Bank of America's leasing division is paying to dismantle Idaho's Tamarack ski lift.
BOISE, Idaho — Just seven years after helping install the one-mile-long Wildwood Express at Tamarack Resort, Paul Johnston is now pulling the $4 million high-speed chairlift off the mountain, the latest victim in the Idaho vacation getaway’s financial collapse.
Bank of America’s leasing division is paying Johnston, president of Highlander Ski Lift Services & Construction, to dismantle the lift after being stiffed by Jean-Pierre Boespflug, Tamarack’s majority owner, when his money ran out in 2008.
Tamarack, 90 miles north of Boise, is now in foreclosure proceedings in state court, and Boespflug, a native Frenchman, disappeared last year.
Johnston has 22 years of experience building chairlifts — and occasionally taking them apart — and said he isn’t celebrating this lift-repossession job just a few miles south of his U.S. headquarters in McCall, Idaho. But he concedes that he hated watching for the last three years as the Wildwood Express simply rocked idly in the wind.
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“I’m in the ski lift business, not the ski lift removal business,” Johnston told The Associated Press. “Ultimately, as sad as I am to remove it, it’s sadder to see a large $4 million machine sit there and grow cobwebs. There are a lot of interested parties. It’s like buying a used car. It’s a lot cheaper, but it’s a used car with very low miles.”
Some Tamarack lifts operated on a limited basis in 2011 and 2012, but Wildwood’s haven’t whisked anybody anywhere since 2009. The chairlift had only 2,000 operating hours on it; it’s rated for 30,000 over its lifetime.
The Wildwood Express’s main cable has already been spooled onto big reels, while its four-person chairs are snugly in boxes, awaiting transport.
Bank of America Leasing Corp. hasn’t said to where; an agent in San Francisco handling the deal declined to comment.
Johnston estimates that he’ll be finished with everything in a couple of months, leaving only concrete foundations. He’s still waiting on the helicopters he needs to tow off 18 lift towers extending 1,700 vertical feet up the mountain.
“It’s fire season,” Johnston said. “We’re having a tough time getting helicopters right now.”
Back in 2005, when Tamarack was busy celebrating itself as America’s newest destination ski area amid the expanding vacation real-estate boom, Boespflug boasted the Wildwood Express’s addition elevated the resort’s “status among U.S. destination ski resorts,” according to a news release.
The lift was located on the mountain’s north side, around the corner from the European-themed base area. A little remote, it harbored late-day powder stashes for experienced skiers. But it ran just three years, before Tamarack was shuttered the first time in March 2009.
Last year, some Tamarack homeowners bought another small ski lift from Bank of America for about $400,000, preserving ski-in, ski-out access to their slope-side villas for when the mountain operates four days out of the winter week.
But similar talks over buying the Wildwood Express failed.
Chris Kirk, the Tamarack homeowner who organized the smaller lift’s purchase, said the terms of a Wildwood deal just never added up. Bank of America wanted millions for a lift that, even once it was running again, would likely continue to cost operators around $100,000 annually while adding nothing to revenue.
Better let it go, Kirk advised Tamarack’s 389 homeowners.
“At the end of the day, I crunched a bunch of numbers … It just didn’t make sense,” Kirk, a Tamarack Municipal Association board member, told the AP, adding he favors Tamarack eventually installing a slower “fixed-grip” lift that costs less to maintain on remaining lift tower foundations.
The resort is currently in Idaho’s 4th District Court, awaiting a judge’s final foreclosure orders. Its biggest creditor, Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group, is owed more than $300 million.
Homeowners are hoping that once Tamarack gets to a sheriff’s sale, a reputable buyer will swoop in offering pennies on the dollar but with the promise of completing Tamarack’s unfinished, insulation-wrapped buildings — and replacing the Wildwood Express.
“In the long run, having the Wildwood chairlift there would be absolutely a benefit to the image of the resort,” said Rory Veal, a Tamarack homeowner and the resort’s former real estate sales vice president. “But its removal certainly isn’t a fatal proposition. The biggest factor in bringing Tamarack around is going to be the credibility of a new owner.”