The $15 million road is something of an engineering marvel. It runs a mere 3.5 miles, but it required all the skills of highway builders to conquer the challenging terrain to reach Snowbasin. To this scenic byway in February 2002 will come thousands from all over the world to make their way to the mountain. And for six days they will watch the world's best skiers vie for the gold. Then they will go home.
As it has turned out, the road may cost taxpayers a lot more. That's because in April the fears of environmentalists proved to be well-founded. Shifting soil caused the pavement to break apart, creating large gaps, and the Utah Department of Transportation had to close the road for three weeks for repairs and install a new drainage system. Whether the road will require maintenance every spring, when it's most vulnerable to slides, remains to be seen. As for Holding, he's free to do what he's sought to do for 15 years—develop Snowbasin into a posh resort.
Holding, to be sure, offers a different version of these events. Clint Ensign, Sinclair Oil's vice president for government relations and a spokesman for Holding, concedes that the coming of the Olympics expedited the land exchange his boss had sought. Ensign says, however, that Games organizers and politicians were the driving force behind the exchange. "Civic leaders and the Olympic people came to Mr. Holding and said the only place we can hold the Olympic [downhill] is at Snowbasin," he says, pointing out that that group and Holding's oil company mounted the lobbying campaign in Washington.
As for the access road, Ensign acknowledges that Holding had agreed to pay for it in the 1980s, but by the time the land exchange was approved, "circumstances [had] changed significantly." In addition to letting SLOC use Snowbasin for the Games, Holding was urged to make substantial improvements at Snowbasin. "The city also encouraged him to build a hotel in Salt Lake to accommodate the visitors who would come in," says Ensign. "So he was being asked for a lot. And he talked about that with the civic leaders, and he felt [the access road] was no longer his responsibility."
Over the last few years Holding has transformed a 10-acre plot into the hotel that civic leaders had asked him to build for the Olympics. His 24-story Grand America Hotel, which opened last spring, is the first Utah hotel to aspire to five-star status. The white granite tower has 775 rooms, including 395 suites, and a wealth of amenities. "Garden suites provide private balconies overlooking lovely landscaped terraces and a sparkling swimming pool," according to its website. "Opulent suites feature welcoming foyers, graceful French doors leading to the bedroom and imported marble bathrooms." Suites start at $365 and go up to $3,500 a night for the penthouse.
Don't bother trying to book rooms at the Grand America for the Olympics next February. The hotel is sold out—to corporate sponsors, VIPs and the official broadcaster of the Games, NBC, for whom it will serve as headquarters.
Holding has not revealed the cost of the Grand America, though estimates range up to $200 million. Whatever the figure, the quiet word around Salt Lake is that Robert Earl Holding paid for it all—in cash.