Could a humble ski hill in southwest Colorado evolve into a greater destination? That is the sort of question being asked in Silverton.
An equally difficult question for the small, secluded community: Just how much bigger should the ski operation at Kendall Mountain Recreation Area be?
Locals have expressed excitement and trepidation over the prospect of expanding, said Lisa Branner, the town's community relations manager. They'd like more lift-served terrain out their backdoor, she said, but they don't want the real estate boom and vibe changes central to ski town histories.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, if it could be like Telluride in the '70s and not like Telluride is today,'" Branner said. "How do you prevent it from going that path?"
Since the '60s, Kendall Mountain has been "a little gem," Branner said — a place for gatherings, including potlucks during the holidays. It's been where kids go to learn.
"The challenge, though, is we have 16 acres there, five ski runs, and they're all very much beginner-level," Branner said. "So we have one end of the spectrum with Silverton Mountain, with nothing but expert skiing, and the other end of the spectrum at Kendall Mountain, with nothing but beginner skiing. So the thinking is to try to close the gap and offer something that's more intermediate."
Something that would keep families in town, she said, rather than them loading up the SUV and heading to Telluride or Durango. An expansion would be "community-first," Branner said, "and also knowing that it will have an appeal for visitors, and hopefully boost our winter economy in a way that we haven't seen."
A committee tasked with exploring the future of the town-owned ski area last month reviewed responses from potential partners — operators that would make financing possible.
One was from Mountain Capital Partners, whose portfolio includes Purgatory and Hesperus, the fellow ski areas in the region. MCP has envisioned five new chairlifts for Kendall Mountain, which currently has one, and 300 more acres that would reach toward 13,000 feet.
That configuration was one possibility outlined in a detailed study prepared for town leaders by SE Group, which specializes in resort development. The town enlisted the research group following a series of community sessions that launched in 2017.
SE Group found "significant potential" for Kendall Mountain. Along with a 300-acre configuration, researchers also posed an 800-acre configuration that would require $25 million-plus to realize.
Both concepts would bring the ski area's daily capacity to about 2,000, up from the current limit near 160. SE Group estimated Kendall would need around 100,000 visitors a year to be economically viable under either concept.
The study "helps illustrate some of the challenges that Silverton would encounter during the process," read a statement from Silverton Mountain owners in response to the town's call for potential partners. Compared with MCP, the locals running the heli-skiing outfit reportedly have something smaller in mind for Kendall.
"Other suitable configurations exist to meet the town's primary goal, outlined in the community visioning sessions, of enhancing affordable family-friendly skiing and four-season visitation," read their response.