FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, APRIL 12, 2015
EDEN, UTAH — Shortly after a sunset that was deemed “epic” by a young man wearing a beanie, a crowd assembled one Friday night in January at a private lodge atop Powder Mountain, a ski area an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City. A 30-year-old Finn who was a founder of a mushroom beverage company out “to make ’shrooms the new kale” mingled with a former chief creative officer for Microsoft and a founder of PayPal. On a sofa, a New Yorker with the music licensing agency Ascap received a shoulder massage from a self-described “bohemian capitalist” working in health care technology.
The invited guests, most of whom had paid $1,000 to be there, moved into a circular lounge with cushions, designer pendant lights and panoramic views, where a 19-year-old musician from Queens, Candace Lee Camacho, sat behind a piano. An artist in residence that week, Ms. Camacho said it was her first time in the mountains.
Since buying the Utah backwater two years ago, Powder’s owners — a group of entrepreneurs, most of them around 30 years old with no experience in resort development — have hosted several of these salon-inspired “weekend jams” on the mountain they plan to develop, as well as a Pay for Success symposium with the White House, off-site retreats for Patagonia and the Knight Foundation, and the country’s first fat-biking national championships.
This summer, they plan to break ground on a public village envisioned as a next-generation alpine town. Picture a vehicle-free Main Street lined with farm-to-table restaurants and pop-up stores and co-working spaces and second-story condos. It will have funding for public art and only environmentally responsible hotels; naturally, the cafes will provide almond milk without your having to ask for it. A mash-up of postmillennial civic and lifestyle ideas, with an ethos of social entrepreneurism: Telluride meets the Mission District, perhaps.
The “4-Hour Workweek” author Timothy Ferriss, the Hollywood producer Stacey Sher, the former N.F.L. linebacker Dhani Jones and Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms shoes, are among the hundred or so people who have already purchased homesites around the future village. Homeowners are required to use approved architects and are forbidden to build McMansions.
“What Tesla did to cars,” Elliott Bisnow, a Powder Mountain owner, explained, wide-eyed, to the group visiting in January, “we’re going to do with towns!”
Other than being idealistic and unabashedly earnest, Powder’s young owners are also savvy connectors. In 2008, Mr. Bisnow, then 23 and a founder of a successful real estate industry e-newsletter company (Bisnow Media), gathered 19 entrepreneurs at the Alta Mountain ski area in Utah. A bonding ski trip turned into another company called Summit Series, which has hosted annual conferences in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and Washington. In April 2011, Summit chartered a cruise ship around the Bahamas for 1,500 attendees, while also raising nearly $1 million with the Nature Conservancy to support a marine protected area there. The next winter, the company took over much of the Squaw Valley resort in California for a weekend.
“Our convening power grew because no one was really reaching out to a generation of entrepreneurs,” explained Jeff Rosenthal, one of Summit’s four founders, along with Brett Leve, Jeremy Schwartz and Mr. Bisnow. The conferences melded talks about global poverty and keynote speeches by folks like Bill Clinton and Richard Branson with shark-tagging outings, seminars on lucid dreaming and private performances by acts like the Roots. They were essentially networking events designed to foster stronger ties. (“Summit Series is about character,” attendees were told. “It’s not about résumés. So show love to all the start-ups, and don’t fanboy the big-timers.”)
Some 10,000 people have attended Summit Series events, from founders of digital media start-ups to professional athletes, clothing designers to scientists. The company Qwiki, maker of an iPhone video sharing app, was hatched at a Summit event and acquired last year by Yahoo for $50 million; Basis, a company that makes wristwatch health trackers, secured its first major investment at Summit and was sold to Intel last year for over $100 million. (Summit Series itself was an early investor in Uber and Warby Parker.) People in nonprofits have met philanthropists; musicians have found collaborators. In early 2009, Summit Series brokered a meeting between new Obama administration officials and 40 Internet entrepreneurs, including the founders of YouTube, Twitter, Method and Zappos; it has worked with Unicef Innovation to link entrepreneurs with global issues; and held a fund-raiser for the Clinton Foundation at Russell Simmons’s Manhattan apartment.
“We learned about the art of just gathering great, innovative people from disparate industries into a shared space and seeing what happens,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “If you want to think about it in terms of provenance, we were a bit of a younger, hipper TED or Davos.”
Alvin Cobabe, a Utah physician, founded Powder Mountain in 1972 on his family’s sheep ranch. There’s nothing Davos about the place. The resort lies at the top of a winding road leaving from a four-way stop in Eden, a sleepy community in the Ogden Valley that has a general store and a Mexican restaurant. Powder receives as much average annual snowfall as ski areas near Park City but a third of the visitors, and its lack of pretension is precisely its appeal. The base lodge — a cafeteria with wooden rafters and a dive bar — is a quaint throwback to the Nixon era. The mountain has just six chairlifts and no snow-making equipment, but this disguises untapped potential: Powder has around 7,000 skiable acres, which makes it the largest ski area in the country, its owners say.
In 2006, Dr. Cobabe sold the resort to a group of Utah business partners, who rankled locals with sprawling plans to build 18 ski lifts, 2,700 homes, lodges and hotels, corporate retreats and golf courses. After they tried to circumvent a zoning disagreement by using a controversial state law to incorporate the land into a town, Eden residents sued. Meanwhile, the real estate market tanked. Powder went quietly back on the market.
Greg Mauro, a venture capitalist with a second home in Eden, who had attended a Summit Series event, approached the company’s founders, who at the time were living together in a mansion in Malibu, Calif., about buying the resort.
“The thinking by then turned to how this could become a permanent home,” Mr. Rosenthal said. Summit found around 50 families and individuals in its network, including Mr. Branson; the WPP chairman, Martin Sorrell; the former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman; Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records; Danny Davis, a professional snowboarder; and Sophia Bush, an actress, who were willing to invest up to $2 million each and enable Summit to purchase Powder Mountain in 2013 for a reported $40 million. The company has since held a dozen town hall meetings with local residents, received approvals for zoning and entitlements, and with an $18 million infrastructure bond from the county, laid miles of roads, bridges, sewer and power lines.
Possessing a deed and a blank canvas for their intellectual enclave, Powder’s owners had set out looking for inspiration. They visited Aspen, Colo., where in the 1950s Walter Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist, founded the Aspen Institute, attracting America’s cultural elite to the town long before Aspen became a metaphor for something that involved Prada. They also admired the pedestrian-friendly Swiss Alps towns Mürren and Wengen, and saw resemblances in the cascading hillside topography of Positano, Italy.
“We crowdsourced the funding, the development, the design, the architecture,” Mr. Bisnow said. “For us, it was to say: ‘Hey, this month we’re really diving into land planning. Who are the best land planners in the world?’ ”
They worked with the land-planning company Hart Howerton of New York, whose portfolio includes Montana’s Yellowstone Club, and Langvardt Design of Salt Lake City.
Eron Ashley, a principal of Hart Howerton, said, “There was a lot of collective searching for a physical place,” adding that the owners did not want it to “feel like a traditional, prefabricated ski town.”
Phillip Tabb, an architecture professor at Texas A & M specializing in traditional English country village design, came up with the idea for a horseshoe-shaped town on a plateau where several peaks converge. “It’s like the feminine core of the mountain,” Mr. Bisnow said.
On a Saturday afternoon in January at the Sky Lodge, where Summit’s guests had gathered the previous night, a San Francisco State University neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley, led a talk with Ryan Garza of the D.J. duo Thievery Corporation about his research on the brain’s response to music. Elsewhere, others took a snowshoeing excursion, yoga classes and sound healing treatments. Mr. Mauro, the resort’s chairman, led a group of skiers by snowcat to a glade of aspen trees across the summit ridge. On the way, he stopped at the future site of Powder Mountain village.
It was a clear, cloudless day. The outskirts of Salt Lake City were visible through the northern Wasatch Mountains. Mr. Mauro pointed out an island in the Great Salt Lake where the sun sets on the summer solstice. Across the valley loomed the majestic peak that inspired the Paramount Pictures logo.
The village will become the base of the ski resort, and in addition to bars, restaurants and what the organizers call a “curated artisanal retail experience,” there are plans for education facilities, a culinary school, an innovation lab and a recording studio. Powder’s owners are in closing discussions with several boutique hotel groups.
The overarching design eschews ersatz Bavaria for a rustic-chic aesthetic that Mr. Rosenthal characterized as “organic modernism.”
“Heritage materiality with modern shape; things that fit in with the natural surroundings,” he explained. Behind him, at Summit’s offices in Eden, was a wall lined with photos of inspired cabin designs. Some 500 homes and cottages, each restricted to 4,500 square feet above ground, will occupy an area of cottonwoods and aspens beyond the village center. Mr. Bisnow said: “We’re not merchant developers trying to build as many units as possible and then go back to our houses in Florida. We want to keep the four-way stop.”
That evening, Summit hosted a dinner for its 120 guests at a lakeside lodge in the Ogden Valley. Food was served on long communal tables, family-style. After the meal, M. Sanjayan, a conservation scientist and TV host, screened clips of his PBS series, “Earth: A New Wild,” before it debuted the following week. Prince Ea, a spoken-word artist and Internet sensation, then rapped a piece he conceived while snowshoeing earlier: “We can change the world, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They didn’t erect statues for critics.”
One often hears this sort of boosterism around Summit events.
“There seems to be a genuine interest to try to do something good,” remarked Gerry Erasme, who oversees Nike’s urban marketing efforts in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and London. Mr. Erasme first visited Powder one summer weekend two years ago, when Summit put up 400 guests in tents.
“The community really got to me; you could have been a billionaire from Northern California, or you could have been Gerry Erasme from Harlem,” he said. He has since invested in a homesite.
The next afternoon, after an informal talk on disaster response by Desiree Matel-Anderson, the former chief innovation adviser at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, most of Summit’s guests dispersed back to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
For many of them, the trip to the Salt Lake City airport was aided by another sign of Summit’s growing influence: Eden (population 600) had recently become one of the smallest communities served by Uber.