Long seen as something of a second-tier resort area, Mammoth Mountain appears headed for the big time. Intrawest, a Canadian company with extensive resort development and operation experience, intends to build 2,300, mostly upper-end housing units and create a new town center in the City of Mammoth Lakes. The idea is to make Mammoth Lakes and the nearby Mammoth Mountain Ski Area competitive with premier all-season resorts such as those in Vail and Aspen, Colorado, Park City, Utah, and Whistler, British Columbia.
The massive, multi-faceted project will result in nothing less than the complete makeover of Mammoth Lakes, a tourist town just off Highway 395 in Mono County and about 120 miles south of Lake Tahoe. Besides the expensive new houses and condominiums, a pedestrian-oriented town center with direct gondola access to the ski area, and an overhauled airport with regular commercial flights to at least four cities are also planned. Plus, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which locals refer to simply as "the mountain," has invested tens of millions of dollars in upgrades during the last four years. It all comes after the Ski Area has lost one-third of its business from its high point during the mid-80s, when Mammoth was the busiest ski resort in the country. "It's the town repositioning itself," said Mike Vance, Mammoth Lakes Community Development Director. "We've been losing market share. This is looking at the great physical assets we have and saying what do we need to do to put us in better position?" While Intrawest is committed to the project, the town's overall plans received a set back in late July when an appellate court invalidated a redevelopment plan (see Legal Digest, page 11). At the heart of the various projects is The Village at Mammoth, which will have at least 800 housing units and 130,000 square feet of retail space, said Steve Perkins, of Perkins & Associates, Intrawest's planning consultant. The current city center on Highway 203 is "quite a mess," Perkins said.
The new plan is to create a pedestrian-friendly town center on Minaret Road just off the highway and route traffic around the area. This will change the atmosphere at Mammoth Lakes for the better, Perkins said. Mammoth Lakes developed under the suburban model, with wide streets and heavy reliance on the automobile. Visitors who stay in town must drive to the ski area and everywhere else. But the big-time resorts ï¿½ and Intrawest has built a number of them, including Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado and Tremblant in Quebec ï¿½ offer more of a seamless experience. Under the plan that is moving forward, people could find lodging in The Village, walk to shops and restaurants, catch the gondola to the slopes, and ski a trail right back to The Village. It will be similar to European alpine towns, said Dana Severy, Intrawest vice president who is overseeing what the company calls "Project Sierra." "We're literally trying to integrate what we build right into the ski mountain," Severy said. "It [The Village] is really intended to be a departure from the traditional land uses at Mammoth. Mammoth is very much like Southern California ï¿½ you don't do anything without getting in your car."
Away from The Village, Intrawest plans to build 1,100 units in the Juniper Springs area, and about 400 more units in Sierra Star, a golf course development smack in the middle of town. The Sierra Star golf course opened last year, and city officials would like to see a conference center on the site, although nothing is final. While Intrawest has become the key player since acquiring about 250 acres in Mammoth Lakes four years ago, Severy noted that the company is only carrying out three master plans for the resort corridor that the City Council adopted in the early 1990s. It appears that Intrawest is having no trouble marketing its products. Townhouses and condominiums are reportedly selling in the high six figures before they are even complete. Most of them are being purchased as second homes are as part-time rentals, in which the owner rents the unit when he is not using it, said Craig Olson, an associate planner for Mammoth Lakes. Of course, direct and indirect costs accompany this transformation in a town with 5,500 full-time residents and 8,000 visitor beds. Real estate prices have doubled in the last 18 months, according to Vance, and everyone acknowledges fears about affordable housing shortages in the near future.
Some full-time residents worry about losing their community's character. And the combined federal and local subsidies top $55 million. The biggest chunk of government money would be a $30 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to widen, lengthen and overlay the existing runway and taxiway. This would accommodate the 757s that American Airlines has agreed to fly from Dallas and Chicago, said Airport Manager Bill Manning. The airport also hopes to lure 737 service from San Jose and Los Angeles. Additionally, the city has agreed to build a $12 million terminal.
The Ski Area, of which Intrawest owns 58%, will front the money for the terminal, and the city will pay back Intrawest with growth in transient occupancy tax. This deal has been finalized and was important to the FAA, which wanted to see all parties share the risk. The FAA is scheduled to decide on the grant this month. If everything goes smoothly, construction could be completed in fall of 2001, Manning said. "We created a public-private partnership and we all had common goals," Manning said. "There has been a lot of synergy, and we formed a very strong partnership." American Airlines has signed a five-year agreement to fly planes from Chicago and Dallas to Mammoth Lakes. The Ski Area will subsidize the commercial service, which is common in resort areas, Manning said. Up to 150,000 passengers could use the airport annually within seven years.
Mammoth Lakes currently has no commercial air service. Additionally, Intrawest will receive a $14 million reimbursement from TOT growth for building parking garages and other infrastructure. According to independent economic analyses, TOT revenue, which now amounts to about $5 million annually, should approximately quadruple in 10 years. Under this scenario, which Vance described as very conservative, Intrawest and the Ski Area would get paid back within five years ï¿½ even after the city gets the first 45% of TOT growth.
"The town general fund is never at risk because the only funds directed to the mountain and to Intrawest are from the growth they generate," Vance said. "If they aren't successful, they don't get paid back."
A development agreement, which has yet to be finalized, contains these details. Intrawest hopes to complete the contract as well as amendments to The Village master plan this fall so that development can move forward next year during Mammoth Lakes' abbreviated building season. Although a concern for some people, the loss of town character does not seem to be as hot an issue as the loss of affordable shelter. Other ritzy resort areas, especially those in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, have become so pricey that service workers either live in overcrowded conditions or commute long distances from less-expensive burgs. Mammoth Lakes, notably, contains only four square miles of real estate and is surrounded by the Inyo National Forest. Olson, a city planner, said officials are crafting an affordable housing policy. Furthermore, Intrawest agreed to build affordable units as development proceeds and could simply deed blocks of low-cost condominiums to a housing agency, Olson said. Intrawest's Severy said the company will build 250 affordable units faster than required by the city, including two 16-unit apartment buildings next year. Plus, the corporation is working with various entities to create a housing foundation.
"We take it [affordable housing] very seriously. We acknowledge it as an issue. We think we are part of the solution," he said. Severy noted that Intrawest not only develops resorts, it also operates them. Relying on service workers who must commute long distances in bad weather is a poor approach, he said. In fact, added Severy, Intrawest's dual role as developer and operator benefits the city. "I think that shapes your planning horizon and how you approach things. That tends to result in what I call a more capital-intensive approach to development," he said.
The Mammoth Lakes Town Council has several key decisions to make in coming months, including reconsideration of redevelopment. Still, the town's path appears to be set. "It's the last great ski mountain that has not realized its potential," Severy said.
Contacts: Mike Vance and Craig Olson, Mammoth Lakes community development director, (760) 934-8989, ext. 224. Bill Manning Mammoth Lakes airport manager, (760) 934-3813. Dana Severy, Intrawest vice president, (760) 924-8189. Steve Perkins, Perkins & Associates president, (510) 215-1600.