Ogden resort development a steep climb
OGDEN - Chris Peterson remembers standing high on a ladder in a new ski lodge.
Balancing a glass chandelier in his arms, he would teeter for long minutes as his father-in-law and boss, Earl Holding, agonized over the number of links in the chain.
"And it was heavy!" Peterson says.
More than two years after leaving Holding's Sinclair Oil Cos., where he spent the better part of 20 years, Peterson describes those times as "fond memories."
But the 50-year-old Peterson is now balancing something much bigger than chandeliers - and perhaps more fragile.
He wants to build a small ski resort in a mountain basin above Ogden, as well as a gondola that would be the only way in, short of a steep hike or a helicopter.
To pay for his Malans Basin resort, Peterson wants to develop a broad patch of Ogden's foothills into a golf community with 400 high-priced homes - transforming a significant portion of this northern Utah city's east bench.
"It can be good for Ogden City, it can be good for Weber State University, and I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't going to be good for me, too," Peterson says.
Mayor Matthew Godfrey and a cadre of Ogden business leaders are behind him. They consider Peterson's project, as well as a connected gondola proposed to run from downtown to the foothills, an economic godsend.
But Peterson faces significant opposition from residents who say it's foolhardy for Ogden to give up one of its chief assets - open space in the eastern foothills - and who question the wisdom of Godfrey's desire to build an urban gondola they say is designed to deliver riders to Peterson's mountain resort rather than serve more pressing mass-transit needs.
WSU has promised to give Peterson's proposal - not yet formal - a hard look, although the growing university is not eager to part with a hillside that amounts to nearly 30 percent its landmass.
And there is this: Peterson's father-in-law, Sinclair Oil Cos. billionaire Earl Holding, has no interest in having Peterson's resort connect, over the ridge near the top of Mount Ogden, to Sinclair's Snowbasin Ski Resort.
"I have offered to provide him with briefings of what my plans are over here," Peterson says. "So far, he hasn't taken me up on it."
Elephant hunt: That Chris Peterson, now a household name in Ogden, isn't better-known has much to do with the man he worked for for 18 years.
"Earl was such a forceful, dynamic leader. He is kind of a one-man company, so a lot of people who worked with Earl would not be well-known," says Chase Peterson, Chris' uncle and a former University of Utah president.
As Chris Peterson puts it: "You certainly didn't get ahead at Sinclair Oil by getting your name in the paper."
Peterson's first assignment at Sinclair in 1987- to get an Arizona hotel approved and under construction in six months - was his first taste of one of Holding's signature traits: a penchant for deadlines.
The sprint to complete another Sinclair property, Grand America in downtown Salt Lake City, required back-office Sinclair employees to hand-sew the backs of the 100 percent wool carpet that arrived in pieces. Company lawyers assembled glass tables, and Peterson's daughters hung lampshades in every guest room.
Meanwhile, at Snowbasin, the last concrete truck was almost stranded by the first big snowstorm at the new John Paul Lodge near the starting gates for the 2002 Winter Olympic downhill races.
When Peterson worked at Trammell Crow, then the nation's biggest commercial developer, earlier in his career, he had great autonomy in buying the land, picking the contractor, supervising projects.
That's not the way Holding works.
"Mr. Holding has a very successful hands-on style," Peterson says. "Did I choose the architect like at Trammell Crow? No. But I was there taking care of the details."
And that was no small job in a company with properties - service stations, oil refineries, pipelines, hotels and ski resorts - in 22 states.
After the Herculean effort to finish Snowbasin for the Olympics, Peterson says Holding needed to pay attention to other parts of Sinclair's business, primarily oil refineries and a new Sun Valley hotel. The family patriarch hadn't the time to supervise construction of a hotel and condos at Snowbasin.
"I wanted Snowbasin to continue at the same pace it had been developing," Peterson says. That difference led to what Peterson describes as an "amicable" parting of ways in 2004.
Peterson borrows the analogy of an elephant hunt, used first by another Sinclair Oil employee, to describe working for Holding:
"You get to buy the rifle, hire the jeep, trek through the jungle . . . and get the elephants within range," Peterson says. "Sure, it's sometimes frustrating to have to hand the rifle off to the great white hunter who takes aim and pulls the trigger. But you know what? It's pretty fun being on the elephant hunt."
The developer: While residents who embrace Peterson's proposed Ogden project praise him as a developer of the highest caliber, skeptics say his long years in Holding's shadow make such a description difficult to discern.
"The burden of proof should be on Peterson to demonstrate that he has the ability to pull off what he's promising," says Dan Schroeder, a member of the Ogden Sierra Club. "So far, we haven't seen any evidence of that."
Peterson's uncle, Chase Peterson of Park City, counters that concern.
"He's a developer in the best sense of the word. He has taken care of the details. He has developed with an eye to the environment," says the former U. president, a longtime member of the Grand Canyon Trust and a member of the Utah Open Lands board.
Chris Peterson won't say whether he will rely on outside investors to help him buy the Mount Ogden Golf Course, and adjacent city and WSU land. But he insists he needs all that real estate to build a golf community lucrative enough to provide capital for the resort and mountain gondola.
"I don't have the deep pockets that Earl Holding has. I don't have an oil company to cover years and years of operating losses."
Though Peterson has registered dozens of limited partnerships with the state, he says his projects so far represent only a handful. He imports Central American lumber, primarily genuine mahogany, that he says is harvested through sustainable-forestry programs. And he has two other projects he hopes to do in Utah but refuses to discuss.
He has no employees and works from a home office. "Until this [Ogden project] becomes a real project, I'm trying to keep my overhead extremely low and work through consultants."
Peterson likens Snowbasin's resistance to fears, expressed in the 1990s by Powder Mountain, that Snowbasin's multimillion-dollar upgrade would ruin the smaller resort across the Ogden Valley.
"But Powder Mountain has more customers than ever before," Peterson says.
Holding's views on his son-in-law's ambitions are not publicly known. Clint Ensign, Sinclair Oil's senior vice president, says Holding does not grant interviews.
In an e-mail, Ensign said Peterson's real estate activities focused on land acquisitions rather than development because Sinclair has not been active in real estate development and sales.
"He successfully assembled more than 10,000 acres of mountain lands that were traded to the U.S. Forest in the Snowbasin Land Exchange," Ensign said, adding however, "The vision and development of Snowbasin has been and continues to be that of Earl Holding."
Peterson insists he would do nothing to hurt Snowbasin.
After all, his wife, Anne Peterson, is a co-owner, with her siblings and parents, of Sinclair Oil and, thus, the resort.
"I have too many of my own fingerprints on it," he says. "Having both resorts here on the east and west sides of Mount Ogden could be good for both of them."
California-raised Peterson has Utah ties, worldly experience
Chris Peterson was raised in Los Angeles, but his mother and father were native Utahns who happened to have the same last name. His mother, Martha Peterson, was from Logan, where her father was president of Utah State University for nearly three decades. His father, Nad Peterson, hailed from Sanpete County. Chris Peterson studied anthropology and economics at Harvard University, and earned a general-studies degree after taking a two-year break for an LDS mission in Central America. His first job was for a petroleum engineering company, linking the supply chain for construction of oil refineries in Venezuela and Indonesia. He eventually went to Stanford for a master's degree in business and, before joining Sinclair and Snowbasin, he worked as a management consultant and for a commercial-development firm. He married Anne Holding, who already had an MBA from Stanford.