AP NEWS

Town Hill public buy proposal resurfaces

December 19, 2018

With the finish line nearly in sight for a refurbished Snow King master plan, a former Jackson official has proposed a complete 180: Use private philanthropy and tax money to finance a community buyout of the Town Hill.

In light of opposition to some of the resort’s development plans, Bob McLaurin, a Jackson town manager of nearly two decades who stepped down in July, is suggesting a change from the course the town has been pursuing for months in addressing the long-term economic viability of Snow King. He outlined his strategy in a Guest Shot on Page 5 of today’s News&Guide.

“This may be a harebrained idea,” McLaurin said about the piece. “It won’t be the first one I’ve had. But I wrote that to initiate a community conversation about this particular issue.”

It’s an issue he knows well, after working closely with Friends of Snow King when it attempted to buy the mountain in 2011. The nonprofit failed to reach an agreement with Snow King’s investors, and negotiations collapsed. But he believes specific purpose excise tax funding, along with help from private and nonprofit partnerships, could tip the scales this time.

In McLaurin’s vision, the Town Council would appoint representatives from various interest groups to serve on a board of directors governing the resort. Alternatively, the town could contract with a nonprofit organization that would run the mountain.

McLaurin compared his hypothetical Snow King management scheme to that of Bridger Bowl, an acclaimed nonprofit ski area outside Bozeman, Montana.

Details aside, the idea is to get Snow King out of the hands of a for-profit company, thereby eliminating the need to generate revenue through attractions like the zip line that many critics have argued run counter to Jackson’s character.

“The desire for economic profit and the desire for a community hill are incompatible,” McLaurin said.

So far the town has tried to balance those competing forces as it rewrites the resort’s guiding document. The council will meet at 2:30 p.m. Thursday — for what could be the last time — to settle the terms of the agreement with the Snow King Resort Master Association, the group of property owners within the resort district. The meeting is at Town Hall.

Jeff Golightly, a spokesman for Snow King owner Max Chapman, said the idea is “certainly intriguing,” adding that the mountain’s mangament wouldn’t rule it out. But for now, he said, they’re focused on the proposal already before the town.

“We have to find a way to make sure Snow King is fiscally sustainable for generations to come,” he said. “There are no guarantees that even if a SPET was put on a ballot it would pass, so we have to behave as if we are responsible for the King’s future, and that starts with wrapping up the master planning process.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon agreed. He said he’s open to anything that will benefit the community, but with a great deal of time, energy and public input invested in updating the master plan, that’s the town’s first priority.

“If it’s something that looks like it has merits, we’ll certainly look at it,” he said. “But the goal for the week is get through this process we’ve embarked on.”

Larry Pardee, McLaurin’s replacement as town manager, said the idea was interesting. The SPET penny on Teton County sales tax amounts to more than $10 million a year, and elections can take place in May, August or November if the council approves a project to go to a public vote.

“I think it’s a great conversation to be had,” Pardee said. “It’s something the community has looked at before, and if it’s the will of the community and the will of the electeds, it could very well be a piece of the puzzle that gets us to a conclusion.”

McLaurin said he has not spoken with potential investors but simply wanted to raise the possibility. As he sees it, if the community values Snow King in its relatively undeveloped form it should show that support with its wallet.

“This is an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is,” he said.

Some who were involved with Friends of Snow King and other pushes to shift Snow King toward community ownership years ago still find the prospect attractive and achievable. They also stressed the importance of securing enough funding not only to purchase the resort, but to upgrade aging infrastructure, like the decades-old Summit lift Snow King plans to replace with a gondola.

“What people want is a sustainable mountain for perpetuity,” said Greg Prugh, owner of Prugh Real Estate. “I don’t think I would turn down any effort.”

John Valiante, one of the founders of Center Management Inc., the nonprofit operator of the Snow King Sports and Events Center, agreed it is a viable solution. But he said that with the town and Snow King so deep into untangling the master plan, with all its entitlements and requirements, it may be politically challenging.

“Bob is very, very good, and he knows all the players, and he knows what’s involved in terms of getting the thing restructured,” Valiante said. “And I suspect that getting [Snow King] into a new entity is the right step here. But it’s going to be a long haul.”