[Anchorage Daily News -
excerpts from a 08 October 2005 article titled: "Hatcher ski area's day
may be at hand" by Kyle Hopkins]
In late February
1988, half a dozen Japanese businessmen in dark suits waited in the
belly of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough building. Howling winds shook the
walls outside, where temperatures fell to 40 below. They arrived with
the notion of developing an international ski resort in the Valley.
"It's freezing, it's dark. You couldn't have picked a worse day to
showcase the place," said borough manager John Duffy.
That same night, Mitsui Ltd., a mega-corporation out of Tokyo, bid to
lease thousands of acres at the mouth of Hatcher Pass. Mitsui executives
dreamed of a sprawling, $221 million ski resort with eight lifts,
hundreds of condos, a dude ranch and even hot-air-balloon rides.
During a grim time for the state economy, when sinking oil prices
crippled property values, excitement over the Japanese conglomerate's
arrival hummed throughout the Assembly chambers.
"You could cut the air with a knife," said Jim Turner, a longtime skier
who owns Turner's Corner near Hatcher Pass and attended the land auction
as an advocate for a smaller, regional ski area.
Two years later, Mitsui's grand plans evaporated as studies showed the
giant resort wouldn't attract enough foreign skiers to pay for itself
and, maybe more importantly, Alaska lost its bid to host an upcoming
In 1992, Idaho businessman Fred Rogers appeared with big plans for a ski
resort at Hatcher Pass but little money to actually follow through. That
attempt failed too.
Today, another developer -- one of Alaska's biggest, Anchorage-based JL
Properties -- wants to try it again. JL would use Government Peak at
Hatcher Pass as the focal point for a regional Alpine ski resort,
commercial village and hundreds of new homes.
Could it really work this time? Other important questions remain
unanswered -- is there enough public support and political backing
behind the $41-million-plus plan, and can the Assembly and the developer
agree on a fair deal?
Proponents of a ski area hope that after two decades of wishing, the
winds are finally blowing in their favor. They have reason to be
Over the past 20 years, while the Hatcher Pass ski project languished,
JL Properties partners John Rubini and Leonard Hyde became two of the
most successful developers in Alaska, amassing a collection of office
buildings, apartment units and other holdings worth hundreds of millions
But ski areas are notoriously hard to launch, and borough officials say
no local developer would be willing to build one without plenty of
incentives. Sure enough, when JL Properties announced its plan for
funding the ski area in September, it called for millions in public
Nearly a quarter of the cash would come from the borough. JL also plans
to ask for an additional $24 million in financial assistance from
another public entity, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export
JL hasn't officially requested AIDEA's help yet, but borough deputy
mayor Jim Colver, a ski-area advocate, says the plan won't work without
the agency's blessing -- and its wallet. To that end, few developers
have as much insight into how AIDEA works and what it looks for from
applicants as JL Properties has.
Through the state Department of Law, JL Properties co-owner John Rubini
worked for AIDEA as a lawyer for years. Rubini was not a member of AIDEA
staff, but he gave legal advice and negotiated the terms and structures
of business deals, most recently on the failed Alaska Seafood
International project in Anchorage.
Two former AIDEA chiefs -- executive directors Randy Simmons and Riley
Snell -- also went to work for JL Properties. (Rubini says Snell joined
within the past two months, while Simmons has since retired.)
David Germer, a former AIDEA project manager, and Keith Laufer, formerly
the agency's deputy finance director, are both on the JL Properties
What does all this mean? In 2003, Rubini told the Anchorage Press that
JL Properties didn't work with AIDEA because of Rubini's past ties to
Things are different now, he said.
"I stopped doing legal work for AIDEA a couple years ago, so the
conflict ran its course," Rubini said in a recent phone interview.
Later, at his office in Anchorage, Rubini added that he never worked for
AIDEA on the previous attempts to develop Hatcher Pass and that his
company's ties to the agency pass every legal test.
Jim McMillan, AIDEA deputy director of credit and business development,
said Rubini's past work for the agency wouldn't help the ski area
project gain funding, but Rubini's reputation as a developer might.
"He knows how to take on projects, manage projects and have them be
successful," McMillan said. "That did play a part in us being
In the only public assertion of potential conflict of interest in the
project thus far, Assemblyman Bill Allen at the September Assembly
meeting questioned Colver's connections to AIDEA. Colver represents the
Hatcher Pass area on the Assembly. His stepbrother, Mike Barry, sits on
the AIDEA board of directors.
Borough Attorney Teresa Williams investigated and on Monday said there
is likely no legal conflict of interest.
Like the Alaska Railroad, AIDEA is a public corporation started by the
state. It exists to create jobs and boost Alaska's economy.
AIDEA is often linked to big, sometimes embarrassing projects such as
the dormant, $300-million-plus experimental coal plant near Healy. But
much of what the agency does is help small businesses by backing loans
through private banks.
That program helped fund the new Mat-Su Title office building on the
Palmer-Wasilla Highway, for example, and the Grand View Inn and Suites
along the Parks Highway in Wasilla, McMillan said.
Creating a Hatcher Pass ski resort won't be as simple.
A 2002 study administered by AIDEA described the ski resort business as
stagnant, reporting that the number of ski areas nationwide dropped from
800 to 500 over the previous 20 years.
But unlike earlier proposals, the latest ski resort plan relies mostly
on regional skiers instead of tourists. The idea is that enough people
now live in the Valley -- the population has more than tripled since
1980 -- to buy all those lift tickets.
Rubini said it also helps that the land to be used for the ski area is
now owned by the borough rather than the state.
Plus, the borough has spent $250,000 in matching funds toward paving
Hatcher Pass Road as well as provided the area with electricity and used
rubble from a landslide to start a parking lot for future skiers.
That means the borough is already invested in the project. Whether it
should take the next step and commit more public resources to an
inherently risky proposal is another question.
At least one initial doubter has become more optimistic.
On Sept. 20, Allen said he saw problems with JL Properties' plan: It
asked too much of the borough and didn't give enough in return. Monday,
Allen said he's taken a closer look at the proposal and, while far from
perfect, it's a better deal than he'd thought.
"I think we're awfully close to being able to say yes," Allen said.
Duffy, the borough manager, said that if this attempt at a ski area
fails, the borough would just have to try again.
But Turner, who, like Duffy, watched past ski-area developers come and
go over the decades, says that with heavyweights JL Properties and AIDEA
involved, it may be a question of now or never.
"If they can't do it, this project isn't going to happen," he said.
[Anchorage Daily News -
excerpts from a 21 December 2007 article titled: "New Plan in Works
for Hatcher Pass" by Rindi White]
Developer expects details in February or early March.
Heads up, ski fans.
A new plan for nordic and alpine ski runs at Hatcher Pass should be
unveiled in late February or early March.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday approved a $50,000
contract with Ron Swanson, former director of Mat-Su Community
Development, to work on the plan. Swanson is working as the borough
representative while contractor Dowl Engineers study soil data and other
environmental information on land the borough owns and manages in the
Hatcher Pass Public Use Area.
Swanson on Thursday
said he's also drawing up a new plan for Hatcher Pass development, which
he hopes to complete by early March.
"It's what I'm
calling the new beginning," Swanson said.
For more than 20
years, a ski area at Hatcher Pass has been a dream in progress.
An early campaign by
Tokyo mega-corporation Mitsui Ltd. to build a $221 million, eight-lift
ski resort to host an upcoming Winter Olympics failed feasibility
studies. Other developers have tried over the years, most recently a $42
million residential, nordic and alpine development plan by Anchorage
developer JL Properties.
"We're trying to
learn from the mistakes of the past, basically, and start over again. We
tried a private developer and that didn't work. We tried public-private
partnership, that didn't work," Swanson said.
The new plan is for
a borough-built facility, privately operated, he said.
"We don't want to be
operating this whole facility with borough staff," Swanson said.
JL's plan, keeping the Olympic-quality nordic facility while downsizing
other pieces, such as a day lodge at the alpine ski area. Swanson's
plans include three ski lifts in the alpine area, but he said it's too
early to say what types of lifts or how many groomed acres will be in
his new plan.
Those details will
depend on operational and capital costs, he said.
however, his plan does not include residential development, a key
feature of previous development proposals.
The idea of a
subdivision is too controversial, Swanson said, and it's not clear what
kinds of septic systems or other infrastructure soils in that area will
Borough Manager John
Duffy on Tuesday told the Assembly he's looking for state funding
sources, such as the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
A financing plan is
not ready, he said.
Michelle Church said she worried approving Swanson's contract amounted
to paying for more study on an already over-studied project.
Bettine said the plan to use Swanson's knowledge of the project seemed
Swanson said he was
eager to work on the project because he wants to see lifts up and