There is an old joke in the ski industry that a resort needs to go bankrupt three times before it can be profitable. Tamarack is hoping to get away with just once.
About 15 years ago, a technology executive named Jean-Pierre Boespflug came to this town of 150 people with a vision to build the nation’s first new major destination ski resort since the early 1980s. Then the recession hit and development stopped, and Boespflug disappeared.
Today the resort looks like the physical manifestation of a big idea never executed. There is a towering crane that hasn’t moved anything in years. The ski shop and restaurants are open, but sit in dome-shaped buildings that the original investors intended to be temporary. The permanent village sits nearby, half-built and covered in white Tyvek, as it has been since 2008.
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And instead of chill vacations on the slopes, the group of mostly part-time residents who bought homes and condos around the resort have spent the years since Boespflug’s disappearance trying to save their mountain from creditors.
A small mountain supermarket has opened, closed, reopened and closed again. At one point a group of repo men used a helicopter to take back a ski lift.
But now, after a decade of springs that began with a question of whether the resort would open the following winter, Tamarack has some semblance of stability. The debt pile has been cleared, and in October homeowners banded together to buy the resort’s operations.
With things looking up, Angela and Mark Gustafson are doubling down. Last summer, two years after buying a townhome with views of the half-built village, they moved to a larger home near a golf course on the other side of the resort.
The timing wasn’t perfect: The golf course was recently returned to nature after its owner walked away. But Angela Gustafson remains confident that better days are ahead.
We wouldn’t have upgraded to a bigger home if we didn’t have faith in a resurrection.
Angela Gustafson, homeowner
Brad Larsen, the resort’s general manager, described his job as “putting Humpty Dumpty back together.” Doing that task requires a steely disposition he called “Tamitude.”
Tamitude means things like accepting that everyone who works here will have more than one job. In addition to being general manager, Larsen is the resort’s marketing director, food and beverage manager, staff photographer, videographer and wedding salesman.
He walks around at night turning the heat down in empty buildings. Sometimes he cleans toilets and buses tables at the restaurants.
This a long way from Larsen’s last job at Colorado’s Telluride Ski Resort, where he was vice president for sales and marketing. He had an office overlooking the village and “definitely didn’t clean bathrooms.” But he has come to relish the turnaround and got gushy with Western spirit while describing how he spent the summer cutting ski trails through the forest, then skied them the following winter.
“So many men and women in the ski business have looked up the mountain and said, ‘I’m going to make this place incredible,’” he said over dinner. “But like those men and women, you have to hack your way through the wilderness.”
Tamitude also seems to mean keeping a guarded sense of humor about the resort’s humbled state. Take, for instance, the hotel. It has a fancy restaurant, a warm bar and a patio with wide mountain views. But since it’s not uncommon for there to be just one or two guests on weeknights, there is a running joke that it feels like the hotel in “The Shining.”
And while there has been lots of recent progress, it seems unlikely that Tamarack will fulfill the original idea of a high-end resort for skiers flying in from around the world.
Still, like so many projects that were stalled by the financial crisis and Great Recession, the resort has re-emerged to find value in a diminished sense of self. Real estate agents like Trisha Sears are talking up the value of $350,000 condos that are now largely bought by locals instead of the out-of-towners who used to pay $1 million. In place of celebrity sightings, presidential visits and an ambition to be the next Vail, Colo., there is talk about a family-friendly vibe and the absence of crowds.
Mostly there is a sense of comfort that whatever the resort ends up being, its destiny belongs to people who live and ski here instead of some faceless banks.
“It gives a sense of stability, not just to the resort but to the community,” said Ken Roberts, chairman of the Idaho Tax Commission and a farmer whose family has been in Donnelly for more than a century.
You now have owners who have a vested interest in seeing it being successful.
Ken Roberts, chairman of the Idaho Tax Commission and a farmer whose family has been in Donnelly for more than a century, about Tamarack resort
And there are worse things than living next to a newly built resort where the lift lines range from small to nonexistent. On a recent morning between runs, Steve Bussolini, 67, a retired college administrator who lives in nearby McCall, joked that the parking lot is so empty that he never has to walk more than 25 steps before putting his skis on.
He was disappointed when Tamarack’s Wildwood lift was repossessed by Bank of America in 2012. But then he found a path through the trees and discovered lots of fresh powder.
“It makes for better skiing,” he said.
Boespflug and his investors started building the resort in 2002. Real estate was booming, so they financed the construction with hundreds of millions of dollars in home and condo sales, and by 2004 the ski lifts were up and running.
The local community, hit hard by job losses in the logging industry, hailed skiing and recreation as a way to revive the economy of rural Valley County, about 90 miles north of Boise. Nearby Cascade had just been slammed by the closing of a Boise Cascade sawmill that had been the area’s biggest employer.
The hope for new jobs was why Brad Backus, a Tamarack ski guide who also served as Donnelly’s mayor, gave the town a new motto — “Crossroads to Recreation” — that is etched onto the granite sign announcing your arrival.
That vision seemed in doubt in the winter of 2008, when Backus started hearing rumors that the resort, like the economy, was having financial troubles. He figured business would slow down and, at worst, someone would step in to buy the resort.
But a few weeks later, the resort abruptly closed. The next day, when Backus and his wife went to collect their skis from an office, they had to shovel a path through the empty parking lot on what should have been an epic powder day.
“It was eerie,” he said.
Backus spent the next few years trying to sustain his family while keeping the town solvent with a flurry of federal grant writing. At one point he had to take a leave to work a construction job in Seattle. In the meantime, the resort missed a season and Boespflug missed a court date. He hasn’t been seen in town since.
For a while people were hoping that falling prices would attract new buyers and a quick turnaround, but instead the bottom continued to drop.
When Louise Francesconi bought her home at Tamarack in 2009, just as things were getting rough, she was looking for a good deal on a ski home near relatives. Instead she got a full-time job.
Francesconi, a longtime military contracting executive, became president of the homeowners’ association in 2016 and spent the last year negotiating to have a group of homeowners buy the resort’s assets — land and buildings, mostly — from creditors.
So, technically speaking, does this mean she went to buy a house and ended up with the resort?
“It sounds complicated, but it’s accurate,” she said.