In December 2004, Tamarack Resort opened as the first new U.S. ski resort in decades, and it was surfing the giant swell of the real estate boom.
The resort sold roughly half a billion dollars worth of property and borrowed hundreds of millions more to develop a grandiose ski and recreation resort fueled by pricey vacation homes, condos and hotels.
Then the real estate market crashed.
The story of Tamarack has been told often, and the resort is frequently tagged with “financially troubled” or a similar description.
But what’s often overlooked is through it all — with the exception of one ski season — Tamarack has attracted skiers and boarders.
They come for the long, swoopy groomed runs, powder shots off the summit ridge and glades that hold secret powder stashes, and they stay for its casual, friendly atmosphere.
Tamarack has gone from a grand vision to just another Idaho ski resort, and that could be its salvation.
“We’ve become part of the skiing and recreation community in this area,” said Tim Flaherty, Tamarack’s general manager. “We take it personally, and we’re doing the best we can to keep this place alive.”
Tamarack has also established its own identity based on reality, not a sales pitch. It falls as a ski resort somewhere between local resorts like Bogus Basin and Brundage, and destination resorts like Sun Valley.
Rather than catering to well-heeled nonresidents who spend thousands of dollars per visit, most of Tamarack’s customers come from Idaho, particularly the
Treasure Valley, and the resort’s prices reflect that.
You can buy a daily adult lift ticket for the same price as at Bogus Basin. You can also rent a cottage or condo and stay the night on Tamarack’s slopes for a similar price that you would pay for a room in downtown Boise.
“You don’t have to be a mega millionaire to come up and enjoy this,” Flaherty said.
“We offer a five-star experience at a three-star price,” said Wolfe Ashcraft, recreation and marketing manager for Tamarack.
To appreciate the current Tamarack, you have to look at it from different perspectives.
From the perspective of skiers or boarders, they mostly see what they expect.
The lifts turn, the slopes are groomed, and patrollers keep a watchful eye on things. The Canoe Grill serves an espresso and muffin in the morning, a burrito at lunch and a beer or drink after skiing. There are skis to rent, lessons to take, and Tamarack t-shirts and coffee mugs for sale in the Sports Dome. All the ski resort boxes are checked.
But behind the scenes, things are more complicated.
There are numerous entities that own or control different portions of the resort, and the overall ski operations are run by the Tamarack Homeowners Association.
Flaherty, who’s also the executive director of the homeowners association, said when the association first took over the ski operations, they expected it would be six months to a year before the resort worked its way through foreclosure and a new owner took over.
That was four years ago.
In the meantime, the association and employees have worked hard to keep the behind-the-scenes uncertainty invisible to the consumer.
“It’s a challenge, but we try to overcome those challenges,” Flaherty said.
It appears to be working. Ashcraft said average daily ski visits are on par with what Tamarack had before the real estate crash, though that’s comparing the current four-day-per-week operation to the former daily operations.
There are other signs of progress. Season pass sales have quadrupled since the resort reopened in 2010 after closing for a ski season.
Season pass sales lagged after that, because skiers and boarders were skeptical whether the resort would reopen, or stay open.
Now Tamarack is seeing the buying patterns shift to discounted spring sales for the upcoming winter season.
“We’re seeing the consumer confidence in us is high,” Ashcraft said.
Like Sun Valley, Tamarack has snowmaking and is able to open on a set schedule without having to rely on natural snow, and it’s opened in mid-December for the past few years as promised.
It’s also getting a reputation among skiers and boarders as a good place to find fresh powder. With the lifts closed Monday through Wednesday most weeks, storms can dump several days worth of snow that remains untracked until lifts start on Thursdays.
Much of the real estate that drove the resort’s early phase is in limbo, but sales of existing homes are improving.
Home prices are increasing, and Flaherty said none of the 250 private homes at Tamarack are in foreclosure or selling as a short sale.
Word about the resort’s resurrection, or at least continuance, is getting out beyond Idaho.
Ashcraft said when he attends various ski and tourism shows around the Northwest, the comments he hears about Tamarack have changed.
“We get less and less, ‘Oh, you’re open again?’ And more, ‘See you again next year,’” Ashcraft said.
He also noted people who run the resort take pride in the fact that they’re keeping it going under tough circumstances, and they’re also proud to be part of the local community.
He thinks that attitude extends to homeowners and customers as well.
“Everybody feels like they have some ownership here, even if you just bought a lift ticket,” Ashcraft said.
Too big to fail
Of course, Tamarack could still fail as a business, but the resort’s buildings are not likely to be razed and its ski lifts hauled away and sold for scrap metal.
Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Area Association, said there’s too much invested in the resort’s infrastructure, and home owners and creditors have too much vested interest to let it all disappear.
Tamarack is also proving itself as a viable ski (and golf) resort, not a troubled real estate development that happens to have skiing and golfing.
Berry said the business model of using skiing as an attraction that drives profit from real estate sales largely changed after the 2008 crash, which he described as a “once-in-a-lifetime market correction.”
Tamarack was “virtually the poster child” for that change, he said.
Real estate will remain part of the resort’s future, Berry said, but it’s unlikely to be the main financial driver.
In addition to skiing and golf, Tamarack offers Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, mountain biking and hiking, as well as easy access to boating on Lake Cascade and recreation on nearby rivers and national forests.
That’s an attractive package, and families are buying real estate “because they want those experiences,” Berry said.
Tamarack’s homes and condos are more likely to be treated like family cabins than as lucrative real estate investments that attract speculators, he said.
As Tamarack works its way through foreclosure, he expects it will gradually increase its recreation and real estate offerings as the market improves.
“I really ultimately think Tamarack will continue in the next five years in the trajectory it’s heading based on the last two years, and that’s getting better every year,” he said.
Berry also predicts Tamarack will continue as a local and regional destination, but it’s unlikely to compete with national destinations like Sun Valley, or large ski resorts in Colorado and Utah.
No crystal ball
While the likely scenario is a buyer will take over Tamarack’s entire resort operation, no one really knows.
Various parts of it have different owners and/or creditors, and much of the property remains tied up in the foreclosure process with no definite timeline when it will be completed, though Flaherty hopes to see it happen this year.
Despite that uncertainty, the homeowners association and the resort’s management are bringing back more recreation.
Boat rentals on Lake Cascade and guided whitewater rafting on the North Fork of the Payette were recently added. Mountain biking has resumed on the slopes, and lifts could operate for bikers and sightseers this summer.
“It’s been a little at a time as we resurrect some of these businesses as they make sense,” Flaherty said.