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Will Tamarack Open this Season?

Idaho's top officials to decide whether the public can ski Tamarack this season

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This time of year, Donnelly is a sleepy little town. There may be other hamlets that "talk the talk" when it comes to being laid-back or restful. But Donnelly "snores the snore." Two of the three restaurants in town are closed for weeks during what they call extended vacations. And smack dab in the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it downtown, when BW walked into a local real estate office at 1 p.m., a realtor was fast asleep at his desk (all the other desks in the cavernous office were empty). A huge bulletin board stood nearby, listing homes for sale, with asking prices of $400,000 to $1.5 million. What a difference a few years can make.

By 2007, the Tamarack Resort, just outside of Donnelly, had experienced half-a- billion dollars in real estate sales, and the ski runs were being hailed as some of the best in North America. That was then. Today, the resort is eerily silent: Restaurants are padlocked and half-completed lodges are abandoned behind ugly make-shift fences.

Ironically, there's plenty of talk this week about Tamarack up the road a piece, in the town of Cascade. That's where lawyers have once again gathered to resume the foreclosure trial against the resort.

"What do you do when you get 50 attorneys together in a room?" Brad Backus shook his head. As he sat in Vigilantes, Donnelly's favorite watering hole, it sounded like he was about to make a bad lawyer joke. "It blows my mind."

When it comes to Donnelly and Tamarack, Backus may have the most unique perspective. He's the mayor. He and his wife, Trish, were recruited to work at Tamarack when skiing began in 2003, and he helped manage the ski operations. She ran the ski school for kids. Life was good.

"We loved working there," Backus reminisced. "I even ran for mayor in 2007 and won. We thought it was the perfect environment to raise a family. Our daughter was born two years ago."

Unfortunately, right about the same time, things at Tamarack were falling apart at the seams. Majority owner J.P. Boespflug filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A receiver was appointed to oversee the operations, and on March 4, 2009, the ski lifts came to a halt. They haven't moved since. The employees left and the lawyers moved in. Backus stayed.

"Donnelly was here long before there was a Tamarack, and after Tamarack," said Backus. "And now here we are before Tamarack again."

Neither Backus nor his wife have received a call about coming back to work at the mountain, but they've heard about the group that is one step away from opening up the mountain again this holiday season.

That group is not the resort or the resort's owners. As a matter of fact, it's a nonprofit: the Tamarack Municipal Association, or TMA, which is made up of Tamarack homeowners.

"TMA divested itself from the resort and became completely independent," said Mike Carey, a Boise pathologist and Tamarack homeowner. "Unfortunately, people don't understand that there's a definite line between us and the resort. [Boespflug] made some questionable financial decisions. Because of his failure, he carries a very negative connotation, which continues to hamper us."

Tim Flaherty, homeowner and general manager for TMA said: "We originally hoped that things could get worked out with a potential new buyer. But of course that hasn't happened. We decided we couldn't go through another winter without being open, so we developed what I call a 'let's get open' budget. It's not a grandiose scheme that would have everything functioning the way it use to be, but it certainly would guarantee great skiing for the public, lessons, equipment rental, and food and beverage. But the State Land Board's lease could be a deal breaker."

Flaherty referred to the fact that the Tamarack resort leased much of the land it sits on from the state of Idaho. And like all of its other bills, Tamarack didn't pay its $250,000 lease payment in 2009. Add penalties and interest, and the bill comes to $310,000. Another payment of $250,000 will be due on Jan. 1, 2011. Considering how much legal maneuvering remains, a payment isn't expected anytime soon.

"But our plan actually includes money going to the state," said Carey. "Even though we aren't the lessee."

Carey, Flaherty and Scott Peyron of Peyron and Associates, a Boise marketing firm, outlined TMA's plan to BW that would see the ski lifts at Tamarack reopened on Monday, Dec. 20, remain open every day through the holidays, and then open on a four-day-a-week schedule until early April 2011.

"The resort is technically still under the direction of J.P. Boespflug," explained Carey. "He's a debtor-in-possession, so he still has control of the assets. We've gotten written permission from him to use the lifts and equipment for a ski season. Next, we got tacit approval from lenders, such as Credit Suisse, to use the assets. Now we have to get in front of the State Land Board as soon as possible."

The board is comprised of Idaho's top five elected officials: governor, secretary of state, attorney general, superintendent of public education and state controller. A majority would have to approve a special operating agreement that would allow TMA to get the ski lifts going again.

TMA's operations model began with 300 homeowners securing $250,000 in a special reserve account. Next, they plan on selling 1,000 season passes for $199. The passes are fully refundable if there isn't any skiing this season. Add day passes, equipment rental, and food and beverage, and TMA has an entire season's operating budget of $1.5 million.

"We just need the land board not to kick us off the mountain," said Carey.

Possibly the biggest selling point is something that an elected official likes to hear: guaranteed jobs.

"We'll need at least 75 employees to carry us through the holidays, then we'll have at least 65 remain for the full season," said Flaherty. "Valley County is really hurting. We're not in a recession, we're in a full blown depression."

"Our unemployment rate has been hovering right about 20 percent for a while now," confirmed Backus.

"I would hope that they'd hire some of the folks from right here in Donnelly," said Backus.

But Backus hasn't received a call yet. In the meantime, he started his own interior and exterior painting business. And his wife has already taken a job for the upcoming ski season. She and their 2-year-old will be driving up the road to Brundage mountain. That's where Trish will run the kids ski school and day care.

"If we don't get an OK soon, we're going to start losing potential employees with expertise," warned Carey.

They've already lost one.

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