Former Vail exec buys Powderhorn

For $1.4 million, this chairlift (and others) could have been yours. Courtesy of Powderhorn

Powderhorn Ski Area in Mesa, Colorado sold at auction on Thursday for $1.4 million to Powderhorn Partners LLC, a group that includes former Vail Associates, Inc. president Andy Daly and real estate partners Tom and John Gart, of the Gart Companies (Vail Resorts bought out the remaining shares of the Gart Companies' Specialty Sport Ventures in April, 2010). Powderhorn Partners got the ski area itself ($577,500) and a 700-acre development tract below the resort ($825,000) in separate groups at the auction.

Celebrating his new purchase after the auction, Daly called Powderhorn "a diamond in the rough" and said he already has plans to make some immediate improvements in time to open for the 2011/2012 season.

"I think we made a pretty good deal and I see a lot of potential in it," Daly says. "Unfortunately over the years the two families that have owned Powderhorn did not have the capital to invest in keeping it current in a competitive market. We firmly believe that with a little bit of investment and some focus on the service side -- everything from on-mountain grooming and developing the terrain parks to the food quality and guest services -- we can have a pretty big impact on the market."

The ski area, a 45-minute drive from Grand Junction and four hours from Denver, features 1,600 skiable acres and a 1,650-foot vertical drop, and attracts an estimated 75,000 skiers and snowboarders annually with a reported average annual snowfall of 250 inches.

"It's an absolutely unique location and there's just simply not another ski area like it," says Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA. "It's up on the Grand Mesa just east of Grand Junction, it's visually stunning, and it gets tremendous snow. I think Daly's experience and the resources he and the Garts are bringing to Powderhorn are really going to help polish up that gem."

Daly has served as Mayor Pro-Tem on the Vail Town Council since 2007 and currently operates a real estate development and investment company, Gore Peaks Investments, LLC, in Vail. Under Daly's leadership Vail Associates acquired Keystone, Breckenridge, and Heavenly, and was later renamed Vail Resorts to reflect its expanded presence. Earlier in his career he also served as president of Copper Mountain and in top positions at Eldora and Beaver Creek (and, earlier still, worked on the ski patrol in Aspen). His extensive experience is expected to help turn the mountain's business around: Previous owners Steve Bailey and Dean Skalla operated the ski area for 13 years, some of them reportedly at a loss.

Powderhorn is best known as a small, family-friendly mountain, but during the 2010/2011 season the ski area also featured three freestyle terrain zones (the Rustler's Park terrain park, the Top Cut log jib park, and the Maverick jump line), opened new terrain in the aspen glades at the western edge of its boundaries, and opened backcountry access gates from the top of two of its three chairlifts. It's also known for its aspen glades and for boulder gardens that pile up with pillows of powder after a good snow, and has potential to reach a broader action sports market. During the 2010/2011 season the resort marketed itself with the slogan, "Your Ingredient for Adventure." For the last several years Powderhorn has been featured as one of nine smaller-sized ski areas in Colorado Ski Country USA's Colorado Gems program.

"I can assure you we'll have the right people in place next year to make sure we have first-class, attractive terrain parks going forward," Daly says. "We're also looking to greatly expand the cross country offerings at the top of the mountain this year."

Daly and the Garts won't be the only treasure hunters doing some polishing at Powderhorn: In all, Thursday's auction brought in $2,083,950 from various bidders for six auction blocks including the 16-room Wildewood Inn (which sold for just $247,500) and development sites in and around the ski area.