Grand County's languid real estate recovery gets spur from developers
Several new construction projects underway in Winter Park promise to bounce Grand County back from the recession
By Jason Blevins
The Denver Post
The Denver Post
Posted:Sun Feb 28 00:01:00 MST 2016
WINTER PARK — In the last couple of years, real estate sales in Colorado's resort communities have enjoyed healthy rebounds from the recession, climbing close to the heyday peaks hit in 2006 and 2007. Grand County's Granbv, Winter Park and Fraser, however, have lagged in that celebrated recovery.
Want to buffalo a broker or daze a developer in the Fraser Valley? Ask them why that is.
"That's been an enigma a little bit," said Walter "Buz" Koelbel Jr., whose 17-year-old, 1,100-acre mixed-use Rendezvous project wraps around both Winter Park and Fraser. "I'm a little surprised it has taken as long as it has when you look at our proximity to Denver."
It's a well-named place, Grand County. With a growing network of trails, relatively affordable homes, a river, lakes and Rocky Mountain National Park nearby, as well as one of the state's most trafficked ski areas, the valley offers just about everything Colorado has to offer within 90 minutes of downtown Denver.
That the valley has been slow to bounce back from the downturn is baffling, especially in the context of vibrant revivals and new development in other resort communities such as Vail, Summit County and the Roaring Fork Valley.
That's about to change, as almost a dozen new construction projects in downtown Winter Park and even more down valley appear ready to spark a boom.
"This is our time. I think this is Grand County and Winter Park's time to shine," said Jack Gerstein, who has spent 40 years in the valley, the first 25 as a ski shop owner and the last 15 as a real estate broker. He has clients who just bought in Winter Park and call their new hometown "West Golden."
"We always had the rooftops and were short on restaurants and shopping," he said. "That is changing quickly with all of the new projects coming out of the ground."
A lot is happening in Winter Park. In November, Winter Park and Fraser voters approved sales tax increases to fund a new bus transportation and trail development plan for the valley.
Efforts are still ongoing to negotiate the revival of the venerable Ski Train between Denver and Winter Park, but even if that fails, Amtrak's California Zephyr train stops in both Fraser and Granby, offering rail access that skips increasingly clogged Interstate 70. New trails — considered the Fraser Valley's top amenity — are under construction, and more of those trails are groomed in winter, delivering year-round access.
At least a dozen new projects are underway or planned, promising to transform Winter Park's ragtag downtown that fronts U.S. 40. New projects promise to lure people from their cars, connecting the downtown with the Fraser River and filling the town with new homes that create the density needed to enliven a downtown core.
And as the town of Winter Park appears to be the spark for the transformation of Grand County, Bob Fanch is the flame.
Fanch is betting big on Winter Park. He always has. The former cable television and telecom entrepreneur assembled nearly 6,000 acres outside town in the early 2000s, developing the upscale Devil's Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa on a sliver of the sprawling wildlands. In the downturn, he bought a pair of inns and restaurants in downtown Winter Park.
Fanch and partner Chip Besse recently spent $10 million on the aging Beaver Village Lodge and about 170 acres of adjoining property at the southern entrance into the town of Winter Park, where, Besse said, the pair plan "something unique to Winter Park."
Fanch has been planning the development of two large parcels in downtown Winter Park since 2013. His crews are building a 10,000-square-foot conference and environmental center for the nonprofit Sprout Foundation on the north side of town. He is negotiating with tenants to develop a hotel and a grocery store in downtown, which could anchor more residential and retail.
Besse said Denver's explosive growth is creating opportunities in Winter Park, which is more closely tied to the economic peaks and valleys of the Front Range than other Colorado mountain resorts. Destinations like Vail and Aspen tend to attract real estate buyers from afar while the Fraser Valley draws largely from metro Denver.
"This is the closest major resort to Denver, and it's been underdeveloped for years," Besse said.
Besse said it is collaboration between the town and a variety of developers — all unified in a single vision to grow a more diverse mix of residential and commercial in a pedestrian-friendly downtown — that is rallying real estate activity in town.
"We've seen personal interests creating their own personal fiefdoms here for a long time," Besse said, "but now we are seeing a new generation of people who are collaborative and working on a master plan to make this town excellent."
For too long developers have waited for the ski area to take the lead on development projects that typically spark other projects, Besse said.
"But the ski area has been very isolationist and the town is now developing ahead of the ski area," Besse said. "I think we have figured out we can't rely on the resort."
Intrawest, which operates the city of Denver-owned Winter Park ski area under a long-term lease, has identified Winter Park ski area as a top priority for new development among its stable of six ski areas, said Winter Park's longtime manager Gary DeFrange.
But before Intrawest starts constructing new condos and amenities in its base-area village, it needs to sell the rest of its inventory in Fraser Crossing and Founders Pointe, two residential projects with a combined 206 units it started a decade ago.
"We are getting that inventory down to something that is much more normal, and now we are talking about new development," DeFrange said. "Intrawest has made the decision that it's time to start looking at new things, and its priorities are Steamboat and Winter Park."
The connection between the town and the ski area, which is separated by a couple of miles of U.S. 40 and little else, is very important, DeFrange said. But still, the company, which has to pay Denver annual rent based on revenue — a payment of about $3 million to $4 million — plus deliver on promised upgrades to the mountain, will be focusing its work on the base village property that was part of the 50-year operating deal with Denver.
"We have a lot of land here to be developed," DeFrange said.
The swell of construction seems to be having an impact already this year. New listings are up, and the number of sold condos and single-family homes has soared in the first two months of the year, with prices climbing 20 percent or more. Sales volume of condos in Winter Park is up 51 percent through mid-February, and the number of units sold has climbed 26 percent.
The building boom is pushing developers to get creative with construction. Developer Brian Novak established his own in-house construction division to finish his 96-unit Trailhead Lodges and start Arrow at Winter Park, a 56-condo mixed-use project with local "micro-retail" shops along downtown's main street.
He's established what he called a "man camp" of tradesmen in a downtown enclave of aging apartments, paying workers weekly to lure them from the bustling construction scene in the Front Range.
"We used to be able to easily bring them up here but not anymore," said Novak, noting how construction costs in the valley have skyrocketed after losing swaths of craftsmen during the downturn.
The frenzy of activity is luring new investors too.
Mark Kent, who calls himself a "Silicon Valley refugee," recently bought a trailer park and adjoining land in Winter Park that is a minute stroll from both the river and downtown.
"Winter Park grabbed our imagination," said Kent, a former tech executive who moved his family to Fort Collins from California. "We just really like the atmosphere here. It's a little more rustic with real people. It's authentic ... but it does need some promotion and rejuvenation in the real estate."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jasonblevins