Where Have All The Ski Towns Gone?

It appears that $500,000 is all it takes to purchase the soul of a town.

Crested Butte

Source: Wikipedia

If you live in Colorado, you’ve likely already heard the story, but if not, let me give you a quick recap. Crested Butte, dubbed the “last great Colorado ski town,” is a former mining town that now houses one of the most picturesque ski towns I’ve ever visited. Adorable old houses line the main street and towering peaks frame the idyllic setting. Many consider CB to be the home of mountain biking as well, and I spent a holiday weekend shredding singletrack a few summers ago. I loved the town and marveled at its old-era charm.

Crested Butte

CB’s wildflowers in July are stunning!

Apparently, I’m not the only one that pinpointed Crested Butte as one of the last remaining ski towns—so did Anheuser-Busch, the company behind Bud Light. For a mere $500,000, they bought the entire town of Crested Butte for a three-day party that took place this past weekend. The company rolled in blue paint by the gallons and covered every street and light pole in preparation for the massive party-turned-commercial. They even renamed the historic mining town “Whatever, USA” to encompass the vibe of the rave-like weekend.

Many locals were beyond angry at the secrecy behind the deal: word was leaked in August that the town council was negotiating with Anheuser-Busch. When local outcry spread, Anheuser-Busch sweetened the pot by offering $500,000 instead of the original $250,000. City council members called it a no-brainer and agreed, claiming that this money would immeasurably help the economy. However, most people still didn’t care, stating that they didn’t want their town turned into a cheap, bikini-filled Bud Light commercial.

Regardless, the city moved forward with the plan and Anheuser-Busch flew in 1,000 people this past weekend for three days of hot tubbing-and-beer drinking debauchery. Of course, neither the town of Crested Butte or the nearby Gunnison Airport are equipped for the influx of people Travel delays reached a ridiculous high on Sunday as all of the extras tried to make their way home. And with 10,000 people passing through the tiny mountain village this weekend {year round population: 1,500}, I can only imagine what chaos ensued!

Crested Butte

Is $500,000 really all it takes to sell your soul to the financial devil these days? CB is a successful ski town that remains a favorite because it hasn’t sold out like Vail or Aspen or Park City. However, it looks like it just took its first turn down that no-return highway, and for what?

Bud Light.

Gone are the days of rickety mining houses lining the streets of ski towns where old timers still ski in jeans without fear of heckling from the smart-ass kids. Sure, there are a few local spots that are hanging onto their roots, but CB was a favorite in that regard.

Where have all the ski towns gone?

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Side note: I’ll be a regular contributor for Liftopia this winter, largely writing about adaptive skiing and the special needs folks that are courageous enough to give it a shot. But, since it’s still early season, I did a resort guide to Steamboat Ski Resort! If you’re looking for a future Colorado ski vacation, definitely check out the Boat; it’s one of my favorite ski resorts in the state!

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28 Comments

  • Reply Mary Beth Richardson at

    My husband and I live in Michigan, but we ski in Colorado. We are completely addicted to the slopes and the beauty of the Rocky Mtn State. In fact we “seriously joke” about trying out early retirement – sell everything….move west….be adult ski bums. I realize we wouldn’t be the first to do this, but when born & raised in conservative mid-west USA, it’s hard to rip the bandaid. (Esp when I hold the dream job of social media marketer and get amazing insurance benefits) All we need is a push, and we’re west!
    So when I am bored, I play on real estate websites, job websites and of course town websites to dream in the world of life on a mountain. I haven’t been to Crested Butte in years, but I love that town! It bums me out that the smaller towns would sell out. I used to LOVE Vail as a kid, because it’s just so beautiful. As an adult going back, I feel so incredibly out of place and uncomfortable around the other people. I enjoy towns that have local charm, and on vacations I can slip into pretending like I’m home for a week. Who knows? One of these times I might pretend to be home for a few hundred weeks 😉 Stories like this just bum me out. I hold on to hope of classic charm, friendly locals, and places worth exploring. Stay True, CB!

    • Reply heather at

      Thanks for your comment, Mary Beth! It’s tough and I agree on Vail– great skiing there but I really have zero interest in that town. It’s so commercial and the soul of the town is completely gone. Steamboat is one that I still love and so is Durango (Purgatory Ski, aka Durango Mtn Resort). Winter Park still has a great local vibe too. It just breaks my heart how money always talks.

  • Reply misszippy at

    As an “outsider” I didn’t even realize this was going on. Well written and on point, Heather. I hope you start an avalanche with this one!

    • Reply heather at

      Thanks Amanda! 🙂

  • Reply Rachel @ Betty LIVIN at

    That does sound awful BUT as a person who works for a small local government with few citizens and a small tax base, I can see why the large amount of cash would be so enticing to the town. They probably don’t get much in taxes from 1500 people but are expected to repair potholes/repave roads, keep street lights maintained, etc. I can see how obnoxious it would be to the locals but it was only for three days. Think of the locals in Hawaii who are inconvenienced by tourists year round but tourism is the only thing keeping their economy afloat. It’s a difficult balance to keep.

    • Reply heather at

      That’s a good point, Rachel. I can definitely understand the need for cash and as you pointed out, the year-round population likely doesn’t provide much. But, there is tons of tourism and others that live there during the summer and winter months, so I still hesitate to call it a “good” idea. I guess I wish they would have come up with another way that was less gaudy!

      • Reply Judd Sills at

        Rachel and Heather
        I live in a very small mountain town (Ouray) with a population of around 900. We rely on tourism and recreation for the town’s majority of income. We don’t have a ski area here – Silverton is 24 miles away, and Telluride about 50 by highway. With so few permanent residents, and a fairly low sales tax to the city, it is very difficult for the city to afford money for things that folks in larger cities take for granted. The city council would have leaped at a half million dollars to be able to make ends meet. Our city has the character that you remember from the older ski towns, but the council would nonetheless love to be able to provide what our locals have done without. We would have had a lot of pushback just like Crested Butte about harm to the city’s character, yet small towns council members undoubtedly get tired of shaving things from their budget. I’ve attended a lot of council meetings and for sure wouldn’t want their jobs.

        • Reply heather at

          That’s a fair point, Judd. I’ve been to Ouray a few times (once for the ice climbing festival!) and I absolutely love the character and would be devastated to see that lost. However, I do believe that council has to do without. Do you think there would be a better way to handle a situation like this?

          • Judd Sills at

            Our council tries desperately to get money through alternative sources such as grants, but there still are so many things that they have to say no to. When I saw the first stories about CB and Whatever, USA, I realized that that cash would have been so helpful to a town like ours. Property taxes just don’t cover all that we need, and frankly, a lot of the money is spent improving the tourist’s experience at the expense of residential services. I understand that to get the tourist sales tax revenue, money must be spent to give them a fantastic experience, but always feel as though our property taxes don’t benefit residents who pay them. CB will probably beat this problem for the next two years by selling out.

  • Reply Laura at

    I completely understand why Whatever, USA is considered selling out. (Ew, Bud Light.) But what makes Vail and Aspen “sell outs”? I’ve only been to each once, but they seemed like awesome ski towns. I’ve been to Park City a few times and loved that too, though it seems slightly older/less cleaned up, if that is what you mean by Vail and Aspen selling out? I haven’t gotten to go to Crested Butte yet so can’t compare with that.

    (Speaking of which, they didn’t leave the blue paint on, did they? I really hope they cleaned it up and that isn’t a permanent reminder of this weekend.)

    Looking forward to getting out to the mountains a ton this winter now that I moved here, so maybe I’ll learn for myself soon!

    • Reply heather at

      Hey Laura! You know, that’s funny because I’ve had a few people ask me the same thing re: Vail, Aspen, etc. Truthfully, I think a portion of the “sell-out” notion comes from people who grew up in ski towns or in mountain states like Colorado or Utah. For me, I remember what all of the resorts were like as a kid and even as a teenager, and that warm vibe just isn’t there like it once was. Frequently, they get purchased by large conglomerates and the local character gets removed in favor of generic branding. If you take a look at Lynn’s comment below, she sums up what I’m referencing in terms of selling out.

    • Reply heather at

      Oh! Re: the blue paint?! NO idea but I sure hope not! 🙂

  • Reply Lynn at

    This will be my fifth winter in Tahoe, so I’m far from an old timer, but as more and more of our resorts get bought out by mega corporations like Vail and KSL, you can see the local character eroding away. While there are upsides to corporate ownership, like the fact that my pass works at three awesome resorts and I can get a discount at more, the downsides of huge crowds, outsourcing local jobs, etc. outweigh them, in my opinion. Also, the big business don’t seem to care about the environment as much, which is my job and passion. They push for more, more, more development to increase profits, regardless of the environmental impact. Though I still ride there, so I guess I’m part of the problem! It’s a hard balance to strike when you live in a ski town that’s already “sold out”.

    • Reply heather at

      You touch on my thoughts exactly, Lynn. It is so hard to walk that line between being a successful company and maintaining local character. I know there is a lot of scuffle in Utah right now between Park City Mountain and Vail, and at the core, a lot of the arguments are coming down to large conglomerate vs. local contender. It’s been both interesting and heart breaking to watch.

      And touche, my friend– I ride at Copper a lot which is very much a glitzy resort. I find solace in the fact that there is no town there and there was no history to disrupt: the ski area only exists to be a ski area and didn’t interfere with a historical mining town or something!

  • Reply Shannon at

    I grew up in Wyoming and my folks have owned property in Steamboat since ~1995ish, so I’m a bit fan of Colorado ski towns, and Colorado in general. Growing up in the area and spending every weekend skiing growing, this post really resonates with me.

    I hope my comment doesn’t come off as rude, because that’s not how it’s intended at all, but I’m a bit confused by your message. You’re pointing out that CB is one of that remaining ski towns and is vastly different than those that have ‘sold out’, but then link to a post you’ve written promoting a popular ski destination. I certainly understand the importance of a. voicing your opinion, and b. promoting your work, but the two thoughts don’t really support one another.
    Your Steamboat post is promoting Steamboat – encouraging people to chose that destination venue for winter fun. Albeit a dramatically different level of promotion that Anheuser-Busch, but still promotion of a ski town. Personally, I feel that Steamboat has a done a lot over the last 20+ years to keep its’ character and charm – tourists are part of the community (to a certain degree) and how the culture thrives. While I think CB’s plan of handing their town over for $500k is a very poor reflection of the town council, but not a reflection of the community selling out. I do feel that a popular location can still maintain a strong sense of self while still making a profit for the betterment of locals.

    • Reply heather at

      Hi Shannon! First of all, your comment is NOT rude at all; in fact, it made me think a little bit about your point which is definitely valid. To me, I think there is a difference in my definition of promoting tourism vs. “selling out.” Promoting tourism is a necessity for ski towns for obvious reasons– I’m not sure they could survive on JUST local money. Again, to me, I don’t think what Anheuser-Busch did promoted tourism at all; it only promoted their brand by using the beloved environment that CB has already created. The name of Crested Butte won’t be anywhere in their commercials (to my knowledge) as they wiped it away to rename it “Whatever, USA.” So instead, I interpret this as using the CB atmosphere to promote Bud Light, which I think is different than actually promoting Crested Butte itself. I would guess that no one outside of Colorado (and many inside of CO!) will even know that is an actual ski town in Colorado. But I do think your are right: this is definitely a reflection of the town council selling out and not the locals. I worry because from there, it could potentially be a slippery slope as they are ultimately in charge of the town, you know? Does that make any sense at all?!

      To your point on Steamboat– agreed. I think the Boat has done a great job of incorporating tourism into their community and I love that town more than any other ski town I’ve ever visited. I’m very envious that your family owns property there!!

  • Reply Natalie Ford at

    I hadn’t heard this yet, and it seriously breaks my heart. Crested Butte is one of my favorite Colorado towns exactly for all the reasons you described. I’m sure that the reason this is happening across the state is related to the huge influx of transplants from across the country that CO has experienced in the last ten or so years. It seems to me that a ton of those people are moving to the great state to enjoy the spoils, but are bringing their “new! flashy! modern!” values with them which are starting to shape the state. I wonder if it means we will start to see the culture that Colorado has always been beloved for start to shift to some of the other western states that aren’t quite so “popular”.

    P.S. I understand the irony/hypocrisy of this statement as I am a wanna-be transplant myself, but I truly feel like have the same sensibilities as old-school Colorado so hopefully I won’t do too much damage when I get there 😉

    • Reply heather at

      Yeah, that’s a tough debate for another day 🙂 The Colorado I knew from the early 1980s is very different from the present-day Colorado, and that brings both good and bad. I know some people that will just rail on transplants and shove the “native” labeling in their face as if it means something. I’m proud to be from here but that’s a product of parents who decided to leave the midwest for the Rockies: I had no say in the decision, so who am I to judge others for wanting the exact same? I mean, my fiance just moved here a year and a half ago!

      • Reply Natalie Ford at

        I appreciate you putting it in that perspective. I understand how annoying it must be to see your state some what invaded, but, at least in my case, we want to “invade” out of a pure and intense love of the mountains and I hate to think I was shut out of the club by accident of birth. Like you said, everyone was a transplant at some point or another!

        • Reply heather at

          At the end of the day, we all just love the mountains, right?!

  • Reply Katie at

    I just moved to Colorado so am a transplant so a few things that drive me insane that are sort of inline this thinking. The cost is high EVERYWHERE. Ski passes for locals are still 500 dollars so we can promote the tourist areas, 200 bucks I could even handle, but 500 when we can drive down 70 and be back that day? Also, drives me crazy the lack of dog love in boulder and rmnp. Colorado charges 30 dollars for the toll from Boulder to the airport and back. I don’t see why they don’t charge locals to let dogs into rmnp give us perks to live here with our high rent 😉 Granted I love Colorado and it feels like home just wish I could spend more on gear then surviving here 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      Ha, that’s interesting that you think CO is expensive! Are you from the midwest by chance? Typically people from the east or west coast think it’s cheap here but midwest transplants think it’s expensive 🙂 My fiance is from San Diego and he was delightfully surprised by how cheap everything in Denver is! But you’re right– it’s definitely the most expensive state in the mountain region, especially when compared to the surrounding Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, etc. Honestly though, I have to say that I think the ski passes are a total bargain! I know in Utah, for example, the Big Cottonwood Pass was $999 and that was only for Solitude and Brighton! {That just makes me cringe to type it!} As for RMNP…preaching to the choir here, sister! Unfortunately, the dog rules applies to ALL national parks, not just Rocky Mountain. It’s the main reason I don’t spend time in National Parks that often…Tals can’t come!

      • Reply Katie at

        Haha yup Missouri 😉 The good climbing is up at Chaos and Emerald and I can’t go on the weekends without a babysitter for my dog :/ Ridiculous. I understand it to a point though.

  • Reply PAM LAMBERT at

    THIS IS REALLY SAD. HEY, WHY DON’T WE JUST SOME CASINOS UP IN THE PRETTIEST PARTS OF COLORADO? OH WAIT. THEY DID THAT TOO. MONEY DOES TALK AND IT’S A SHAME.

    PAM
    FORT COLLINS, CO

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb at

    Seems like things are moving in this direction more and more. Specifically smaller grass roots companies that have built up only to sell to a larger corporation or conglomerate. I had mixed feelings on it before but feel even more conflicted now that I actually work for a corporation. I’m a stay local/buy local type of girl but I’ll be the first to admit that I shop at big box stores on a weekly basis to meet my needs. Not to mention, at this point my livelihood relies on the corporation succeeding. Such a grey area.

    And marketing for brand exposure is freaking everywhere and it’s crazy for me to think that some people think that it’s just happenstance. At this point I watch movies and think, “There’s a product placement….and another….” Sometimes I don’t think much of it while at other times it drives me bonkers and I think, “Is anything genuine anymore?!” But once again, how can I talk since I’ve been involved in it myself by working with brands. Once again, a grey area.

    Yargh! I don’t think there’s a be all end all answer and more often I find my thoughts change on a case by case basis. But who’s to say that one thing that doesn’t bother me does bother another person? Did anything I just write make sense? I have no idea =) Ultimately, I agree with you!

  • Reply Somer Nelson at

    I feel most of the resorts in Utah sold out to the Olympics. It was so good here up until then. Now the resorts are crowded. My family and I are headed to Colorado next weekend. Going to check out a few places to possibly live in the future! We were thinking about checking out Steamboat! That place looks really cool!

    • Reply heather at

      I love, love, LOVE Steamboat. If I could afford a house there, I would do it in a heartbeat! It’s a true mountain town with lots of western heritage (i.e. cowboys!) but they managed to seamlessly blend tourism into the mix. I think it helps that it is so far from the I-70 corridor– they don’t get the day traffic that Summit County gets. Plus, there is SO MUCH hiking and mountain biking there! (Did I sell it to you yet?!)

  • Reply Keith Spargo at

    Hey Heather. This is an interesting one here.

    I have been to CB many times, and agree that is about the last true ski town of its type in the state. Imagine the terrain (especially when you factor in the ungodly backcountry) without the pretense of a Vail or Aspen. Well, Vail’s terrain doesn’t compare, but I digress. I learned about the Whatever USA promotion right when it went public with the townspeople but prior to the event. The city had to keep it under wraps or risk losing the opportunity with AB. I quickly (from an outsider’s perspective) jumped on the bandwagon, but largely felt the residents’ anger for the mere complication of the necessary secrecy involved. That would ire just about anyone to some degree whether it was a good thing or not. In an era of increased government “transparency” this seemed quite opposite. So, when AB saw the hornets swirling they quickly doubled their offer.

    I have a cadre of good friends in CB, and a few of them in particular are absolute pillars of the outdoor community. Seriously the type that everyone says “hi” to when walking down the street. And strangely enough they were annoyed by the secrecy, but primarily that it was a Bud Light event and not some other vastly superior product! Now, they don’t represent everyone in town. But the consensus was “for $500K how bad could it be?”. An opportunity to infuse that sort of cash for such a proportionally small interruption was a no brainer.

    One of them owns a local painting company, so guess who is currently repainting downtown to original colors…on AB’s dollar? These types of expenditures are past the $500K offered up to the city itself.

    Over the weekend I followed them all and saw their pictures on FB, read their descriptions on other forums, etc and they all collectively had a blast. They also made note that the very vocal naysayers quoted in the papers from the town hall meetings were amongst the first in line to get their “locals” wristbands to attend all the events for free. And guess what, they were all witnessed having a blast. Some irony huh?

    And the town will back to “normal” in a few short days, and half a million richer to help their schools and infrastructure. I learned a lesson in watching all this from afar. It’s easy for me to be upset from my comfy computer desk, but I’m not a resident there and I should have listened to more viewpoints before making my mind up. I started with a shared annoyance, but after hearing the opinions of my friends there I saw it very differently. CB does not get the crowds of even Aspen, Steamboat or any other noteworthy mountain town off I-70 It relies on creative opportunities like this. The US Pro Challenge frequents CB, infuses some indirect cash into town and the residents love it. But on this scale…again. I think if New Belgium had ponied up the money to do a similar promotion would there be the level of controversy? Granted, I hate pretty much every product AB makes, but I see the controversy sort of cloaked as a “mountain state” versus “flatlander” mentality. The flatlanders that we love to tease on the lifts are the very reason the resorts can exist. Similarly in this case AB is the flatlander, and their money is gonna help the raddest ski town in the state. Nothing like will probably ever happen exactly like that there again.

    I think there’s plenty of soul in CB left 🙂

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