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Earl has bought a pearl
William Oscar Johnson
November 14, 1977
How much green did it take to buy Sun Valley? The resort went for $12 million, a bargain, and the man who purchased it is going to make it even more of a gem
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November 14, 1977

Earl Has Bought A Pearl

How much green did it take to buy Sun Valley? The resort went for $12 million, a bargain, and the man who purchased it is going to make it even more of a gem

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Sun Valley has long been an American institution. Not one of those newfangled, battery-operated institutions like Disneyland, Monday Night Football or We Do It All for You at McDonald's. Sun Valley represents lasting class like Grand Central Station, Yellowstone National Park, the Old North Church. But the Valley also is real estate, a sprawl of property, and as such it was sold last spring—lock, stock and Hemingway Memorial—for $12 million. It was a bargain.

The buyer was Robert Earl Holding, one of the richest businessmen in America—and also one of the least known. The early book on Earl Holding was that he was as unlikely a person to spend time at Sun Valley as anyone in the world. Holding is 50, is just learning to get around on skis, does not like publicity, does not hang around celebrities, does not drink, does not even play very much. He is a Mormon, born in Utah, and mainly he works. Mainly his work is in oil refineries and gas stations, not in recreation and resorts.

"I see Sun Valley as a grande dame that has been sitting on her laurels," Holding says. "There's a tremendous challenge here. We want to make this place a masterpiece again."

Such a definition may lie in the eye of the owner. Holding is only the third chief of Sun Valley in the 41 years since skiers first rode up the sides of Proctor and Dollar Mountains in ridiculous contraptions patterned after the equipment used to load bananas into fruit boats. They were called chair lifts, the first in the world.

This was in December 1936. In those days, Sun Valley was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad; the resort lay in lonely splendor at the end of a small spur line leading into the gone-busted mining town of Ketchum, Idaho. UP Chairman W. Averell Harriman lavished railroad millions on the place, ending up with a lodge which had massive log sides (actually cast of cement) and the only dining room at a U.S. ski resort where the waiters wore white tie and tails while diners glided down the stairs to the strains of Eddy Duchin's orchestra.

But by the early '60s the thrill had long gone for Union Pacific. The management called in the Janss Corporation, a land-development outfit, to survey the Valley and make suggestions. Upon getting the suggestion—that it would take a lot of work and no less than $6 million for a face-lifting—the railroad decided to sell. Brothers Ed and Bill Janss bid just under $3 million to buy the old queen of resorts and UP accepted. It was a steal. The year was 1964.

Ultimately, it was Bill Janss, who ran a cattle-feeding operation near Palm Springs, who took over. He is a kinetic, jittery man with eyes as blue as ice and a mind alive with ideas, a consummate skier, an alternate member of the U.S. Olympic ski team of 1940, the year the Games were called on account of war. By the summer of 1965 a building program was swinging: Janss installed tennis courts, a new swimming pool, a shopping mall and some new apartments just off the lodge. The next year he helped push a bill through the Idaho legislature to allow the sale of condominiums in the state, and that did it. "We built 100 very small studio apartments," Janss says, "and they sold out before we could finish them."

Now the nature of the resort was changing drastically. Sun Valley was growing like a boomtown. Janss improved the golf course, built more tennis courts, turned the resort into a strong year-round operation. Through the late '60s and early '70s, condominiums and apartments crept steadily along the Valley floor until the formerly vast and empty reaches became relatively dense with buildings, roads, parking lots. When Bill Janss bought Sun Valley, there were 800 beds. Now there are more than 3,000. And there is also a whole new village called Elkhorn on 3,000 acres just over the hill that Janss sold to the Johns-Manville Corporation in 1971. There has been much criticism of the "urban glut" Janss brought to Sun Valley. He argues that he has always worked with a tough and enlightened master plan for land use, that Sun Valley grew no faster than "a little Austrian town." "We have allowed no further building on the hillsides beyond the master plan," he says. "Only 20% of the land has had any building activity on it."

But if Janss' massive construction program on the Valley floor was criticized, his management of the mountain assuredly was not. Under his sharp eye, the skiing anatomy of Bald Mountain has been designed and lovingly sculpted. On Old Baldy, Janss created a ski area that many U.S. skiers think of as The Mother Mountain. "When I came here 13 years ago," he says, "the mountains had been neglected. There were no lifts on the Warm Springs side. There was no real access to the best powder skiing. No grooming, just a lot of icy paths coming down the canyons." Janss opened new bowls, introduced grooming equipment, opened the Warm Springs side of the mountain—and wound up his ownership with 47 ski runs, 16 lifts and a capacity of 14,500 skiers an hour, although the resort has never had more than 8,000 on the hill at one time.

Still, Sun Valley was not a perfect profit-making enterprise. Janss introduced a plan for a complex and expensive new shopping mall in the center of the Valley, to be designed by a pair of young developers. But the mall was not built, and Janss was sued for $32 million in a breach-of-contract action by the two developers. Then came the devastating snowless winter of 1976-77 when Old Baldy sat sad and brown and desperately bald for days and days, then weeks and weeks under brilliant—and increasingly depressing—blue skies. Like several ski resorts in the West, Sun Valley lost a load of money. The corporation was said to be $6 million in debt. "I could have kept going," Janss says. "Money was not a problem."

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