A group started by Snowbird and financed by other local companies and ski resorts is spending to promote a state-funded gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon. On the other side of the issue, a nonprofit is hiring lobbyists to fight the plan.
Snowbird, which would stand to gain from the taxpayer-funded project that would deliver customers directly to their doorstep, started Gondola Works to advocate for the creation of a gondola to stretch the full length of the canyon. Detailed renderings, slick commercials and policy advisors have advanced Gondola Works into the public eye, all while Snowbird owns land where the potential gondola would be based.
Then there’s Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon, which started as a nonprofit in 2021 and has collected tens of thousands from donors and had a political action committee (PAC) to dole out money to their preferred candidates.
The group isn’t just anti-gondola, as Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s president Michael Marker says they’re not keen on the other option for the canyon — expanding the roadway on each side to make bus-dedicated lanes.
Utahns have two options to resolve the traffic issues in Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to an ad being circulated by Gondola Works — a quiet, clean gondola with pristine views of the canyon, or an empty bus with garbage-filled seats and chewing gum stuck to its walls.
“The experience of getting to the greatest snow on earth, should also be great,” says the commercial’s actor before he balks at the entrance of a bus.
The two-minute ad is one of the well-produced commercials circulated by Gondola Works, which portrays buses as dirty and scarcely used. Commercials, online ad campaigns and public policy advisors appear to be where Gondola Works spends their money. The group declined to share information on Gondola Works’ financials.
Dave Fields, president and general manager of Snowbird, told The Salt Lake Tribune the organization came together in the summer of 2020 as the Utah Department of Transportation narrowed the scope of its environmental impact statement (EIS).
“That really started with us here at Snowbird,” Field said. “We have the most familiarity with gondola technology having the tram here.”
Fields said other groups that joined included Alta Ski Area, which would be another stop on the taxpayer-funded gondola, and CW Management Corp, which was co-founded by Chris McCandless, a developer and former Sandy city council member who supports the project. CW Management’s other co-founder is Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president who now serves as the state’s homelessness coordinator.
Last year, Snowbird quietly purchased two plots of land near the mouth of the canyon where the proposed gondola’s base station and parking lot would be located. CW Management owned the two plots of the base station land before they were sold.
CW Management owns an 8-acre parcel just to the south of the proposed gondola base station, though McCandless has denied any intention to develop the area into commercial or mixed-use properties.
Mike Maughan, general manager and president of Alta Ski Area, said he, Fields and McCandless have worked for years on how to best address traffic issues in the canyon.
Exoro Group and Love Communications, both of which are based in Salt Lake City, also joined the coalition.
Maura Carabello, a registered lobbyist and president of Exoro Group, a public policy firm, said her agency was hired by Snowbird to work on the Gondola Works project.
Tom Love, president and founder of Love Communications, told The Tribune his company handles placing Gondola Works’ ads on TV, radio, billboards, social media and direct mail. However, Love said his firm did not film or produce the promotional videos for the group.
When asked about the financial dealings behind Gondola Works, Fields declined to offer details, but said they’re not taking donations. Carabello and Love also declined to provide financial details to The Tribune.
Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon
Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon has largely spent their money on lobbyists and public ad campaigns, all while taking donations as a nonprofit. The group is keenly aware UDOT can only make a recommendation on what to do with the canyon, while state lawmakers will have the final say.
“We’ve known from day one that this is going to the Legislature, and so we’re engaging in ways to educate legislators that are involved in the decision making process of why this is not a good idea,” Marker told The Tribune.
Marker said his group started among people in his neighborhood before it quickly grew. The group has four board members and a volunteer group that meets on a regular basis, according to Marker. He added that no one within Friends of LCC is paid, aside from the lobbyists the organization hired, and said the group does spend money for social media campaigns.
Marker told The Tribune that Friends of LCC also had a political action committee (PAC) beginning in September 2021 — when the group was founded — until it dissolved in May, as the group is no longer making political donations this year.
Campaign finance reports show they paid over $30,000 to Morgan May Public Affairs, a political consulting firm in Sandy. Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon is listed online as clients for Taylor Morgan and David May, the two who founded Morgan May. In 2022, the group paid Avalaunch Media, a Lehi-based marketing company, $5,000.
The group contributed to two political campaigns in 2022. It gave $2,500 to Sen. Kirk Cullimore’s campaign and $1,500 to Rep. Robert Spendlove’s campaign.
Marker said the group is opposed to the gondola on a fiscal standpoint, saying the construction would cost the state over half a billion dollars.
Those who frequent Little Cottonwood Canyon have likely seen banners and yard signs in opposition to the gondola near the mouth of the canyon. Marker says those come from the group, and volunteers handle their social media campaigns.
“One of our members teaches social media campaigns, plus we are advised by our public affairs consultants,” Marker said in a text message. “Two other members have previous experience forming and developing nonprofit organizations.”
As of Friday, it’s still unknown if the campaigns and lobbying efforts will have an impact on UDOT’s recommendation. The department’s final EIS, which will choose either expanded bus service or building a gondola, is still scheduled to come out this summer. Either route will cost the state over $500 million.