Expansion of Oregon Ski Area Draws Fire

Depending on who you ask, converting a rundown ski area into a year-round destination resort will either provide a financial boost to a county with a high unemployment rate or it will lead to the desecration of one of the last wild areas around majestic Mount Hood. Regardless of the opinion, the proposed redevelopment of the 75-year-old Cooper Spur Inn and Ski Area near Parkland in north-central Oregon has drawn a lot of interest.

More than 1,000 people recently showed up at a public hearing, descending on Hood River, population 6,000, from around the state. Project opponents were so vocal that county officials ordered them to wiggle their fingers instead of clapping or shouting.

The reason for all the distress is a plan by Meadows North LLC, an affiliate of Mt. Hood Meadows Development Corporation, to build 450 housing units, an 18-hole golf course, an ice rink, hotel, restaurants and biking and hiking trails on 780 acres the company has accrued. Proponents of the $120-million resort say it will bring millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Hood River County, which at 10 percent has one of Oregon’s highest unemployment rates.

But those living near Cooper Spur Ski Area fear the project will profoundly change their quiet community. The locals are okay with the existing 160-acre establishment, which only has 16 cabins, a few tennis courts and hot tubs. But Meadows North LLC, which operates the nearby Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort and bought Cooper Spur in 2001, wants to generate a year-round revenue stream for its two properties with the new resort.

“Our company is a seasonal company right now,” said Dave Riley, manager of Mount Hood Meadows. “It’s inefficient and it bothers me that we’re not able to provide year-round employment for our people.” Riley said the resort would create 200 full-time jobs and $2 million in annual tax revenue for the county. “In a county like Hood River County, that’s a huge windfall,” he said.

But a group of local residents called Cooper Spur Wild and Free is against the project, saying it will damage the local watershed, cause land values to soar, and negatively effect wildlife, including elk that winter near Cooper Spur. “If you have a destination resort, you will have an increase in land values, and we’re certain that will happen here,” said Mike McCarthy, who cultivates 250 acres of pear orchards nearby.

Coalition members are convinced land values will skyrocket as they have in such alpine towns as Vail and Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley, Ida. McCarthy and his cohorts believe the redevelopment of Cooper Spur will draw high-end real estate, changing the quiet, rural area for the worse. They cite the efforts of the ski industry’s so-called “Big Three” – Intrawest Corp., American Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts, which have 25 percent of the ski market – for the shift from recreation to real estate.

The conversion of ski slopes for housing is due to aging baby boomers looking for second homes and to a decrease in the number of skiers. The number of skiers who hit the slopes more than once a year has dropped from nearly 11 million in 1992 to 7.7 million in 2001. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, told the Associated Press, “The model that the Big Three developed and inadvertently pushed on the other areas is, ‘Here’s a better mousetrap.’ Other resorts find themselves believing they have to do the same thing to stay in the game.”

But Riley scoffed at the suggestion that Cooper Spur will become a massive year-round destination resort on the scale found at the other, more established areas. “I think the size of this resort is nowhere near what people think it’s going to be,” he said. “This is not Vail, this is not Sun Valley, this isn’t even Sunriver (Oregon). This is a regional resort.”