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Feted as Hot New Resort, Idaho’s Tamarack Goes Bust
Resort Shutting
BOISE, Idaho – Tamarack Resort in central Idaho billed itself as the first new destination ski resort in a quarter century when its first customers climbed aboard lifts in December 2004.

Four years later, the resort operation, including lodging, is shutting down Wednesday, leaving owners of resort real estate once worth millions fearing the worst.

Factors dooming Tamarack, at least for now, include a spending spree by French owner Jean-Pierre Boespflug that drained a $250 million construction loan, tight credit markets, collapsing resort real estate demand, foreclosure litigation and $20 million in unpaid construction bills.

Financiers at Credit Suisse Group are pulling the plug after a $2.8 million operating loss since Oct. 20 — "greater than the receiver (or anyone else) anticipated," according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

Mom-and-pop ski areas come and go, the victims of fickle weather and fickle finances. Where there were once more than 800 such U.S. resorts, there are now about 475.

Still, to find a failed Western resort approaching Tamarack's size and aspirations, Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, can recall only the 1974 demise of Stagecoach Ski Area, about 20 minutes from Colorado's Steamboat Springs.

"It hasn't happened in recent history," said Berry, who is following Tamarack's fortunes from his Denver offices. "It will be interesting to see if a rescuer comes along."

Tamarack, on the shores of Lake Cascade reservoir, has seven lifts. Of 2,100 planned chalets, condos and town homes, only 250 are completed, near a Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed golf course.

The Tamarack Municipal Association, the homeowners association that maintains roads within the resort, said it plans to keep the area open for owners but it's also cutting back staff.

In August 2005, Idaho's then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne feted President George Bush at Tamarack, offering the president a chance to fish and do some mountain biking. Kempthorne was later named Bush's U.S. Interior secretary.

Another 174 residences sit half done, a mountain lodge is similarly incomplete and the centerpiece Village Plaza required emergency measures late last year to protect it from winter's destructive forces. Tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf bolted from a luxury hotel project, and Bank of America threatened to remove ski lifts after Tamarack missed payments.

Flash back nearly four decades, to when Stagecoach opened in 1972.

A former Colorado governor handled the ribbon-cutting honors as hopeful locals looked on. There's even a nearby reservoir, and Stagecoach owners had Tamarack-sized visions, too: two dozen chair lifts, a golf course, five base areas and thousands of vacation getaways.

Two years later, creditors bolted and Stagecoach died, leaving behind three chair lifts, a temporary lodge and a deserted false-front Old West village, said Chris Wittemyer, whose family bought the property 30 years ago after the bankruptcy proceedings.

Some 200 condominiums and town homes were completed at Stagecoach, along with about 50 homes. Most remain, Wittemyer said, along with 200 homes added by newcomers seeking the rural lifestyle. These days, he takes enough guests up Stagecoach runs cut into Greenridge Mountain on snowcats every year to satisfy his U.S. Forest Service ski permits.

"We do enough to keep the permits alive," Wittemyer told the AP. "They burned the base buildings down about 25 years ago, after the bankruptcy. It's just private ground now."

Could Tamarack be the next Stagecoach?

Douglas Wilson, head of the San Diego, Calif.-based receiver running the resort since October, doesn't think so, despite a dour vacation home market, frozen lending, 38 percent fewer skiers than a year ago and a 67 percent drop in room revenue that led to the greater-than-expected losses and inability to find new financing.

"At some point when capital does become more available, people will realize there is a future here," Wilson said in an interview from his San Diego offices. "Unfortunately, they are going to have interim challenges. Big time."

Credit Suisse and lenders it represents are now owed more than $275 million on the construction loan. They've committed to chipping in $1.7 million, on top of a previous bridge loan of $10 million in November, but the money is well shy of the cash needed to finish the ski season, let alone open up the golf course, Wilson said.

As recently as 2008, Idaho officials aimed to relocate a Lake Cascade campground, to make way for Tamarack's planned $5 million marina, due to include 40 boat slips, tennis courts, a restaurant and refueling pumps. The state has since scotched the relocation and instead plans to improve the campground.

Meanwhile, George Bacon, Idaho Department of Lands director, said he has received Tamarack's $250,000 annual lease payment for the 2,100 acres of state land where the ski area is located. The next installment isn't due until January 2010.

"The real telling point will be next year, to see if the lease is going to continue," Bacon said. "If the lease were to end, the state could look and see if there was someone else wanting to take over what remained."
 
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