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The Globe and Mail

New Mexico ski resort aims to be king of the mountain again

Meet The Blake, a new four-star hotel here that will have 80 rooms and six or seven luxury suites. It’s slated for completion this summer, although its main goal is to attract diehard skiers.

The hotel is at the heart of a plan to upgrade and modernize the venerable Taos Ski Valley resort and rebuild a customer base of devotees that has eroded. It’s a balancing act to modernize while still retaining the alternative buzz that Taos has always been known for – a rough-and-ready mountain that allows skiers to hike beyond the chairlifts for heart-stopping downhill runs in deep, puffy powder.

The Blake is a $20-million (U.S.) project that’s part of a 10-year, $350-million redevelopment plan for the spectacular but aging ski facility. It’s a property development challenge comparable to barrelling down a double black diamond peak – it can be done with grace and class but no one should expect it to be easy.

The new owner of Taos Ski Valley plans to spend $350-million over 10 years redeveloping the iconic resort. (David Israelson for The Globe and Mail)

Taos Ski Valley’s owners, who acquired the mountain in 2013, face intense competition from other ski resorts in nearby states such as Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, a relatively stagnant local economy, ecological curve balls tossed at the ski industry by climate change and, importantly, the need to work closely with indigenous neighbours, whose sacred mountain is next door.

In decline

Taos Ski Valley was founded by pilot and former U.S. military intelligence officer Ernie Blake and his wife, Rhoda, and run by his family until 2013. While it became known for some of the best skiing in North America, it also had limitations – aging lifts, a ban on snowboarders until 2008 and less hotel space than many comparable resorts in the U.S. West.

Skier traffic at Taos dropped to averages of about 230,000 a season in the past few years from 340,000 in the late 1990s. The Taos area is suffering through a lean economy, losing more than 700 construction jobs between 2006 and 2011. The closing of a nearby mine in 2014 shed another 300 jobs.

Aside from the ski resort, Taos is well-known for the Pueblo native community and for a vibrant arts and hipster scene that, over the years, has included stays by author D.H. Lawrence, artist Georgia O’Keeffe and edgy actor Dennis Hopper.

But its charms have not fostered robust growth. In 2014, the town of Taos had the highest rental vacancy rate in New Mexico, nearly 43 per cent.

In 2013, the Blake family sold the resort to a U.S. billionaire, Louis Bacon, founder of the Moore Capital Management hedge fund. A huge fan of Taos skiing, he has pledged to restore the resort’s popularity through upgrades to the property while maintaining the mountain’s mystique.

The Blake will have just 80 rooms so as not to overwhelm the village, the resort's owner says. (Zehern and Associates)

Mr. Bacon started the redevelopment by building a new chairlift in 2014 to the top of Kachina Peak, formerly one of the legendary “hikes” to the pinnacle of the resort. The new Blake is the next, perhaps more important, phase.

Maintaining Taos’s austere magnetism while modernizing it is a tall order, says Chris Stagg, vice-president of Taos Ski Valley. “When Ernie Blake started Taos Ski Valley [in 1955], the gross revenue of the company in the first year for the whole season was $1,600.”

Life was simple. “You come here, build a ski lift. If it was a good year you’d put up a hotel, add a couple of rooms, another ski lift. It kind of grew organically,” Mr. Stagg says.

“That worked for a while. But now with the competition, with bigger [ski resort] corporations, like Vail, Intrawest and others, Taos kind of fell behind in terms of our physical plant. I think we have one of the best ski mountains in North America but when the Blake family owned it, as much passion as they put into it, it was hard to keep up with the capital.”

Though there is relatively little hillside lodging at the ski resort compared to big Western competitors, the new management opted for just 80 rooms to maintain the character of the valley.

“The challenge is: How do you add new retail and condos while maintaining the unique qualities of Taos? You go to places like Tremblant [in Quebec], for example, they’re Intrawest villages.”

The Blake is well under construction and expected to be finished in the summer. (David Israelson for The Globe and Mail)

Denver-based Intrawest Resort Holdings Ltd. redeveloped both Quebec’s Mont Tremblant and Ontario’s Blue Mountain Village resorts. “That’s not a bad thing,” Mr. Stagg says. “Intrawest did it well, but after a while you go to all those different places and they all look the same.”

Another challenge is satisfying the neighbours, although they are on board so far.

Ilona Spruce, tourism director at Taos Pueblo, an ancient village belonging to Pueblo natives, says Jaynes Corp., which is overseeing the redevelopment of the ski area, has a good relationship with the Pueblo community.

“They consult us and there are jobs,” she says. “A lot of people from our community work there and we have a say.”

Her village, about 30 kilometres from Taos Ski Valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of North America’s oldest continuously inhabited communities. The Pueblos’ territory extends up to the edge of the ski resort.

“We’re okay with the hotel,” Ms. Spruce says.

The ski resort and the construction company also work with the Pueblo to keep summer hikers away from the Pueblo-owned lands adjacent to the valley, which the community regards as sacred.

A new lift to Kachina Peak is among the upgrades already at Taos Ski Valley. (Kate Russell/The New York Times)

Climbing again

Mr. Bacon’s team hopes that the new hotel will be the start of new interest in what many skiers regard as a classic, epic mountain. They are already in talks to improve air service, both directly to the Taos area and to Santa Fe, about 150 kilometres away by car.

According to The Wall Street Journal, locals cited a “Bacon bounce” in real estate prices in 2014, after the ski resort changed hands. The Albuquerque Business First journal reported on an economic analysis by Vermont-based Doug Kennedy Advisors done that same year, which predicted that the resort operations will generate an additional $7.6-million a year in revenue by 2025 (from about $13-million in recent years), with retail sales in the town expected to go up $1.6-million and revenue from hotels and rental properties to grow by nearly $10-million.

This sits well with Ms. Spruce and other locals, as long as the character and charm of the Old Southwest remain.

“I came here many years ago and I love it here,” says Kyla Van Culin, originally from Dwight, Ont. (near Algonquin Park), who works at the ski resort’s convenience store. “It’s the people who make it what it is – I wouldn’t want that to change.”

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