TAOS SKI VALLEY – Amid whirring saws, pounding hammers and the clanking of heavy equipment, an army of construction workers is completing a luxury hotel here, the centerpiece of a vision to take this venerable, European-style ski resort into the future with upgraded amenities under the auspices of its new billionaire owner.
The valley’s plans began with the opening last year of the Kachina Lift, one of country’s highest ski lifts, built at a cost of about $3 million, with cash pumped into the valley by hedge fund founder, outdoorsman and environmentalist Louis Bacon. The new lift allows expert skiing on terrain that previously had required a 45-minute hike.
Plans to make this resort a four-season destination follows a nationwide trend for ski areas. But Taos, under newly hired CEO David Norden, is vowing not to stray far from its roots – roots planted by German emigre Ernie Blake, who founded the resort in 1954 after scouting the location from a small plane.
“So, if you are talking about the vision or the future, it is not to become a mega-resort, it is not to become the glitz and glam center of the mountains. Intimacy is always going to be important,” said Norden.
Norden is a resort/real estate executive who has been involved in upscale developments, some at ski areas, in Vermont, Colorado and elsewhere, including La Estancia de Cafayate, a residential vineyard estate and boutique hotel with golf, horseback riding and polo in Argentina. Norden takes over from Gordon Briner, who is now chief operating officer for TSV.
Norden, 56, wants to tap into the cultural and artistic DNA of Taos as he shepherds the enhancements.
He has skied Taos before and worked on real estate development there with the Bacon group before Bacon purchased the resort in 2013 from the Blake family. Norden was recruited for the valley’s CEO job via telephone.
The essence of that conversation with a Bacon associate was, according to Norden, “Taos is ready to move from a ski area to a little bit more of a well-rounded resort,” with the increased services and amenities that visitors were looking for.
“We talked about a very strong environmental ethic, all the while doing our best to retain what is known as the Taos mystique. It’s a very soulful and spiritual place … so it’s that balancing act of trying to bring a place forward while trying to maintain a lot of the roots and history of it,” Norden said.
Among Norden’s career stops is Stowe, Vt., where Taos Ski Valley’s Ernie Blake also had a history.
“Stowe is also an iconic, historic resort. I loved the story that Ernie Blake met his wife Rhoda on Mt. Mansfield … and then they moved West,” said Norden.
“So Stowe is a legendary resort in the East that has gone through a transformation, so to have that as the experience – to see something that was kind of stagnant for a while go through the transformation – I think that made it interesting to have somebody like me involved here.”
The question, he said, “is how do we manage that change” and “come out the other end, and hopefully the owners and all the stakeholders involved are excited about.”
The Blake, the new hotel, will be a four-story, 145,000-square-foot building in the center of the TSV base area with ski-in, ski-out access to Lift 1 that takes visitors to the top of the famed Al Run.
The hotel is being built on the footprint of a building that formerly housed ticket sales, the ski/snowboard school and retail space. A heated, plaza-level area will connect it with the Resort Center, the valley’s main building.
The Blake will have 80 rooms, a heated year-round outdoor pool, two hot tubs, a spa and wellness center, and a restaurant. The pools will overlook a new river walk along the valley’s Rio Hondo.
“It’s a huge structure,” said Jim Sullivan, who owns the Black Diamond Espresso kiosks in the valley. “When it’s said and done, it’s going to be real nice.”
Rates for 65 standard rooms and 15 suites range from $259 for a standard during low season to $1,499 for a two-bedroom suite during high season.
What look was TSV going for with the new hotel? It’s a mix of Taos-area influences, says the ski area’s promotional materials.
“The hotel’s unique architecture, design, featured artwork, service and cuisine all spring from the woven texture of the resident European, Hispanic and Native North American cultures that meet in Taos,” a statement says. “The result is a sense of place that cannot be imitated, with traditional alpine architecture lending a rustic European elegance that is folded into a colorful New Mexican design aesthetic.”
The lobby will contain Native American art and works by Taos Society of Artists’ founders Oscar Berninghaus and E. Martin Hennings.
Construction of the hotel began in April 2015 and guest reservations are being accepted for stays starting Feb. 1.
Norden said the valley’s tight topography dictates denser development.
“We are in a very, very tight valley,” he said. “… With steep mountain walls on both sides, there are not a lot of places to go here.” At least two more multi-level buildings, with condos above and retail below, are planned.
The hotel is expected to employ 75 full- and part-time employees, including a guest services ambassador, or hausmeister, who will greet visitors, manage their check-in, and arrange for lift tickets, lessons, child care and dining reservations. TSV overall expects to employee more than 800 people during the upcoming ski season.
Making ski areas viable for 365 days a year is a universal challenge, Norden said. Some ski areas are going to things like zip lines, water parks and wave pools.
“I think, here, we are trying to find that blend of what works best with this mountain and with this environment,” he said.
“The mountain environment is extraordinary in all four seasons, not just winter, so, as the (guest) beds increase, you are looking for the ability to fill those beds not in one season but year-round, so to have activities and amenities to round out through the seasons,” Norden said.
California’s Squaw Valley has a controversial plan to add $1 billion worth of rooms and retail, and a 90,000-square-foot indoor adventure center and water park.
Norden sees Taos differently. “I think you would see maybe something more on the cultural side than you would on – if you call a zip line an amusement ride – the amusement side,” he said.
“It’s a mountaineering area. If you have think of why people have been drawn to Taos, it’s the culture, it’s the history, it’s the mountaineering. And I think those are things we can build upon as we go forward.”
Discussions are ongoing about how to draw on the uniqueness of Taos as changes are made.
“I believe a lot of resorts today, they are starting to become a little bit of a commodity … a little bit more homogenized and here we are going to be able to differentiate with the things that are already here.”
And what does the boss think of the progress so far?
“He is aware of what’s happening,” Norden said of Louis Bacon. “He loves to be here, when he’s here he loves to ski … he’s not in the nitty gritty details.”
A ski valley spokesman declined to say what it cost to build the new hotel. Jaynes Corporation of Albuquerque is the contractor, and Zehren and Associates of Avon, Colo., is the architect.