Jim Gill knows what it takes to make an all-season destination ski resort thrive, and it starts with highly coveted “water cooler endorsements.”
Gill, chief operating officer for Tom Maclay’s Bitterroot Resort, spent 30 years managing world-class resorts at Breckenridge, Jackson Hole and, most recently, Teton Springs Resort near Victor, Idaho. He knows that word-of-mouth travels a long way in the resort business, and never more so than when you’re trying to drum up support for a controversial proposal on 12,000 acres of public land in the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests, including much-beloved Lolo Peak.
“What we need is folks like you to support us,” Gill told a ragtag group of invited skiers and snowboarders, primarily drawn from the University of Montana Snowboarding Club, last Saturday over lunch near the top of the dozen or so runs Maclay has already cut on the hillside. This was the 11th such group to get the red carpet treatment, in the form of a free all-day guided snowcat skiing/boarding excursion on his private land, including breakfast and lunch in a cozy yurt about 6,000 feet above the Bitterroot Valley. Fewer than 150 people total have taken the trip so far, but Maclay plans to continue the guided cat tours through next winter’s ski season in the hopes that first-hand excitement about the proposed Bitterroot Resort will trickle down into the Bitterroot and Missoula Valleys.
Participants listened to Gill’s (read: Maclay’s) pitch while scarfing down flame-grilled burgers and veggie patties in the yurt. Gill wooed them with talk of the “largest vertical drop of any existing resort in North America,” and he spoke at length about the resort’s plans for a “sustainable” ski village, committed to taking “good care” of public resources. He countered opponents’ claims that the Bitterroot Resort is merely a real estate venture designed to cash in on public land, and said skiers and boarders deserve to be able to access the premier snow conditions on Carlton Ridge and Lolo Peak.
“I can assure you that Tom Maclay doesn’t wake up in the morning wringing his hands,” said Gill responding to the suggestion that Maclay was trying to get rich on public land. Maclay’s vision, according to Gill, is to provide a first-class recreation opportunity for the people of Montana, and the real estate can make that possible, Gill maintained.
“It’s the proceeds from the real estate…that allows us to develop snowmaking and high-speed detachable quads [ski lifts],” Gill said.
After an hour-long presentation, Gill urged the group to spread the word and told them to encourage other interested parties to take a cat trip and experience the terrain for themselves (e-mail email@example.com for information).
“If you had fun up here today, and if you think this is a good idea, what we’d ask is that you write the Forest Service and tell them why you think developed recreation would be a good use for this land,” Gill told the group.
Taking her cue, Laci McVey, Maclay’s executive assistant, began handing out information packets, including a sheet of talking points to aid the participants in their letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers and Forest Service officials.
Missoula native Luke Thomas, president of the UM Snowboarding Club, expected as much even before the trip began.
“Maclay’s trying to lobby us,” Thomas suggested before Saturday’s snowcat trip. “What I want to know is are they just selling us a bill of goods here?”
Thomas, a 26-year-old UM freshman, said he was “on the fence but leaning toward anti” prior the trip. A survey of the six members of the club who showed up in the Safeway parking lot at Brooks and Reserve early Saturday morning revealed that all but one arrived thinking the resort was a bad idea.
UM junior Chad Nixon was the sole proponent going in.
“You’re not going to stop development,” he said.
Porter Hammitt, director of Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures and an avid backcountry skier, also took part in Saturday’s snowcat tour. Though he admitted that he leaned toward opposition to the resort, he said he took the trip to get “fully informed.”
“I think it’s worthwhile for everyone in the area to get out here and get familiar with the land,” Hammitt said early in the day. He said he prides himself on being a person who is willing to listen to all sides.
But after a day of free cat skiing and getting the attention of Bitterroot Resort bigwigs, Hammitt remained unsold on the idea of a destination ski resort in Missoula’s backyard.
“I’m glad that I did it,” Hammitt said later. “I saw firsthand what things look like and I got the inside scoop. All of which has led me to come down on the side of I can’t get behind this project.”
Hammitt said the trip reinforced his feeling that the Bitterroot Resort would threaten the ecology and economy of the Bitterroot Valley and surrounding areas, though he added that he’d be willing to consider supporting a scaled down version of the resort.
On the other hand, Luke Thomas, a self-proclaimed opponent prior to Saturday’s trip, was singing a different tune by the end of the day.
“I was anti before, but now I think I’m leaning toward pro,” Thomas said. “But then I feel like a schmuck; flash a little glitz to a guy like me and I’m yours.”
But Thomas also said that Gill skirted important issues brought up over lunch, particularly questions about the eventual affordability of recreating at the proposed resort. Thomas thinks the resort will alienate locals if ticket prices are too high. “I think if Tom Maclay would come to Missoula and make some solid commitments it would go a long way,” he said.
But pro or con, by the end of the day Saturday there were 10 more people roaming the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys with stories to tell and opinions to share about the proposed Bitterroot Resort. That’s 10 more people with informed opinions to share when talk around the water cooler turns to the Bitterroot Resort, and that suits Jim Gill and Tom Maclay just fine.