|By Anne Aurand, Anchorage Daily News,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 1, 2006 - GIRDWOOD -- The city is set to pay $400,000 to a group of Girdwood resort developers after bungling a deal that sought to transform Girdwood into a year-round resort.
In fact, says an ombudsman's report issued last year, the city could have owed Glacier Valley Development Corp. as much as $2 million.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich characterized the proposed $400,000 settlement with Glacier Valley as a small amount to pay to get back on track with plans to build a four-season resort on city-owned land in the community of about 1,800 year-round residents.
The settlement signals the beginning of new, better-coordinated plans for Girdwood's upper valley, Begich said.
City officials are sketching out designs for a golf course, nordic ski trails, more alpine ski area and housing: the proposed Winner Creek resort.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the $400,000 payment Tuesday as part of first-quarter budget revisions. The payment would come from the city's Heritage Land Bank, which gets money from land sales and leases.
The land bank owns about 5,000 acres in Girdwood, including acreage in both the upper and lower valley.
City bungling of the deal with Glacier Valley Development Corp. consisted largely of stringing it along, the report concluded.
Glacier Valley had leased some of the city's lower valley land and planned a golf course there. But the city failed to follow its own rules in its dealings with the development group, failed to follow through and then shelved the project, according to city ombudsman Greg Moyer.
The problems started in the late 1990s, according to Moyer's report. Begich said his administration inherited the mess.
Attempts at building a golf course on city land in Girdwood go back at least 20 years, said Girdwood activist Diana Livingston, first at Moose Meadows, near the Alyeska Prince Hotel. Opposition killed that plan. Then Glacier Valley Development Corp. tried a lower valley location. Those plans drew opposition and lawsuits too, before they crashed last year.
So now Livingston expects another fight when the next plans go public.
The main difference between the failed plans and new proposals is that the new plans move development to the upper valley.
In the upper valley, the golf and skiing would be adjacent to homes planned by the city and the owners of the Alyeska Prince Hotel. On the other hand, the lower valley has less snow and a longer golf season.
But location doesn't matter much to those who oppose this kind of growth in Girdwood.
"The people who were antagonistic against Moose Meadows also opposed lower valley development, and they'll oppose this one, no matter where it is," Livingston said. "But the bottom line is, HLB (Heritage Land Bank) is going to proceed with the development of their lands one way or another."
If it's not golf and nordic skiing, it'll be houses, she said.
"I want to see Girdwood as a four-season, attractive resort that draws people from all over," she said.
John Gallup, the Girdwood Board of Supervisors chairman, aligns with those who don't think Girdwood should go the golf course way.
"Basically I feel the idea of golf anywhere in Girdwood is just nutty," Gallup wrote in an e-mail. "People see it on the nicest day of the decade and envision it as a mini-Whistler, and they just ignore the fact of Girdwood's climate -- cold, wet, and muddy."
He's not sure that an alpine ski resort will fly either -- the place has unpredictable weather, he said. He said he thinks visitors would be drawn to a wilderness-like experience if the undeveloped land is left intact.
Begich said the experts -- developers -- have assured him the upper valley is the right location and that the whole concept will work.
Ultimately, a developer would buy the land and have some flexibility about what to build, but the city can attach some conditions to the sale, Begich said.
Eleven-year Girdwood resident Tracey Knutson, a former chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said she is worried about what will happen to the community. Housing is already too expensive -- this will make it impossible for "hamburger flippers" and other working-class people to live there, she said.
If it becomes all upper-end housing, the city will make more money on tax revenues, but the community of Girdwood will crumble, she said.
"If (the Heritage Land Bank) gives a bunch of its land to a potential developer for high-end homes, you're creating a genuine resort that will drive out the local people," she said. "It's a huge concern."
Begich said the lower valley could be used for more reasonably priced homes.
Ski resort developers don't make money on ski resorts, Knutson said. They make money on housing. That's why the resort's focus has moved upland. The ski hill and golf course would be adjacent to lands slated for houses.
Begich agreed that having the resort in the upper valley attached to residential areas will make the whole package more attractive to a developer.
"You have to have ski-in and ski-out housing," he said.
Before plans can go anywhere, the city has to settle with Glacier Valley over the failed project. The $400,000 payment is on the Assembly agenda for Tuesday.
When asked whether he expected the Assembly to approve it, Begich said:
"That's a great question. We've met with them a lot. I think they'll be happy to see this resolved. ... The ultimate goal is to think about moving Girdwood forward."
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