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Winter skiing at Park City resort hangs on summer negotiations

Published: Monday, July 7 2014 5:38 p.m. MDT

Slopes are in view at Park City Mountain Resort in Park City on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PARK CITY — An ongoing dispute between land owners at the Park City Mountain Resort has city leaders and business owners hoping for a resolution that will keep skiers on the mountain this winter.

But as the two parties in the dispute head into court-mandated mediation, locals worry that more than just the fate of two companies hangs in the balance.

"It impacts the lodging industry, the restaurant industry, reservations for ski schools, et cetera," Park City Mayor Jack Thomas said. "We need to know that we’re opening earlier rather than later."

In 2011, Park City Mountain Resort failed to renew its lease of roughly 3,000 acres of mountain terrain from landowner Talisker Corp., initiating three years of legal action between Talisker and Powdr Corp., owner of the resort.

Park City Mountain Resort was served with an eviction notice in August, and on May 3, District Judge Ryan Harris ruled in favor of Talisker by finding that Park City's lease had expired.

Talisker also entered into a partnership last year with Vail Resorts to operate the nearby Canyons Resort, with the understanding that Vail's lease would extend to the disputed Park City land pending resolution of the litigation.

The two parties have been ordered to work together toward a resolution of the dispute, with a hearing set for Aug. 27. But if an agreement cannot be reached, the dispute sets up a scenario where Powdr. Corp owns a resort base without a mountain while Talisker and Vail own a mountain with no base.

"I think that would be devastating to see it bifurcated," Thomas said. "I'm not sure how it would even operate."

Thomas said the city is not able to take sides, but officials have expressed their desires to both parties that the annual ski season be uninterrupted and that a complete and functioning resort be preserved.

But he added that city leaders are concerned about broader impacts to the community and that a resort closure or decreased service could cascade into every business and every activity in Park City.

"It’s really a legal matter between two entities," he said. "Of course, the city could suffer the consequences of the resolution or not resolving this issue."

Impacts on the town

Kevin Mackaben, owner of the Pig Pen Saloon at the base of Park City Mountain Resort, said that a split of the property would be a worst-case scenario. It would not be a viable ski area without the Talisker land, he said, and the loss of skiers would jeopardize businesses at or near the resort.

He said he wonders how many new bankruptcy attorneys would arrive in town if negotiations between Powdr Corp. and Talisker "go south."

"I think everybody in business wants (Park City Mountain Resort) to start paying a new lease amount, then we go on with life," Mackaben said. "That’s the No. 1, I think, for everybody."

John Lund, an attorney representing Talisker Land Holdings, said the lease between Powdr Corp. and Talisker began in 1971 and was last renewed to a 20-year term in 1991.

Park City Mountain Resort had been paying $155,000 in annual rent, according to a lawsuit filed by the resort in 2012, compared to roughly $3 million in annual lease fees paid by Canyons for its resort property.

The disputed land occupies the bulk of the Park City Mountain Resort's upper portions, including the popular Jupiter Bowl area.

"By the time you get to the top of the Alpine Slide or the top of the Three Kings Lift you are on my client's property," Lund said.

In another possible scenario, Vail and Talisker could purchase the land at Park City's base, preserving the resort as a single entity.

But Mackaben said the possibility of a second Vail resort in Summit County makes him worry that Park City would lose its small ski town atmosphere.

He compared Vail's corporate presence to the effect that a new Wal-Mart store would have on Main Street.

"I think Vail with one of three ski areas is probably good for the area," he said. "Two out of three? I think that’s not a good deal for small-town business."

Paul and Jackson Knoll, father and son co-owners of Jackson's Base Camp at the Park City Mountain Resort, were similarly concerned about the loss of business if the land were to split, as well as the impact to a resort they consider to be one of the gems of the Wasatch Front.

"If they split the resort into Talisker or Vail running the top and PCMR running a lower base camp, it's not going to drive enough people to the resort," Jackson Knoll said.

The Knolls opened their store last September and were drawn to Park City in part because of its entrepreneurial atmosphere. They said they often hear comments from customers who appreciate the locally owned character of the resort village.

They agreed that the worst case scenario would be a splitting of the mountain between the two owners, but they were optimistic that an agreement would be reached.

"I think once the egos and the emotion comes out of it we believe, and hope, that cooler heads will prevail and that they’ll do what’s right because of the responsibility they have," Paul Knoll said.

Park City vibe

Thomas said the character of Park City Mountain Resort would likely continue if it were ceded to new ownership.

He said the element of "funk" among locals and their strong connection to the mountain wouldn't go away based on who owns the resort.

"Our core values are a sense of community, small town, natural setting, the beauty of the mountains and the historic character," he said. "Those things, I don’t think, are going to be anything we’re willing to sacrifice."

When asked about the possible outcomes of the mediation, Lund said that prior statements from Talisker have expressed an interest in allowing Vail to occupy and manage the disputed land.

Park City Mountain Resort is not immediately adjacent to the Canyons Resort property, but Lund said the two areas are near enough that combining them is a potential option.

"There’s been talk for years of connecting the two resorts," he said. "It is a matter of building some lifts."

Alan Sullivan, an attorney representing Park City Mountain Resort said his team intends to meet deadlines established by the court.

"We’d like to resolve the case and beyond that I don’t really feel like I can speak publicly about our priorities," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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