Nordic Valley's new manager discusses big plans for small resort

Tuesday , July 10, 2018 - 4:22 PM

When James Coleman bought his first ski resort a little less than 20 years ago, he had achieved a lifelong dream. He also got a heavy dose of reality. 

“It’s one thing to read books about running ski resorts, it’s another to do it,” he said. “Those first couple years were pretty tough. After five or six years, though, I felt like ‘We’ve got this down, let’s look at expanding it.’”

Coleman did expand, aided by his tendency to look on the bright side. His company, Mountain Capital Partners, now manages around half a dozen mostly small and mid-sized resorts in the Southwest. Their flagship mountain is Purgatory Resort near Durango, Colorado. But after coming on as a partner for Nordic Valley last spring, Coleman hopes to make the 140-acre hill his pinnacle mountain.

In June, a website appeared announcing the owners’ grand plans — expanding it to 2,850 lift-served acres, with a gondola connecting to North Ogden. The website took many by surprise, including North Ogden city officials and residents on both sides of the mountain.

RELATEDNordic Valley's lofty expansion plans go online, but many questions remain

Coleman plans to host an open house from 5-7 p.m. on Thursday, July 12, at Nordic Valley to answer the public’s questions about the plans.

He met with the Standard-Examiner ahead of the meeting to provide more background on his experience, his thoughts on responsible resort management and his plans for Nordic Valley. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Standard-Examiner: A Nordic Valley expansion has been proposed for decades. Why do you think you’re the group that can pull it off?

Coleman: We’re used to pulling off difficult projects. I’ve been in the ski business about 20 years, I understand what it takes and I have the right team in place. I’m very persistent. But there are certainly no guarantees.

S-E: Tell me about the gondola. It seems like a pretty big hurdle, to get the U.S. Forest Service to allow you to develop in a roadless area.

Coleman: That’s a misconception. It’s inventoried roadless, which is different from something actually being roadless.

There are lots of forest areas that are in the inventory that didn’t actually get designated as roadless and this is one of them.

S-E: What’s your timeline? When would you like to see this expansion accomplished?

Coleman: We’re shooting to start building the gondola in 2020. I think that will be the key piece to getting this going, getting a lot of energy and excitement about it. There’s a transportation component to it. It’ll be set up so buses will come on either side, drop people off, pick people up, so people don’t have to drive through the canyons.

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S-E: Have you talked to the Forest Service?

Coleman: Yes. I personally have talked to them a few times. We have other people in our organization that have talked to them also. It’s very preliminary with them, this is part of the process they want us to go through before we make a formal submittal — they want us to engage with the public. So we’re going through that process.

S-E: Talk to me about your marketing strategy. It seems you quietly dropped a website with limited information about your plans and it took a lot of people off-guard — the mayor of North Ogden, the city council, the U.S. Forest Service and some of the residents around here. They all seemed a bit surprised.

Coleman: I don’t know if we did it perfectly. Obviously we didn’t, but we’re doing the best we can. The concept was to get the information out there to the public as quickly as we could. That seemed like the best way to do it in today’s age, to set up a website. About the same time I set that website up, I was in town talking to as many people as I could. I met with probably 20 different folks. Obviously there’s more than that who want to talk about this.

S-E: Who did you meet with?

Coleman: A couple of the county commissioners, Visit Ogden, different leaders in the community. I’ve been doing that also this week. Not just in Ogden, but Salt Lake, too. Key folks in the state. I’m trying to cover a lot of ground, it’s hard to get to everybody at once.

S-E: I got a press release yesterday about the planned expansion. It says it’s going to be “responsible and inclusive.” What does that mean?

Coleman: We really want this to be not just about skiing, but about the whole community. If you’re into hiking, for example, it’ll be a cool opportunity. You can jump on the gondola and then in 10 minutes, you’re on top of the ridge and looking at the incredible views. If you’re someone who doesn’t have the physical abilities to enjoy the tops of the mountains, you’ll get to see what everyone else gets to enjoy.

At our core, we do love skiing. And we do love building things and we love helping people. Put those things together in an environment like this, it’s really awesome.

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S-E: OK, that’s how you plan to be “inclusive.” What do you mean by “responsible?”

Coleman: You want to do things right, you want to protect the environment. You want the forest to be as healthy as it possibly can be. We have a very good history of being responsible stewards. We have a number of Forest Service permits in New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado. We’re hoping to have one here, too, expanding into the forest.

S-E: I’m going to push you on the environment part. Bringing more people to the top of the mountain, glading and cutting new trails, that all has an environmental impact.

Coleman: Yeah, so, the environmental stuff is a complicated issue. But first and foremost, I think it’s about people and people being able to enjoy their mountains. To do those things, there has to be improvements. You have to make things better.

Glading, it’s actually often good for the environment. It’s good for watersheds. More water makes into the ground. It provides food for animals. If it’s just totally a thicket of trees, there’s not that much food in it.

S-E: Are you planning on glading Coldwater Canyon?

Coleman: We’ll definitely do trail work in there. We just haven’t gotten to that level. We haven’t gotten super specific, just basic concepts.

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S-E: A critique I’m sure you’ve heard a lot is Nordic Valley is the last ski area to open and the first to close because they’re in a bad spot in the valley —

Coleman: It’s the lower elevation that’s the biggie on that. It’s funny, because at most of our resorts we’re known for being the first to open and last to close.

Even though this was the worst snow year for Nordic Valley in 41 years, there was still a lot of skiable terrain in the upper half of the mountain in April. Getting higher up will help Nordic Valley be more competitive with other resorts.

S-E: Let’s talk climate change. You did an interview with Outside magazine around a year ago where you seemed to brush off the issue.

Coleman: I wouldn’t say I brushed it off. It’s just not an area that I’m really focused on. There’s been climate change for millennia. There’s no question the Earth goes through cycles, there is climate change, in general the Earth has been heating up. It’s not something I worry about a whole lot myself. We do the best we can to deal with it, to improve our snowmaking, to improve the way we manage the mountain.

S-E: I know the planet’s had climatic cycles. But nearly all climate scientists agree it’s speeding up and it’s human-caused. You talk about environmental stewardship, so I wonder why you’re not more concerned with climate change and its impacts?

Coleman: I just think there are bigger things I have to deal with, personally, that I can have more control over than the climate. I don’t think it’s conclusive, personally, that climate change is human caused. My home in Durango, 10,000 years ago, was under 2,000 feet of ice.

I don’t think there’s anything one person can do to make the Earth colder.

S-E: What are your summer plans for Nordic Valley?

Coleman: We want to make it a full summer resort. Put in more mountain biking, alpine slides, mountain coasters, ziplines, those kinds of things. We’re definitely skiing first, but are trying to improve the summer experience and have more summer activities.

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S-E: Why not keep Nordic Valley the way it is? It has its niche, its market.

Coleman: It doesn’t make any money the way it is. It’s too small. It needs to be more substantial to compete with the rest of the resorts. Our proposal is to make it a similar size to Snowbasin.

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S-E: Have you expanded any of your other resorts besides Purgatory?

Coleman: Yes, it depends on your definition of “expansion.”

S-E: But nothing this ambitious?

Coleman: No, this will be the largest.

S-E: You mentioned working with the Forest Service to expand Purgatory, but that was already part of the resort’s master plan, was it not? A lot of the legwork was done 10 years ago.

Coleman: Part of that got a boundary expansion. It was not part of the master plan. It wasn’t real large, 25-50 acres off the top of my head. Getting a boundary expansion that quickly, though, I think that was pretty impressive.

S-E: What is your plan if the overwhelming sentiment is that the public doesn’t want an expansion at Nordic Valley?

Coleman: I just don’t think like that, I’m too positive. I know not everybody will, but I hope most people are for it. I haven’t thought of a Plan B if the majority is against it.

S-E: There are rumors that part of the plan is to have North Ogden annex Nordic Valley so you can have denser development. Is that the case?

Coleman: I’ve heard about that too. Like I said, there were plans before I even got here. I wasn’t part of that process.

S-E: But you can say on record, right now, that’s not part of your plan?

Coleman: It’s not a set part of the plan, that’s for sure. There’s still way too much dialogue to be had with the city and county.

S-E: Is selling real estate an important part of your business strategy?

Coleman: I think it will be an important part of this for sure. But it’s not the primary – one of our mantras is “skiing first” and we really believe that. We’ve done very minimal real estate development on our ski resorts so far. The skiing experience has to be great, that has to happen first.

S-E: Some of the planned expansion area is private land, already owned by Nordic Valley. Why hasn’t that been developed yet? Why not start there?

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Coleman: Economics. We looked at getting that started, but we feel like we should focus on the bigger plan. It’d be such a minor step compared to what needs to happen here. I love doing that, I go out with my chainsaw myself and cut trails. It’s maybe my second favorite sport after skiing.

S-E: What are you most excited about?

Coleman: The big picture, we love skiing, we love building things, we love helping people. To be able to do that in this incredible environment, in this location, to help people have fun in the mountains is an awesome thing to do. It’s something I dream about.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.comLeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen. 

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