Can Silverton’s Kendall Mountain become a regional outdoor hub, beefed up with more chairlifts and skiable terrain, night skiing and expanded cross-country trails, and even mountain biking trails and a whitewater park for the summer?
That’s what the town of Silverton is determined to find out.
“Kendall Mountain is a real gem for this community,” said Lisa Branner, spokeswoman for the town of Silverton. “But it is underutilized.”
Kendall Mountain is a low-key, small ski area, offering about five groomed trails and a couple of tree runs on about 16 acres, accessed from a single chairlift.
But the ski area, on the east side of town, stands as a mountain of potential for future recreational opportunities, Branner said, for both residents in Silverton and potential visitors.
In fall 2017, the town of Silverton started hosting a series of community vision meetings aimed at what residents wanted to see with the future of Kendall Mountain, Branner said.
These community sessions culminated in a viability study, conducted by SE Group, that was released in November, which lays out a number of options for future expansion of Kendall Mountain, and the attractions offered there.
For the winter, the community was clear in its desires: Expanded ski terrain, more chairlifts, increased cross-country trails and an improved ice-skating rink were the top priorities should any future development occur.
SE Group came back with two options that showed a feasibility study if the mountain was expanded about 300 acres on the low end of the spectrum, and another scenario where it was expanded by 800 acres on the high end.
At 800 acres, Kendall Mountain would be comparable to Monarch Mountain and Eldora Mountain Resort, both Colorado ski areas.
With the nearby Silverton Mountain Ski Area’s expert terrain already established, Branner said the hope is to hone in on beginner and intermediate trails at Kendall Mountain.
“There’s a big gap in what we offer here right now,” she said. “We have the opportunity here to fill in that gap in the middle and provide a well-rounded experience for families.”
But the study didn’t just focus on winter months.
Branner said a big part of the long-term vision for Kendall Mountain is being able to offer activities and events year-round.
That vision includes expanded hiking and mountain biking trails, more summer events and festivals, and even the possibility of a whitewater park on the Animas River, which passes by the base of Kendall Mountain.
The town of Silverton, in line with those efforts, recently built a disc golf course on the mountain.
Branner stressed that future efforts, while discussed in the community for quite some time, are in the early stages, and the study is meant only as a guiding document to evaluate which options, if any, the town may pursue.
“This is a first stab at talking about some ideas,” she said. “But it’s still really exciting.”
The process does seem to have community-wide support, Branner said.
The one obvious, major obstacle is funding.
SE Group’s feasibility study estimated a full build-out to about 800 acres could cost around $25 million. For the mountain to break even, it would need about 1,000 visitors a day in the winter.
So for any real progress in making Kendall Mountain the recreational mecca some envision it could be, it is going to need an outside partner, which raises the question: Would there be any takers?
“While it’s very early in the process, Mountain Capital Partners, which owns and manages Purgatory Resort, is interested in exploring a potential partnership with the town of Silverton to expand the ski terrain at Kendall Mountain,” James Coleman, managing partner of Mountain Capital Partners, said in a prepared statement.
Coleman purchased Purgatory Resort in 2015 and Hesperus Ski Area in 2016. He is also part of an investment group that owns four other resorts in Arizona and New Mexico.
Residents and business owners in Silverton eye the potential expansion of Kendall Mountain as a possible answer to the town’s winter economy woes.
For Silverton, which relies on tourism as its economic pillar, summer is by far the busiest and most profitable time. In winter, by contrast, many residents move to warmer climates and shut down business, especially with the lack of a main attraction.
Though Silverton Mountain Ski Area is considered the primary draw in the winter, employing about 40 people, its expert terrain is considered too niche for wide use.
Silverton Mountain owners Jenn and Aaron Brill did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said expanding Kendall Mountain would be a “game-changer” for the Silverton community.
“Any expansion to Kendall would absolutely directly benefit our winter economy as well as our quality of life,” she said. “Not only for Silvertonians, but also for our neighbors.”
Gallegos said community-wide there is a growing and concerted effort to diversify Silverton’s economy and attractions, mostly by taking advantage of the incredible outdoor opportunities.
“We are growing in population, and I do believe it is because of all these backcountry opportunities just within our own backyard,” she said. “We say we’re the base camp for adventure, and Kendall should be the center of that.”