Living the Dream: Taos Ski Valley’s David Norden Talks
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
This week we sit down with Taos Ski Valley’s CEO David Norden to talk about how the pandemic is affecting them, their future development plans, their relationship with the Village of Taos Ski Valley, his concerns over global warming, and other issues. Plus, we take a look at regional conditions at the end of the story — hugely improved after this week’s multiple storms.
David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, is pretty upbeat these days, despite the challenges of trying to run a ski area in the midst of a global pandemic. When asked if he discouraged by the situation, he put on a brave face during a recent interview at New Mexico’s world-class skiing destination.
“It is not discouraging at all,” he said. “I think the state has done an outstanding job putting together a certification program for all kinds of businesses, including ski areas, that allow you to operate. I think we have six certifications in all. We follow these protocols and procedures, and they work. We need to test half of our staff every week, and after opening in early December, we’ve had zero cases. Zero. At the beginning we kept saying how we lucky we were, but then we realized, no, this actually works. Keeping people outdoors really is key; we have no indoor dining, no indoor anything. We’ve had people go home because there is no après ski. We have asked our staff to take a pledge that applies to both on-site and off-site activities, and to follow the state’s protocols, which means no large gatherings, no parties, and wearing masks. We’re running zero positivity rates; it works.
“We’ve had people get pretty fed up when we’ve ask them to put their masks up, but we’ve had others get fed up because they think we are not doing enough to make patrons wear masks. (Though there are signs everywhere noting the mask requirement.) So, skiing is proving to be a safe thing to do. It’s great for mental health, and has helped keep the local economy moving.”
Norden did note that the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors, which has been lifted since our interview, “has hurt. Business is down, a lot. That’s been the big one.” While TSV is allowed to operate at a quarter of capacity, he said, “We haven’t even gotten to that level yet. That’s problematic for us and other businesses that rely on skier visits but we’re dealing with it.”
He explained that businesses costs have not significantly gone down either; in fact the cost of doing weekly testing for hundreds of staff and other procedures have actually created new expenses. “But our goal was to open and stay open and we’ve done that,” Norden said. “If you’d asked me eight weeks ago if this would work, I couldn’t have told you definitely ‘yes’ because no one has operated a ski area in a pandemic before. About the 14-day quarantine, we think it should not be about where you’re from, but how you behave. If people come here from out of state, or in-state for that matter, and follow the protocols you can run a safe operation.”
Shifting topics, Norden noted they are embarked on a number of facility improvements, chief among them the construction of the Blake Residences, a complex of 24 condominiums with retail shops at ground level and an ice-skating rink. Crews of workers swarm all over the building from dawn to dusk, and just across the walkway from the condos a building to house a conference and meeting center is nearing completion. It is expected to be finished in late spring.
Taos Air, launched in summer 2020 — with direct service from Dallas, Austin, Los Angeles, and San Diego flying out of small private airports, with ground transportation and rental gear provided, proved a great success. Norden calls it “the easiest route to the Rockies. It has benefited us, but also the region as a whole and other ski areas.” It has been suspended this winter but it will be back in service as soon as possible, he said.
B Corp and Forest Thinning
“We also continue our social and environmental programs in line with our certification as a B Corporation,” Norden said. TSV is the only major ski resort in the world to have earned this designation, which requires substantial efforts to meet strict guidelines for environmental and community improvement efforts.
“We can’t put that aside; it remains front and center,” Norden continued. “This summer we will undertake major forest sustainability projects, thinning our forests of small trees and removing standing dead wood to reduce wildlife risks and protect the headwaters of our rivers and streams.”
The work will be carried out near Lift 8 and in the Minnesota woods area, just above Rubezahl Return. While the focus is on forest health, he also admitted it may eventually open up more tree skiing, so it’s a double win. He added that they will continue to “pick away” at thinning the already stellar Wild West Glades and other existing glades.
Norden said they will also continue to add to their summer programs, as the former “off season” has become an important aspect of the resort’s overall success. Last summer they premiered the Via Ferrata (Italian for “Iron Route”), a technical rock-climbing route along a series of fixed cables, metal ladders, and anchor points that operates on a guided-only basis, and a “Flo-Track” for mountain bikers that descends at a moderate rate from the top of Lift 4.
“Both of those activities are accessed from Kachina Basin, and we continue to look at Kachina and how to improve that access point to the adjoining wilderness, to Wheeler Peak and Williams Lake. We want to keep a nice natural feeling there, and protect its wetlands,” Norden said.
Since assuming control of TSV in 2014 from its founders, the Blake family, Norden has overseen construction of three chairlifts, including their first high-speed detachable and a short gondola. This spring TSV is required by the U.S. Forest Service (as most of the ski area is on federal lands) to release an update of their Master Development Plan. Giving us a “sneak peek,” he said they are not envisioning any more lifts but some they hope to replace, like Lift 4 (Kachina Basin). “Personally, I hope Lift 7A is never replaced; it’s a wonderful classic chair (a double with center post cut from a portion of an old lift),” he said. They will host public meetings and reviews of the plan, in what is a very complex and expensive process.
“We’ll continue to invest in snowmaking, to get the base down early in the season, and tying into that we hope will be a five-million-gallon water storage tank,” Norden explained. “In the winter we’d use it for snowmaking but in the summer it would double as a great fire suppression tool.” It would be located near Stauffenberg, and would flow via gravity. If a wildfire was approaching the village and base area from the west up the Hondo Valley, the existing snow gun water hydrants along Stauffie could be used in fire fighting, and combined with the treeless run itself “would make for a great firebreak,” he noted.
The Big Picture
“How to find balance is something we are always considering,” Norden said. “We are not interested in major growth. Our goal is to improve the property, and to find the sweet spot between economic, environmental, and social sustainability. This resort hits it peak visitation in 1994, and we’ll never get to that level again, and we don’t want to. We think it’s great to have uncrowded runs and little or no lift lines. We want to stay inside the natural carrying capacity of this tight valley and not push beyond that. That is a great differentiator, I think, between us and other resorts that have gone from ski villages to ski cities. That is not what we’re after at all.”
“We are very concerned about climate change, both its affects on us and for the planet,” Norden said. “The pandemic has set us back a bit on some of our initiatives, such as reducing single-use food containers. We also spent years trying to get people out of their cars and onto mass transportation systems, and now we’ve had to say, ‘Get off the buses and back into your car.’ All that has to change again going forward.”
He also envisions the fleet of vehicles TSV owns will go to all-electric models in the future, including their first hybrid electric grooming machine they are purchasing for next season. And while they’ve increased the number of electric vehicle charging stations from one when they arrived to eight today, they will continue to add more.
To help reduce driving by staff, they bought the Columbine Hotel in Amizette (at the western end of the village) and turned it into employee housing. “Work force housing is a big issue in many mountain resorts, and we are looking at other ways to address that.” He also hopes to institute a regional recycling program that will include the Village of Taos Ski Valley.
Their overall goal is to be net-zero (where one’s carbon output is negligible) by 2035, which could include buying green credits and using solar power purchased from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.
Relation to Village of TSV
Norden acknowledged that the Village of Taos Ski Valley and the ski area corporation, TSV, Inc. have butted heads at times, but feels their relationship is far better today as they identify projects and programs they mutually agree are needed and doable. “There had been almost no changes undertaken in the valley for many years when we first arrived, and I think we were moving at a pace that was unfamiliar to many people here. That made some parties uncomfortable.” Now they meet weekly with village representatives, like Mayor Cristof Brownell. “The more time we spend together, the better the relationship gets. It was strained a few years ago. The rumor mill is always churning and now we can quickly debunk myths” and keep both the village and TSV heading in the same direction. “There has to be some synergy at work here. The village would be a very, very different place without the resort, and the resort is reliant on good village infrastructure and governance.”
But he noted that the issue of Twining Road, the heavily traveled link between the village the Bavarian/Kachina Basin area, remains the purview of the village. The road raises a lot of dust for residents and is a major source of contention. Paving it will be a multi-million dollar project and it is the village’s responsibility, not TSV’s, says Norden. But, TSV can play a role, such as renewing a shuttle service between the village and Kachina. They had one in place before the pandemic but it was suspended.
“A more diversified economy here is important, and that is an interesting conversation that is underway,” he said. He sits on board of Taos Community Foundation, and on a Taos executive leadership committee that includes UNM-Taos, the hospital, Kit Carson and the public schools, so he is deepening his involvement in the larger local community. “Our relationships with the large-scale stake holders in the region have strengthened and that’s a good thing. They call on us and we call on them; that feels good. We’re looking for ways to give back.”
Home on the Range
Norden confirmed that TSV’s owner, Louis Bacon, founder of Moore Capital management, is still enthusiastic about his investment in TSV. “Absolutely. He loves to ski and comes out several times every winter with family and friends. He has a very long-range view and is pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far. He is a conservation philanthropist and believes greatly in our sustainability programs. He has a great passion for the sport, for the valley and the Southwest. We couldn’t be happier with his ownership, and his continued investment in the property and region.”
Norden himself is still very much enjoying life in northern New Mexico. “We’ve really settled in. Our two kids are out of college now, and while one is on the east coast and the other on the west coast, they come here for holidays. They were here from Thanksgiving through New Years and skied a lot. It’s become their new home. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place to be and if one has to live under pandemic conditions I can’t think of a better place to do it. We have big blue skies, open space and a government that is focused on things that actually work. We are so lucky to be where we are.”
Asked if he thinks he might retire here, Norden answered with a laugh. “I don’t think much about retirement; I have too much I want to do! But if you want to go that far out, my dream would be to spend a good amount of time every year in mountains and a good amount of time along a coast, probably New England, with a bit of travel elsewhere. There’s still a lot of skiing to be had, and there is no better mountain environment, I think, than here.”
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.
This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead