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National Perspective | RECREATION

Ski Town a Hot Place in the Summer

Telluride, Colo., reinvents itself with off-season festivals dedicated to film, jazz, even mushrooms. Residents accept the trade-offs.


TELLURIDE, Colo. — Backed into a canyon, surrounded on three sides by the San Juan Mountains, this one-main-drag town can easily seem claustrophobic. Narrow sidewalks teem with tourists in hiking boots. Shoppers spill into the street. A riverside nature trail is clogged with joggers, Labradors and diners walking off heavy meals.

And it's still months from snow season.

For a small ski town tucked into the southwest corner of the state, seven hours' drive from Denver, Telluride is jammed much of the summer and has blazed an economic trail that many struggling ski resorts are eager to follow.

The town's formula: attract vacationers with a never-ending calendar of festivals celebrating jazz, film, wine, bluegrass music, even mushrooms. None of which has anything to do with snow or skiing.

After a decade of year-round promotion, the payoff has come. And how. This community of 2,000 is so overrun with weekend festivities that beleaguered townsfolk have established a Nothing Festival, days set aside for blissful sloth. During the do-nothing weekend, Main Street is blocked off and residents set up lawn chairs to "watch" the non-parade.

Still, residents greet the influx, which can swell the town to three times its normal population, with good-natured understanding: Festivals mean tourists, income, tax dollars and a year-round vibrant town.

The festivals that run June through September pump $17 million into the local economy, big bucks for a rural town whose nearest stoplight is 45 miles away.

"It's part of our identity, but it's also part of our strategy," Telluride Mayor Amy Levek said.

Truth be told, ski towns are grateful to see anyone with out-of-state plates in the long, lean summers that used to spell economic drought and an exodus of seasonal workers. The lopsided incomes of most ski resorts--as much as 80% of annual revenue comes from winter business--have long been a concern. And with Telluride and other Rocky Mountain ski areas facing another uncertain snow season, the business of creating year-round business is crucial.

Telluride was born of the western gold rush, but decades later when the Silverbell mine closed in 1959, the town's population dwindled. The economy was resuscitated in the early 1970s with the construction of the first ski area, and the second boom began.

In recent years, Telluride, hideaway to the likes of Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, has been in the process of reinventing itself yet again.

With the mountains' bald ski runs merely a picturesque backdrop, the town successfully bills itself as a summer mecca and home of this season's 27th annual Telluride Film Festival.

The community now draws 60% of its tourism business in winter and 40% in summer, with a goal of parity. The four winter months generate about 46% of annual sales tax revenue and the four-month summer season brings in 36%.

Other Rocky Mountain ski areas have adopted the strategy with gusto. Tiny Crested Butte promotes its lovely summer wildflowers that grow riot over ski runs. Aspen has a well-established classical music and dance program and Vail promotes music and the arts. Steamboat Springs' ski area has become a stop on the professional mountain bike circuit, and Purgatory now touts its golf course.

The last few years have shown that Rocky Mountain resorts can no longer count on natural snowfall to lay down the fine powder that attracts international visitors to Colorado's slopes. Snow machines--a massively expensive investment--have filled in, but they guzzle ground water and that too has been scarce during the current regional drought.

Poor snow, rising costs and fierce competition from ski areas in the Canadian Rockies have conspired to drive down attendance: Colorado's destination ski resorts experienced a drop of nearly 9% in skier visits last year. Hardest hit was Wolf Creek, the state's perennial snow leader. The resort installed a new lift, then went snowless and lost 43% of its skiers from the year before.

Skiable snow has been so absent that some areas are even changing their names from "ski resort" to "mountain resort" to reflect the changed emphasis.

The shift means using ski runs for activities other than skiing. Colorado ski areas are abuzz with mountain bikers swarming down black-diamond runs, day hikers picnicking in alpine meadows and orienteering clubs using maps and compasses to navigate back bowls.

"Most of the older resorts were all built with the theory in mind that they were uphill transportation devices; they were built by the athletes," said John Frew, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry group.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a resort that makes more than 10% in non-winter. You can run mountain bikers up and down the hill, and it's still not a lot. But you keep your staff busy and keep them around."

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