Podcast #73: Tamarack, Idaho President Scott Turlington
How a once-shuttered Idaho resort is doubling its size, housing employees, and giving every kid in the county a free season pass.
Scott Turlington, President of Tamarack Resort, Idaho
January 24, 2022
Why I interviewed him
Because this was almost one of the great busts of American skiing. After its improbable ribbon-cutting in 2004 – the first major U.S. ski resort to open since Beaver Creek in 1980 – Tamarack fell apart. Torched by the Great Recession and an over-emphasis on real estate, the ski area was shuttered by a court-appointed receiver in 2009 and stripped of its Wildwood Express lift in 2012. A group of locals managed to re-open the mountain in 2010, but it tottered along on life support for years. For a long time, Tamarack looked like it would never be anything more than a marginal ski area in a great ski state.
But slowly, and then suddenly, Tamarack stabilized: replacing its lost quad, returning to a full operating schedule, and joining the Indy Pass. The new owners seem committed to investing and expanding. The ski area had its busiest day ever over the Christmas holiday. Positioned just over two hours north of rapidly growing Boise and in the midst of a plan to double its size, Tamarack is poised to join the big-mountain big leagues.
What we talked about
Scott’s background in government and how that helps him navigate the complexities of managing a ski area; the importance of compromise and the absolutist state of politics; is state land the key to building more U.S. ski resorts?; how Tamarack finally opened in 2004 after decades of delays; the amazing capital outlays necessary to build a ski resort; the energy and excitement as the resort opened; the ski area’s sudden failure just five years later; the tragedy of the court-appointed receiver suddenly shuttering the resort; how Tamarack re-opened against enormous odds; the “brutal” moment when Bank of America repossessed the Wildwood Express and stripped it off the mountain; how Tamarack brought a new lift in to replace Wildwood; how the new ownership group differs from past owners; Tamarack’s updated master plan and a potential development timeline; the massive, 2,100-acre terrain expansion; the length and rise of Tamarack’s proposed gondola; the position of the gondola midstation; the Grouse Bowl lift and the importance of adding more black-diamond terrain; why the Banana Bowl terrain will now be hike-to, rather than lift-served, as an old draft of the master plan had proposed; the contained, mid-mountain blue and green pods around Poison Creek and what sorts of lifts will service them; how Tamarack laid out its new trails and lifts; what to expect out of the ski area’s new southern base area; what liftlines?; extending the Wildwood lift and when that could happen; Tamarack’s current snowmaking plant and its expansion vision; why it took so long to get the village open and how that center will evolve over time; the mountain’s ambitious and novel employee-housing complex; RFID and the huge data opportunity in skiing; why Tamarack joined Indy Pass and why the resort has no blackouts on the pass; why Tamarack keeps a limited number of reciprocal pass partnerships; why Tamarack gives free season passes to every kindergarten through 12th-grade student in its home county and one adjacent school district; and why the resort made its Discovery chairlift free for everyone.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Because the past is past, and Tamarack, finally under stable ownership and chasing the momentum of the Covid-era outdoor boom, is moving ahead with a monster expansion plan. Here’s what Tamarack looks like now:
And here’s what it would look like at full build-out (current lifts are on the right; proposed lifts are on the left):
This will double the ski area’s size and blow out terrain for all abilities. As the population explodes in the American West and destination skiers increasingly descend, the region is desperate for more capacity. Tamarack’s expansion would be the equivalent of adding a whole new ski area.
But the terrain and lifts are just part of what’s driving Tamarack’s renaissance (as odd as it is to apply that word to a resort that’s not even 20 years old). The mountain recently, finally, opened its base village. It’s about to start construction on one of the largest and most interesting on-mountain employee-housing complexes in the country. And Tamarack this season launched one of the most aggressive youth-access programs in the United States, giving free season passes to every kindergarten-through-12th-grade student in its home county and in one adjacent school district. Skier capacity, employee housing, access, affordability – skiing as a whole is struggling with these issues, and seems to have few solutions. Tamarack, independent, agile, and freed, finally, from the financial anchors of its past, is moving boldly to solve these problems. It’s one of the best stories in Western skiing.
Why you should ski Tamarack
Idaho is an interesting ski state. While it’s home to a number of large, snow-hammered ski areas – Schweitzer, Silver, Brundage, Bogus Basin, Tamarack – the state remains off the national destination track (with the exception of Sun Valley). Of its 16 ski areas, only Sun Valley and Schweitzer are on the Epic or Ikon Passes (another five are Indy Pass partners). That means, well, it’s all yours. As the resorts along I-70, in the Wasatch, and around Tahoe continue to stretch capacity like over-inflated blow-up toys, it’s time to venture out yonder and see what you can find. Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia are filled with ski areas with big vert, big acreage, big snows, and no skiers. Or very few compared to the mainline resorts that have been designated as Epkon petri dishes. Tamarack, with nearly 3,000 feet of vert and a bomber lift fleet, is one of these. If you can’t kill a couple days here, then I don’t know what to tell you.
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