Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Public actions of a private man


    Sun Valley was a very different place in the winter season of 1976-77.
    Lawsuits, strikes, rumors of sale and a winter in which it did not snow at all made it the kind of interesting time that embodies the Chinese proverb, “I thank God I was not born in interesting times.”
    Earl Holding bought Sun Valley in very interesting times.
    Sun Valley Co.’s investments in condominiums, the village mall, the hotels and the ski mountains had ground to a halt. Disputes between resort owner Bill Janss and development consultants brought high-profile Los Angeles attorneys into public arguments before local courts.
    Early and primitive snowmaking had laid an icy sheet over Flying Squirrel and Lower Warm Springs, but the rest of Baldy stood barren. Through it all floated rumors that the Walt Disney Co. intended to buy Sun Valley, followed by confirmation that the iconic mouse would not be coming to town after all.
    Into this soup of angst and financial loss stepped a total unknown.
    In any small town, rumors are a significant part of public life, but in a small town where one employer holds the fate of all others in its grasp, rumors about a change of ownership were big news. The only information available, however, was that Bill Janss had sold Sun Valley to the wealthy owner of Sinclair Oil, who seemed an unusual fit.
    This man, as Janss had before, held the fate of the whole community in his hands, but even finding a photograph of the new owner proved difficult. It was a somewhat rocky beginning for a relationship between what is inevitably a position of high visibility in a small community and a man as intensely private as Mr. Holding.
    Whatever visions Mr. Holding brought to Sun Valley, he did not share them. Yet, it didn’t take long for him to begin building his Sun Valley. It didn’t take long to be amazed at how much of himself and his considerable resources he was willing to put into an area that badly needed what he was willing to give.
    Over the years, he installed high-speed quad ski lifts all over the mountain. He converted snowmaking from an Eastern skiing oddity that seemed out of place in the northern Rockies to a state-of-the-art function that guarantees fresh snow every night and that helped save the city of Ketchum and its neighborhoods during the Castle Rock Fire in 2007.
    Mr. Holding’s changes reversed ill-advised modifications to the once elegant Sun Valley Lodge and refurbished the threadbare accommodations of the Sun Valley Inn. He built spectacular timbered day lodges on Bald Mountain, complete with leather and marble and English wool carpets. He transformed Dollar Mountain with Carol’s Lodge and first-class pipes, rails and terrain parks. He improved and expanded the resort’s golf courses and built a new golf clubhouse in the same elegant, spare-no-cost style of the other lodges.
    Perhaps most personal was the stunningly beautiful and acoustically amazing Sun Valley Pavilion, where Mr. Holding helped bring soaring music into the soul of this athletics-obsessed mountain valley each summer.
    Mr. Holding showed little interest in developing his open land, building new condominiums, or selling off pieces of the resort. Unlike his predecessors, he operated the resort year round, mixing tourist bookings with conventions.
    He enhanced Sun Valley’s romantic reputation when he installed the River Run gondola and opened nighttime dining at the historic Roundhouse. On the short trip up the mountain, guests today can watch as the lights of the little towns below recede and bow to the glittering diamond umbrella of the Milky Way into which they ascend on the trip to a four-star meal. The experience enchants visitors of every age.
    As the resort’s steward for 36 years, Mr. Holding owned the resort longer than anyone—surely a sign that he was as enchanted by the area as any of his guests. He leaves behind a lasting legacy of comfortable mountain style and quality that honors the area’s history and that will benefit all of us far into the future.
    We still do not know why Sun Valley Resort has been so reticent over the years to tell both the local community and the greater national and international markets for resort experiences what all has been done here and what the company is continuing to do. We cannot know exactly what the future will hold.
    What we do know, and have known for a long time, is that the very private Mr. Holding loved this area. He would not share his motives or his plans, but his actions proved as much. It was the best we could have hoped for in that bleak spring of uncertainty in 1977.
    Our condolences go out to his wife, Carol, and his family, whose grief is shared by the whole community. Mr. Holding will be missed greatly.




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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.