‘Let’s do this right’: Gondolas & new hotels part of old Sun Valley plans. Focus now is what’s right for the future

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The Sun Valley Resort is billed as America’s first ski resort. After opening in 1936, it brought a dash of St. Moritz to the mountains of the Wood River Valley.

The original lodge building went up in a single year, behind the hard-charging effort of resort founder and Union Pacific president Averell Harriman. The next year, the Challenger Inn opened – now known as the Sun Valley Inn, setting the footprint for the Sun Valley Village that is largely intact today. But in the last 80-plus years, the resort has expanded in ways big and small. If a visitor in 1936 were to magically teleport to 2022, they would recognize the glass-walled pools and simulated wood concrete walls of the resort, but nearly everything else has changed and developed.

ALSO READ: New Sun Valley leader talks first seasons on the job, opportunities, challenges and what Carol Holding told him about the future

In 2008, the Sun Valley Company and the Sun Valley Symphony opened the Sun Valley Pavilion, a soaring outdoor performance venue backed by an expansive lawn for world-class summer performances. It was a keystone of a 20-year period of major investments in upgrades and improvements:

But today, the “Future Plans” section of the Sun Valley website is a list of plans realized.

More to come

Sun Valley Company Vice President and General Manager Pete Sonntag says there’s more to come.

“Two years ago the world changed and no one was thinking about spending money on capital expenditures,” he said. “We were thinking maybe they wouldn’t for a long time. And here we are a couple years later and that thinking has shifted completely.”

Right now, leadership is looking at old plans, thinking of current needs, and assessing where to go.

“We are definitely of a mindset that we always want to push, we always want to get better,” Sonntag said. “There will be things we’ll be able to share soon, and it’s really us organizing our thinking and making sure we’ve got the multi-year message to put into place. But I’m very optimistic we’ll have some good news to share there.”

While Sonntag wasn’t ready to reveal what might be coming, he did say they are looking at the resort’s two key areas and finding the right balance.

Bald Mountain Sun Valley
Bald Mountain in Sun Valley. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev file

“If you’re familiar with the layout here, it’s pretty unique. You’ve got Bald Mountain off on its own – this beautiful big ski resort. Then you have the Village of Sun Valley which is a mile away, and you’ve got Dollar Mountain adjacent to that. We look at mountain improvements and village improvements. And there’s a little bit of a ‘where’s the priority’ with that discussion we need to have. We’re working on both of those things. I do think there is an opportunity for us to make improvements on the mountain.”

He said the Sunrise expansion, which had its first full season this year, has been “amazing”. Sun Valley Company, along with the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Foundation are in a multi-year healthy forests initiative, and they’re working to secure additional funds.

“The beauty of that is we’ve reduced the fire risk, we’re enabling the existing healthy trees to flourish – but the benefit that a lot of people are realizing, especially this year, is the benefit in the skiing experience. Now, all that terrain is accessible to ski and to snowboard that wasn’t before. December and January were unbelievable, with people getting into parts of the mountain they weren’t able to ski in 30 years.”

Old plans. New concepts.

Portion of a 2005 Master Plan for Sun Valley, which included a gondola system from the Sun Valley Village, to Dollar Mountain and on to Bald Mountain. Via USFS/ecosign

Older plans for the resort envision things like a gondola system that would whisk visitors from the Sun Valley Lodge to Dollar Mountain, and Dollar to the River Run base area.

Other plans included a four-star on-mountain hotel and additional lodging options in the Sun Valley Village.

Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, which did the 2005 Master Plan, said it was retained in 2020 to update plans for a Sun Valley Village renovation and that a “three-section gondola may finally be realized”.

Sonntag said he’s aware of older concepts, but is looking at everything with fresh eyes – and a look toward what’s needed now.

“You look at where you are in time and what makes sense. I was made aware of those plans shortly after I got here. Honestly, we’ve talked about (the gondola system). Does it make sense? I think it’s – there might come a day when  a gondola connection makes sense, but it’s quite possible there are other things that make more sense for us too.”

He said the Mountain Rides transit system in the area, which is free to ride and paid for with a local option tax, is “phenomenal” and that “people can get around pretty easily here.”

For mountain improvements, continuing to improve the experience is a focus.

“We are always thinking about ‘what’s our guest experiencing when they’re on our mountain?’ Are the lifts safe, reliable, comfortable — our lodges we’re truly famous for — and our food and beverage options.”

2005 plan shows a concept for the Sun Valley Village. The Sun Valley Lodge and ice rink are toward the bottom of the graphic in a grayed out color, with an envisioned new hotel and upgraded village to the north. Much of the plan hasn’t come to fruition and other upgrades have taken place, instead. Via Sun Valley Co./Design Workshop

In the village, he notes that many of the recent improvements have focused on the area around the lodge. The 2005 plan once envisioned redeveloping much of the village area, adding a larger hotel in the current parking lot with underground parking, and a new promenade.

Upgrades over the last few years appear to have made improvements to buildings that might have gone away in the 2005 plan. The Sun Valley Spa addition wasn’t even contemplated.

The sun above Sun Valley reflected in the Inn pool. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

“We have invested, both in the  Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn complete remodels in the past five to six years and that actually goes for almost all our food and beverage establishments in the village as well.”

However, there could be more changes ahead – but they want to take care not to change the overall feel of the area.

“We think there’s an opportunity to continue to enhance the product here in the village. For us, it’s about how do you maintain the character and the heritage and what makes Sun Valley so unique. Nobody has a feel like quite like the feel here. How do you modernize and update and not lose that?”

The idea isn’t to build Sun Valley into just another resort.

“It is always a discussion for us to stay true to who we are to not kind of go down the road of just kind of generic mountain towns. We want to be different and that’s been a big part of our success over the years.”

Ultimately, for Sonntag, and for the Holding family which owns the Sun Valley Resort, he says moving quick and making changes for fast returns isn’t the goal.

“With our ownership, there’s no pressure to do this tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s do this right. Let’s take our time and get to the right solution and when we feel like it’s right, we’ll go ahead and do it and when we decide to do it, we’re all in. We’re not going to rush to produce some short-term economic benefit. That’s just not how we roll.”

ALSO READ: New Sun Valley leader talks first seasons on the job, opportunities, challenges and what Carol Holding told him about the future

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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