Demolition delay 

Big Mountain’s future gets caught in the past

Big Mountain’s original ski lodge, The Chalet, has become the flashpoint in the fight over the resort’s future.

Last summer Winter Sports Inc. (WSI), the corporation that operates Big Mountain ski resort, began planning for an update to Chair 2 as part of its $20 million facility upgrades. That process, which would require the demolition of The Chalet, requires Forest Service permits since the new lift would include towers on federal land. Last month it appeared WSI had met all the criteria for gaining the permits, but an eleventh-hour request for a historic review of the building may cause WSI to miss key construction deadlines and push the project back at least a year. A delay could cost WSI hundres of thousands of dollars.

The proposed demolition of The Chalet, which was built in 1949, is a manifestation of expansive changes taking place at the ski resort. Big Mountain was started in 1947 by local investors who bought shares in WSI to help get it off the ground, and was essentially owned by the community. But this year, William Foley, president and CEO of Fidelity National Financial Inc., a Fortune 500 company, became WSI’s majority shareholder. Foley personally invested a large portion of the $20 million being spent for the resort’s upgrade, which includes Chair 2.

Earlier this year it looked as if WSI’s plans were set to begin as scheduled. Although federal law requires government agencies to consider whether its actions would affect a historic structure, Flathead National Forest archeologist Tim Light says he determined The Chalet did not need to be considered. Light made his decision based on the fact WSI had plans to demolish the building dating back to 1983, and figured its demolition was not necessarily tied to Chair 2’s construction.

But in March, Whitefish resident Tim Salt convinced the Forest Service to conduct a historic review of the building.

“I’ve always thought that The Chalet was a neat historic building that represents the heritage of the mountain and the relationship between the mountain and the people of Whitefish,” says Salt, explaining his reasons for urging the Forest Service to revisit its decision. “Before the building is torn down, it warrants a proper evaluation of its historic significance as required by law.”

Salt’s familiarity with federal law regarding historic sites comes from his background as Desert District land manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California. He worked with BLM for 30 years before being reassigned in 2002 in the wake of his controversial decision to settle a lawsuit against the bureau that the off-road community deemed as too favorable to environmentalists. He resigned shortly after the reassignment.

Salt says his request for The Chalet review was unrelated to another controversy surrounding the building. Most recently, The Chalet has been home to a family-owned restaurant, the Hellroaring Saloon, and the ski patrol headquarters. Owners of the Hellroaring Saloon, who have rented space in The Chalet since 1981, are upset over WSI’s decision to put a restaurant owned by Glacier Restaurant Group LLC—a corporation whose majority shareholder is William Foley—into a prime location the owners claim was promised to them. Instead, Hellroaring Saloon is being offered a much less desirable space in the resort’s former ticket office.

How a historic designation of The Chalet would impact the future of the Hellroaring Saloon is not yet clear. What is clear is the review process could hold back construction of Chair 2, which includes expanding the lift, increasing its speed and extending it farther down the mountain.

According to State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) compliance officer Josef Warhank, historic reviews include assessing the historical significance of the site, and typically take about two weeks to complete. WSI CEO Fred Jones says it’s time the resort does not have.

“Our original plan was to have the permit in hand by now,” says Jones. “We have a lift contractor ready to do it, but if we don’t sign the contract in the next couple of days, we’re going to lose them.”

That, he says, will delay the construction by at least a year, and cost WSI more money.

“The original intent was to build it in conjunction with the rebuild of Chair 1, and there are some efficiencies, particularly when you’re using helicopters to move the towers,” Jones says. “Bringing in a helicopter large enough to do those lift towers is expensive. I’d like to not do it more than once.”

Jones was under the impression the Forest Service’s review had already been delivered to the SHPO, and the agency would decide within days whether or not The Chalet qualifies as a historic site. But when the Independent talked to SHPO staff members, they said they hadn’t received it yet.

“We’re trying to get it done quick,” Light says, but considering the time an average SHPO review takes, it seems unlikely WSI will get a definite answer in time to sign its contract. Even if the review did come back quickly, Light notes, “The comment might be, ‘We need more information.’ Then we go back to square one.”

Furthermore, SHPO only decides if The Chalet is a historical site at this point. After that, it still has to decide what WSI has to do in order to get their permit. This could range from having to retain the building to putting up a commemorative plaque where the building once stood.

At this point, it’s too early to tell if Salt’s actions will preserve The Chalet and force WSI to reroute Chair 2 or just delay the inevitable. In the meantime, Whitefish will likely be watching the proceedings, and waiting to see if its history with the resort has sway over its future.
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