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Joseph T. Zoline, 92; Transformed Telluride Into Major Ski Resort

October 15, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Joseph T. Zoline, who founded the Telluride Ski Area in Colorado in 1969 and turned the historic mining town into one of the Rockies' premier resort communities, has died. He was 92.

Zoline died Sept. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills after a long illness, said his daughter Pamela Lifton-Zoline.

A onetime corporate lawyer, Zoline was a Chicago- and Beverly Hills-based businessman and recreational skier who lived part-time on a ranch in Aspen when a friend mentioned Telluride during a flight from Aspen in 1969.

As Lifton-Zoline recalled in an interview with The Times this week: "The friend said to him, 'Oh, you need to check out Telluride; it's an amazing place. I think it can be a great ski area.' "

The friend said, however, that a sheep ranch at the base of the main mountain was about to be sold at auction and broken into 35-acre parcels for vacation homes; its sale would prevent the development of a major ski area in Telluride.

To the amazement of his family and friends, Zoline moved quickly after that conversation and bought the sheep ranch a few days before the auction -- sight unseen.

"That was not his M.O.," his daughter said. "That's what the family always laughed at."

John Lifton, Zoline's son-in-law, recalled that when Zoline saw the property for the first time, "He realized it was a critical piece of land but not nearly enough land to be able to build a ski area." Zoline wound up buying more than 4,000 acres before the ski area could be designed.

Located in a scenic box canyon in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, Telluride was long past its glory days when Zoline came to town. It had undergone a boom after a silver strike in the late 1800s and miners had swelled the town's population to 5,000. At one point, 26 saloons lined the streets, along with dance halls, gambling joints and brothels.

But the mines closed after the silver market collapsed in the late 1920s, and the miners began their exodus. Although Telluride made a brief comeback in the 1930s when the mines reopened, by the late 1960s, the population had dwindled to about 500. The town had only a few places to eat, a rundown hotel and a small motel.

"It was not a flourishing place," said Lifton-Zoline. Indeed, Telluride was included on the itinerary of the Ghost Town Club of Colorado.

Zoline, however, envisioned a winter recreation area second to none.

"It meant starting from scratch," said his daughter. Zoline oversaw planning and design of ski runs and lifts, which were laid out with the help of French Olympic skier Emile Allais, as well as development of the ski patrol, ski school, mountain facilities, ticketing and marketing. He hired ecologists and environmental planners and encouraged local preservationists to protect the Victorian-era town, where Butch Cassidy is said to have robbed his first bank.

Zoline also took over construction of the town's Telluride Lodge, which offered about 70 condominium units and "provided the first piece of the much-needed bed-base to accompany the ski-area facilities," Lifton-Zoline said.

After a couple of seasons of Sno-Cat skiing in which tracked vehicles took skiers up the mountain, the Telluride Ski Area began operating its first five ski lifts in 1972.

"Joe was an extremely intelligent man with an incredible vision," said Roberta Peterson, a member of the Telluride Town Council who headed the accounting department of Zoline's two ski area-related companies for many years.

The Telluride Ski Area, Peterson said, "created a resort community, and it created an economic structure for the town."

Today, Telluride has a year-round population of 2,358. Nearby areas, including Mountain Village, which was built on Zoline's land in the mid-1980s, have almost as many people. Telluride has become known as the festival capital of Colorado, with jazz, bluegrass, blues, chamber music and mushroom festivals -- as well as the annual Telluride Film Festival, which Zoline and his wife, Janice "Jebby," supported. "We even have a weekend called the Nothing Festival, where nothing goes on," Peterson said.

If not for Zoline, "there would not be a resort in Telluride like we have now," said Johnnie Stevens, who began as ski patrol director in 1971 and left the company in July as chief operating officer. "Joe gave Telluride hope for a future with an economy different from just mining."

Zoline sold most of his holdings in his two Telluride Ski Area companies in 1979.

"Telluride really is the flourishing center of the region now," his daughter said. "I think my father had a calm satisfaction and some pride in having accomplished that, because it certainly wasn't quick and easy. In fact, it was a lot of hard work, and it took a lot of grit and determination."

The child of Russian immigrants, Zoline was born and raised in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Chicago and its law school, he practiced corporate law before becoming vice president of Carte Blanche, one of the first credit card companies. He also was chief executive of MSL Industries and, briefly, head of Arlington Race Track in Arlington Heights.

Janice, Zoline's wife of 59 years, died in 1998.

In addition to his daughter Pamela, Zoline is survived by his daughter Patricia; a son, Thomas; and five grandchildren.

A private memorial will be held at the family ranch in Aspen in the late spring.

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