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It Shakes a Village

Mammoth looking more like a world-class ski resort, and some in the community wonder if that's a good thing

November 07, 2002|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

MAMMOTH LAKES — The forecast calls for a significant whitening of the landscape today and through much of the weekend, thanks to the arrival of the season's first major storm, which couldn't be more welcome.

Today is a big day in this small but growing Eastern Sierra city. Not only will Mammoth Lakes celebrate the beginning of another season at the world-renowned Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, it will usher in a new era.

For the first time since its lifts began carrying people up the nearby slopes nearly 50 years ago, one of the finest ski and snowboard areas in North America will have the look -- and eventually the feel -- of an actual resort.

The Village at Mammoth, a sprawling four-story condominium complex long in the planning stages, sprang up dramatically during the off-season near the intersection of Minaret Road and Main Street and is scheduled to open in February.

Designed to give the town a central gathering place, the village covers 20 acres and boasts 166 one-, two- and three-bedroom luxury rental units as well as dozens of restaurants, bars and retail stores. It also features a new gondola, scheduled to open as early as Christmas, which will carry skiers and snowboarders to the slopes without having first to drive or catch a shuttle to any of three base facilities.

Not everyone is happy with so monumental a change, which will forever alter a destination that for so long has had a woodsy, down-to-earth feel. In fact, though the conversion of Mammoth into a pedestrian village-type community was part of a vision statement adopted by the community 10 years ago, emotions have been mixed for the last several months.

"It'll bring about such a big change and that's both good and bad," said Nancy Bristow, who moved here 10 years ago because of the small-town feel. "It'll mean more business for everyone, and real estate prices will go up. But on the other hand, there will probably be more crime and more traffic and congestion."

As for the Village Gondola, which like the base facilities will be serviced via shuttle from anywhere in town, it'll provide a fourth access point to the slopes, helping to alleviate crowding at the three others.

But it has some locals on edge because, as it covers the one-mile distance to the Canyon Lodge base facility, it will carry skiers and snowboarders directly through the backyards and over the rooftops of residents whose property abuts or intrudes into an easement held by the ski area since the 1960s.

"People are saying we'll need to put up shower curtains now," joked Kathy Copeland, in whose backyard a 100-foot gondola tower recently was erected. "Nobody will be able to see into my bathroom window, but if they could I'd give them a show."

Since the partnership began six years ago with the town, ski area and the development company, Intrawest, controversy has swirled over a variety of issues related to growth, such as water demands and affordable housing.

The push to bring major commercial airline service to Mammoth has recently gained momentum, further fueling the debate over what's right and wrong for the town and surrounding environment.

"Even I have mixed feelings," Mayor Rick Wood said. "People who came here years ago loved it for what it was, so there is this undercurrent of anxiety about what it's really going to be like when it's done, and I share that anxiety."

But the reality, Wood added, is that Mammoth must change if it is going to compete with world-class resorts sprinkled throughout the mountainous West. And that the new Mammoth, like it or not, is here to stay.

This is, he pointed out, what Dave McCoy envisioned as he developed the ski area from a single rope-tow operation in 1953 to a world-class facility that today boasts 27 lifts, among them state-of-the-art high-speed quad chairs and, now, three gondolas.

In an effort to maintain its prominence among an always fastidious skiing and snowboarding public, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which logs more than a million visitors a year to lead California resorts, has spent millions over the years -- $175 million in the last five years alone -- on improvements.

But whereas those expenditures went largely toward things such as terrain parks, upgrading the chair lift networks, enhancing guest services and expanding snow-making capabilities, this year the focus has shifted toward the village and its gondola.

Mammoth is spending $24 million on a project that also includes a services center for skiers, a restaurant at the base of the gondola, and ski and snowboard shops within a village.

Only some of the money will actually remain on the hill. Most noteworthy among on-mountain improvements is the construction, thanks to a grooming machine called a Zaugg Pipe Monster, of what is being called a Super-Duper Pipe, 600 feet long and with 22-foot walls, enabling 35-foot launches from top riders.

"All we need now is enough snow to cover it up," ski area spokeswoman Joani Lynch said.

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