was also taken to feeling a bit “nostalgic” about the partners’ tenure in Snowmass Village, which was marked by successes including development of the Snowmass Club, Wood Run IV, Ridge Run IV and Wood Run Place, but colored by a joint venture with the wrong partner, Bowery Savings Bank, that was unable to fund a $30 million commitment to build a base area project for Snowmass Company LTV.

Light and Chaffin purchased the old Snowmass Corporation holdings in April 1978, just prior to the town’s incorporation, and would go on to work with the nascent town on jointly master planning the 3,000 acres for about 1,899 free market and 525 affordable units, he recalled.

“Snowmass at the time was a resort with a few people living in it, a neighborhood of Aspen. We felt and the town fathers felt that Snowmass would be a better resort if it was also a better community,” he said.

“We felt from the beginning we needed a Base Village.”

‘Now in good hands’

Former Snowmass Village restaurant owner Mike Sura recalled last week that he felt confident signing a lease to operate in the Snowmass Center based upon Chaffin and Light’s investment in the resort nearly 40 years ago. Harry Frampton, the co-founder of East West Partners, whose path intersected with Light and Chaffin several times during their professional careers, confirmed he was interested in working with the developers on the Snowmass Base Village back in the early 1980s.

Town council had approved a revised proposal of one initially submitted in 1981 that Light described as too large and probably overly grandiose – its inspiration was the stately Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Neighbors brought a lawsuit and Light said after it was settled, “we produced another, much smaller plan that was approved.”

It endeavored to balance the business interests of the existing Snowmass Mall with the introduction of new commercial space in Base Village, a question that has always dogged the project, no matter who was developing it.

“How do you balance the mall and the Base Village?” Light asked rhetorically. “It’s a balancing act that continues today though I think the ski company and Intrawest did a good job with the Skittles linking the two.”

Chaffin and Light’s original plan did not include a people-mover like the Skittles lift, but it didn’t much matter because just six weeks after earning the coveted town approvals, they received a phone call from partner Bowery Savings Bank that was full of bad news. According to Light, they were first told by the Bowery contact that after being taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, “we can’t do any new joint ventures.”  

That was followed by: “We’ve got to get out of the ones we’re in” and then “we can’t fund the $30 million commitment we made to you,” Light said. The joint venture was subsequently “unwound” over the next two years, and Chaffin and Light walked away with the  assets that had developed buildings, such as the Snowmass Conoco, as well as the Snowmass Mall parcel that includes the Snowmass Real Estate building. Undeveloped land, including parcels that would later become Horse Ranch, Two Creeks and Base Village, “was deeded back to the FDIC,”  Light said.

The successor business was Snowmass Land Company, led by Norman Perlmutter and Gene Golub; Light said he and Chaffin worked as brokers and advisors to plan the Divide and Horse Ranch developments for the new owners.

Light also recalled that while closing out the joint venture was protracted, there was no animosity involved: “It was a long time to sort it out but it was a pretty friendly thing.”

And he wanted to set the record straight that while “most of the people feel we went through a foreclosure, it was our partnership that was unable to perform.”

Which may have led to the tinge of wistfulness about not finishing out their Base Village dreams, even though the partners would go on to develop subsequent projects in South Carolina as well as the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt. Key land parcels from the Snowmass Company LTV were eventually deeded to Anderson Ranch, the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District and the Hidden Valley cemetery for public use.

Perlmutter and Golub’s company would also try to get a Base Village plan passed; elected officials found fault with a project heavy with on-mountain lots that would have necessitated a plethora of ski bridges to make work.

Light saw some positives to his successors’ project: “They were essentially going to build a parking garage and then plat lots. It would have let the growth be more organic than one development.”

In December 1999, Aspen Skiing Co. announced it had a contract to purchase the base area properties with the intention of constructing a proper Base Village. Within a year it would settle on Intrawest Corp. as a partner and by 2004 the town council had approved a planned unit development. A citizen’s referendum rooted in opposition to the project’s size – allowing roughly 610 units and 1.1 million-square-feet of development – followed in 2005 and narrowly passed voter approval.

SkiCo and Intrawest sold the unfinished Base Village project for $169 million in 2007 to a joint venture controlled by Related Cos., which would see it fall into foreclosure, then receivership, before buying it back in 2012. Related’s reentry came as a disappointment to some local interests who had heard rumors of other developers kicking the project’s tires.

Light said last week that at different times over the past 35 year it is possible, “We could have bought back the other property and in hindsight we should probably should have. But things happen for a reason.”

He also stressed that because “The SkiCo is not going to want to do anything that will hurt Snowmass Village or the ski operations, the Base Village is now is in really good hands.”

Twitter, @Madski99