Bring back the magic of the mountain at Taos Ski Valley

SANTA FE, N.M. — I recently had the opportunity to express my concerns about the future of Taos Ski Valley when I met with and then wrote to Peter Talty, who is the representative of Louis Bacon, Taos Ski Valley’s new owner.

As many readers know, my late husband Thomas Brownell and I ran the Thunderbird Lodge for 35 years before selling it in 2005.

In the beginning, the Taos magic for guests was the genuine feeling of being welcomed. To founder Ernie Blake and the early “Ski Pioneer” business owners, Jean and Dadou Mayer, Tom and me, it was of utmost importance that visitors had the best possible experience. Ernie was charismatic and a master of public relations. He created the “Ski Better Week” which generated weeklong stays in the lodges. Guests enjoyed themselves so much they came back year after year.

To preserve the history of Taos Ski Valley, the Hotel St. Bernard deserves a Historic Heritage designation.

In my time I have seen many investors and developers buy up land, build condo complexes with soulless architectural design, sell them off, and leave. Few of these developers put any consideration into giving guests a more memorable experience beyond just a sleeping room. This has resulted, in my opinion, in a slow, steady decline in visitors. As we, the pioneers, know, a great ski trip is more than staying in a fancy room. It is created when guests make new friends, enjoy a great ski school week, and experience real après ski activities in beautiful facilities.

Until a few years ago, Taos Ski Valley had a thriving night life. The Thunderbird was renowned for the Jazz Legends series each January; two-step lessons by Cisco, talent nights and magic shows added to enjoyment of the guests. As guests, staff and ski instructors socialized together, it created a unique feeling about the Ski Valley. In our condo-dominated village, we now lack social areas and safe, well-lit pedestrian walkways. Guests now have nowhere to go and, instead, spend evenings in their individual rooms.

Many small-business owners possess the same special qualities of our ski pioneers. They need to be supported as important members of our community. Cold Smoke Photography, Pizza Shack, Post Office, Andean Software, Mesas Edge, Chocolate Xtreme and Le Ski Mastery all struggle with high rent and limited patronage.

I feel very strongly that community meeting spaces are needed. These will also accommodate the summer schools and programs that provide the majority of off-season business for some lodges.

The current annual summer programs are the Taos School of Music (51 years, started by Jean Mayer and Chilton Anderson), the German Language School (38 years, started by Tom and Elisabeth Brownell and Professors Peter Pabisch and George Peters), the Jillana Ballet School (15 years), the Taos Opera Institute (5 years) and recently added painting workshops and high-altitude training teams that have been attracted to our special mountain village.

Our Mogul Medical Center, founded by Dr. Timothy (Quigley) Peterson, provides outstanding professional services for our community and guests. Quigley has saved many lives over the years. This emphasizes the importance of top-notch health providers, especially for emergencies. As Joe Westermeyer and Nancy Wellman, two long-time healthcare residents suggest, a medical advisory committee should be formed. Because financing medical services is apt to present more of a challenge in the future, the new corporation should provide free space for Mogul Medical as is common in most ski resorts. Taos Ski Valley could become a leader in the mountain ski/health field at minimal local cost, as they have done with avalanche control in the past.

The current major investors should work together to protect the charm of Taos Ski Valley. Thus, all plans and alpine architecture must be coordinated to conserve its character for the future. I am confident the new owner will find qualified, experienced people for some new positions and continue to employ the highly regarded local workforce. I have great hopes for the monumental project of renovating Taos Ski Valley and bringing back the mountain magic to this jewel of an alpine ski resort.

Elisabeth Brownell is a former co-owner of the Thunderbird Lodge and a Taos “ski pioneer.”

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