The vote that narrowly passed the Lift One development plan, which opens the door to a new lift and an improved ski-race venue at the base of Aspen Mountain, both surprised and elated the U.S. Ski Team, the organization’s president and CEO said this week.
The Lift One decision passed by just 26 votes on March 5, garnering 1,555 votes for it, or 50.4 percent, to 1,529 votes against, or 49.6 percent.
“It’s amazing how close it was. It’s incredible. We’re obviously thrilled it passed,” said Tiger Shaw, the head of U.S. Skiing, on Wednesday night. He spoke by phone en route to the U.S. Nationals, which are being held this week at Sugarloaf, Maine, and Waterville Valley, N.H.
Besides two new hotels, Lift One involves a new chairlift that reaches closer to downtown and an improved finish to a ski-race arena that the International Ski Federation said was mandatory before the World Cup could return to Aspen, despite its long and storied history here. Opponents say the project lacks affordable housing and requires a multimillion-dollar city subsidy.
The vote opens the door to bringing World Cup races back to Aspen, which have been absent since the 2017 FIS World Cup Finals. The world racing community considered that competition to be an overwhelming success.
Races during Aspen’s Thanksgiving weekend, once home to the women’s giant slalom and slalom competitions, have for the past three years been held in Killington, Vt., and show no signs of leaving.
Aspen Skiing Co. remains committed to world-class racing, senior vice president John Rigney said Thursday. Rigney cautioned that, given the complexities of the multiple components of the Lift One neighborhood project, it would be premature to start thinking World Cup’s return is just around the corner.
“Once we have visibility on timing, we can realistically formulate a plan. Then we can start huddling with [the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association] on how we reintegrate into the race calendar moving forward,” he said.
Rigney added, “The 1A vote was a big mile marker,” and SkiCo remains “committed to World Cup racing. It’s one of the most special race venues on the planet.”
Shaw said the Aspen vote results were shared with ski racing’s governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS).
“It will be a world-class race site. It’s all the things FIS wanted,” Shaw said.
Many moving parts
Among the moving parts and approvals connected to the Lift One vote are development of the Lift One Lodge (which already had a land-use approval) and the Gorsuch Haus (which did not have an approval prior to the vote).
The U.S. Forest Service green-lit SkiCo’s plan for a new lift that would include chairs and gondola cars three years ago, back when it was thought the lift would terminate farther uphill and be contiguous to Gorsuch Haus, rather than the new Dean Street location that’s part of a complex neighborhood plan.
Shaw suggested that the construction timing, and the FIS calendar planning of upcoming races, could be complementary.
“The FIS schedule is usually at least two years out,” Shaw said. Optimistically, in another three years it’s possible that “any and all kinds of events could be held in that location,” he added.
During the forthcoming FIS meeting this spring, very preliminary discussions could begin on Aspen’s reintroduction, though Shaw allowed that a timeline was contingent on what SkiCo, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and the valley wants to do.
Meanwhile, Killington has succeeded in drawing weekend crowds of 30,000 from nearby urban centers, a point that the FIS and U.S. Skiing see as beneficial to growing the sport’s profile.
“It works so well, in part because of the concentration of clubs and academies within an hour-and-a-half drive to Killington,” Shaw said.
Aspen may see races on the other end of the season — it used to be a regular stop for men’s speed events in early March — though there would have to be other schedule changes implemented in order for that to happen.
“It’s always extremely difficult to do a transcontinental single-stop event,” Shaw said. “Fall made sense. The early season snow is the best in Colorado. They would train and then go race” at venues including Aspen, Beaver Creek and Lake Louise, Alberta.
That said, “we have all kinds of influencing factors there,” he added.
One biggie is the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“China is going to continue to hold events and test events. And an Asian swing can always go through the United States,” Shaw said.
That could open the door for a standalone World Cup race domestically, he added.
While Aspen’s hosting of the 2017 World Cup Finals was lauded as a resounding success — the directors of both the men’s and women’s tours were “stunned by how beautifully well-run it was,” Shaw said — there is a bid process for Finals, as well as the World Championships, and one that can become politically tinged.
“Sometimes the Finals are few and far between as an opportunity,” he said.
Yet the race calendar also has a potential opening during the month of February every three years in a season where there is no Winter Olympics and no World Championships. That’s true in the 2019-20 season.
To the question of whether the races would have returned had the March 5 vote failed, Shaw said, “Probably not, with the FIS leadership thinking the way they think.”
That thinking extends beyond just competitions. Last month, FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper spoke of “so-called climate change” and criticized environmentalists during public remarks. Some athletes and the advocacy group Protect Our Winters said he should resign, a call that went unanswered.
Shaw said that the FIS leadership is expected to change within the next three years, and that could affect Aspen’s future.
“We all hope FIS can adopt a more progressive stance that’s thinking about the best venues,” he said. “And Aspen is a marquee venue.”
Shaw reiterated that he is grateful to the portion of the Aspen community that supported the vote, saying, “We’re ecstatic.”