Alaska state agency gives preliminary approval to Valdez ski resort effort

May 7—Three Valdez residents with a passion for skiing have received a preliminary decision from the state of Alaska that, if finalized, will advance their ambitious plans to build a ski resort overlooking Prince William Sound.

East Peak Resort, as the partners call their project, would provide skiing and summer activities in the Chugach Mountains about 6 miles east of downtown Valdez. They want to install a 3-mile-long chairlift to an unnamed peak a mile above sea level, and create runs for both skiing and mountain biking. They say the area is so vast it could one day provide more skiable terrain than Girdwood's Alyeska Resort, which is currently the largest in the state.

A year-round resort would support the growing number of cruise ship guests in the town of 4,000, said Ryan McClune, 48, a former competitive extreme snowboarder who came up with the idea in the 1990s.

It would also provide a future economic base as oil-related jobs wane in the future, he said.

Valdez, about 300 road miles east of Anchorage, is the maritime shipping hub for Alaska's aging North Slope oil industry. It's also America's snowiest town — a mecca for backcountry heli-skiing where some two dozen feet of snow drops annually.

McClune said more than 40 cruise ships are set to dock in Valdez this summer, doubling last year's total and potentially bringing more than 50,000 tourists, alongside hordes of RVs and other road-trippers.

The resort could provide gold-panning, sightseeing, ziplining and downhill mountain biking for those summer visitors, said McClune. The sales could supplement the resort in winter as tourism slows, he said.

"People can see the oil industry isn't going to be here forever, and that's pretty much the only thing going on here, other than a small amount of fishing," McClune said. "To support these cruise ships coming, you need an attraction like that."

Valdez residents and officials say the community generally supports the idea for the resort. But they acknowledge it won't be easy to pull off.

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East Peak's other partners are Nate Smith, who owns a company providing backcountry snowcat skiing in the proposed resort area, and Brandon Reese, strategic adviser with Alaska Backcountry Guides, which provides heli-skiing and snowboarding in the Chugach range.

The partners say they've invested about $1 million into the project. They already own 200 acres of land at the base of the proposed ski area that they plan to sell as residential and commercial lots.

They acknowledge that their plan to build a chairlift and resort is a longtime dream. But they say other ski resorts, including Alyeska Resort, started small and developed in phases over decades.

"This is a real estate venture that's highly synchronous with skiing and snowboarding," said Reese, 51, who said he has a background in residential and commercial development and owns a local land-clearing and tree service business.

The state's 27-page decision, issued last month, preliminarily approves a 20-year lease for 800 acres. Final approval would allow East Peak Resort to take steps toward construction in an early phase of the project, the partners say. An initial three-year term calls for a $2,000 annual lease fee, though that could change once the group completes an appraisal of the land.

"This authorization provides a direct economic benefit to the state with the collection of fees for (the lease) and an indirect economic benefit through the encouragement and development of the state's resources," Samantha Carroll with Alaska's Division of Mining, Land and Water said in signing the decision.

The partners would initially survey land and complete the appraisal, Smith said. They also plan to develop an access road, start clearing alders for the runs as soon as possible, and construct a warming hut midway up the mountain.

The state's decision recommends final approval of the lease as long as no one else expresses a similar interest in developing the area by May 26, which could lead to a competitive bidding process.

The East Peak partners say that's unlikely.

Their privately owned acreage, purchased from the city of Valdez in 2007 and 2019, provides the only realistic access to the proposed development.

They say that ideally, they'd build a chairlift seating six with alternating chairs and gondolas, known as a "chondola."

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Regular air service to Valdez happens in relatively small planes seating about 30, rather than larger jets, so that would limit the number of visitors to the resort in winter when cruises end, said Joe List, manager of the Totem Hotel and Suites and vice president of the Valdez visitors bureau.

"That'd be a game-changer if jets started flying here," he said, adding that the runway is long enough to accommodate large jets.

Many people think a resort would be a great addition in the town, List said.

"It'd be awesome if it happened," helping boost tourism and the economy, he said.

Smith said East Peak has received interest from potential investors in the past. The state's decision, if finalized, could be another step that attracts investors as development advances, Smith said. The proposed lease would cover partial plans for the project. Additional land would need to be leased from the state to fully extend the chairlift to the peak, the partners say.

"This sets in place a process with the state to facilitate future growth and showcase the area," he said.

Smith said the project is a long-term work in progress, but that's not unusual for a resort.

"We're trying to do pretty big-league stuff, but we've done a lot of research on resorts," he said. "And a lot of resorts, the big ones, they didn't happen in 10 years."

Instead, it can take decades "to get many of them up and rolling and for communities to develop around them," he said.

Alyeska Resort, the premier commercial skiing area in Alaska, started in the mid-1950s after several residents raised money to buy land and develop a ski hill. A wealthy French investor provided financing to create the first chairlift in 1960.

Mark Detter, the city manager in Valdez, said the city is close to completing a planning and zoning process that involves the privately owned resort area. Once that's done, the East Peak partners should be able to present specific plans for a development on the land they own.

"We think there's a potential opportunity, but there's a lot to be decided with infrastructure and other improvements," he said of the resort.

Zach Sheldon owns Alaska Guide Company, providing backcountry tours and climbing. He said he has mixed views on the project. He'd love to see a ski resort in Valdez. But he said he doesn't support how the city sold land in a way that effectively eliminates public access to state land, for a project that's economically uncertain.

"I support the project but I don't agree with how the city cut off access," Sheldon said.

Detter said "plenty of people" in Valdez support the resort idea, but some will naturally be looking to learn more when the partners present specific plans and public comment periods are held.

"The questions will come when more specific details are laid out," he said.

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Smith said the partners plan to sell residential and commercial lots to support development of the resort. They've created a homeowners association with design guidelines to make sure any future development is attractive.

Reese said Valdez has a housing shortage and there's a long list of buyers, including local residents, who are interested in purchasing the residential lots once they're subdivided.

The state's decision launches a public comment period of the proposed lease through May 26, which could lead to changes in the preliminary decision. Comments may be submitted in writing, including by email to Questions about the lease can go to Todd Derks, a natural resource specialist with the mining division, at 907-269-8549.

Comments by mail can also be made to Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water Southcentral Regional Land Office, ATTN: Todd Derks, at 550 W. Seventh Ave., Suite 900C, Anchorage, AK 99501-3577.

"If people have concerns or comments, we'd always like to hear about it," Derks said.