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Homeowners resurrect ski season at Northwest resort

Idaho’s Tamarack Resort is once again alive with skiers and snowboarders. But the happy scene didn’t come easy.

Tamarack is one of the most glaring casualties in the region from the bursting of the real estate bubble. Homeowners at the bankrupt resort are bootstrapping the once heralded ski area back into business.

Exuberant skiers and snowboarders lined up for the first chair ride of the season Monday at Tamarack Resort, near Boise. They turned their focus to more than half a foot of fresh powder snow.

John Link of McCall, Idaho tried to forget the messy bankruptcy that idled the ski area for much of two seasons:

“I can hope that this is beginning of better things to come. Yeah, so I’m hoping that once the real estate market picks back up, this thing will get running and we’ll get the unemployment down in this valley. It should help the whole area.”

How Tamarack hit bottom and came up again could make for a good business case study. Back when it opened, Tamarack was the first new destination ski resort in the U.S. in more than twenty years.

Like other newer Western getaways, Tamarack’s business model depended in large measure on real estate sales.

Margo Flaherty says she and her husband were the first resort employees to buy a house here. But when real estate went from boom to bust, so too did the resort. Flaherty was laid off with many others. She was just recently rehired to sell lift tickets:

“It’s been pretty lonely. We’ve had homeowners come up on the weekends from Boise, and we’ve got a few full time people, but it’s been really quiet. So this is really exciting.”

Flaherty says her house might be worth half what she paid for it, though her optimism is not as far underwater as her investment:

“I always thought of Tamarack as sleeping beauty. The prince isn’t here yet, but she’s starting to wake up.”

Flaherty is part of a group of homeowners keeping sleeping beauty on life support. The Tamarack Homeowners Association asked for court permission to sublease the ski area from the bankrupt owners.

The association restarted the lifts with a quarter million dollars of pooled dues. The homeowners hope to earn that back and break even through lift tickets, rentals and concession sales.

Resident Matthew Castrigno says the property owners hope an operating resort will be more attractive to a new buyer than a dead one:

“I don’t know if someone will buy the whole resort or if it will get sold off in pieces. But either way, I think this shows anyone on the outside looking in that there is interest.”

The homeowners can’t paper over some signs of ongoing distress. The revived ski area is not using two lifts that Bank of America is trying to repossess and take away. The base village is a ghostly square of half-completed condos and restaurant shells.

Ski rental and retail manager Wolfe Ashcraft says homeowners can bootstrap the resort only so long:

“Well you know we’re set up on a one year operating plan for right now. I would say it’s not the most viable plan for long term, but it’s working for what we’re doing this year and we’re really excited.”

Scads of lawyers, banks and creditors continue to wrestle about the long term in state and federal court. Any day now, a federal bankruptcy judge in Boise could issue a critical ruling. The judge could order the property into foreclosure, liquidation or give Tamarack’s current managers more time to find their new prince.

No matter what the outcome, this year’s ski season will likely go on. It’s one of the only things all of the parties like.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.