While it looked from the outside like the ambitious four-season resort community in Heber City, Utah might become a lost cause, those behind the project never lost faith—and are now rapidly making up for lost time.
Utah has been called “the new Colorado,” with Park City gaining the most prominence within the state as a newly favored vacation destination or choice for retirement or a second home, in comparison to its more fully grown and crowded Colorado counterparts like Vail or Aspen.
The attraction of Park City has led to its attaining the status of the U.S.’s second-most wealthy “micropolitan” area (with a population between 10,00 and 50,000), behind only Los Alamos, N.M. And with the Salt Lake City International Airport that serves Park City now undergoing a $4 billion expansion and improvement project, many feel it’s only a matter of time before the town could grow to the point where another state may look to position itself as “the new Utah.”
Already, Park City has become nearly as lively on summer nights as during the peak of the ski season, with resort trolleys running up and down the hill of its Main Street in between outdoor patios and balconies filled with diners and drinkers. But less than 20 miles to the south, a much different scene can be found, both in terms of the “urban” landscape and the resort-style options that are available.
Heber City, Utah, with a population just over 12,000, offers a much more authentic and laid-back Western vibe, with a Main Street that’s also U.S. Highway 40 (one of the original cross-country routes) and offers nostalgic drive-ins, cafes and a movie theater, along with the usual selection of one-story banks, convenience and auto-parts stores, and fast-food outlets. Turn at the intersection of Main and Center in Heber City and head east for a mile or so, and you’ll come to Red Ledges—a place that stands out not only because of the rock formations from which it takes its name, but also for its unique positioning among the golf and lifestyle options now to be found not only in “the new Colorado,” but anywhere in the country.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Red Ledges is that it’s still there to be found at all. It was conceived a little over ten years ago along with other golf/resort/community properties in Utah envisioned by developers and entrepreneurs that had already seen the state’s emerging potential. But the recession then abruptly slammed the door on many of those ventures, sending several into bankruptcy proceedings.
AT A GLANCE
Heber City, Utah
Golf Course Design: Jack Nicklaus Signature (18-hole);
Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Park (12-hole)
Management: Troon Prive
General Manager: John Johnson
Director of Golf: Jon Paupore
Director of Operations: Harry Hirsch
Director of Food & Beverage/Executive Chef:
Golf Course Superintendent: Pat Christoffer
Director of Tennis: Michael Topp
Activities Director: Stephanie Potempa
Equestrian Director: Brenda Metzger
But Red Ledges had several things going for it to help see the project through, starting with ownership that was not only immensely qualified from a business standpoint, but also strongly rooted to the area. Partners Tony Burns, Chairman Emeritus of Ryder Systems, the transportation, logistics and supply-chain management solutions company, and Nolan Archibald, Executive Chairman of Stanley Black & Decker, brought Fortune 500 acumen to a project in the state where both had attended college.
Further, the Red Ledges property included land that had been in the family of Burns’ wife, Joyce Jordan, along with parcels that had been acquired and protected over the years through a series of over 25 transactions that in total amassed 2,000 acres. And the family ties were further extended with the appointment of Burns’ son, Mitchel, as Red Ledges’ Chief Operating Officer.
Another key component to surviving the challenges of the early years was the star power and expertise assembled for the design and operation of the property, starting with the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course that was carved out of the ruggedly spectacular terrain. Red Ledges also developed management arrangements with the Jim McLean Golf School, Cliff Drysdale Tennis and the Troon Prive division of Troon Golf, to stand alone as a property with the power and allure of all of those branded resources in its arsenal.
The core management team that was brought together at the start and has stayed intact through Red Ledges’ first decade also brought special skill sets and experience to help weather the initial economic storm. For General Manager John (“JJ”) Johnson, in fact, Red Ledges marked the fourth property he had helped to start from scratch.
“I’ve spent my career in startups, and it’s no walk in the park,” Johnson says. “But you just learn to wear many hats in the beginning and do whatever it takes to help gets things off the ground and moving forward as best you can.”
Extra effort exerted by others on the initial team included Director of Golf Jon Paupore setting up a storefront for the McLean school (Paupore is a certified McLean instructor) on Park City’s Main Street. “People would see the [school’s golf] simulator through the glass window and come in, and that would give us a chance to introduce them to the property,” says Paupore. “I heard a lot of, ‘I came here to ski, I didn’t know there was golf around here, too.’ In four years, we converted 25 memberships that way.”
Similar resourcefulness by Christoffer and Director of Food & Beverage/Executive Chef Daniel Thompson, who came to the property from Florida with Johnson in 2009, also helped to generate enough early success to get people talking about Red Ledges as a distinctive and up-and-coming property, despite the prevailing economic winds.
“While we were primarily golf-driven in the beginning, the road to recovery made us give dining more prominence, too,” says Thompson, who did his part to garner attention and develop a following through signature dishes like white chili and shrimp and grits that quickly became favorites at the property’s Juniper Grill, along with the fried chicken featured at its Fourth of July event.
“We were able to [get through the early years] because the owners were committed to the property, and to us, and because we have some creative people who were hard-working and smart,” says Christoffer, who had to oversee grow-in and initial maintenance for the Nicklaus Signature course—no easy task with the elevation and temperature changes that are always in play—with an extremely lean budget.
To Christoffer, the initial chapters of Red Ledges’ existence aren’t all that different from the story of the West. “The boom-bust cycle has always been there, whether in recreation like we are, or in mining back in the day,” he says. “There’s always been that ebb and flow, and some people just have it in them to know how to hang on.”
And Johnson is also not shy about drawing a comparison with a story that’s closer to the golf and club world. “Augusta National was started by two businessmen during the Great Depression,” he notes. “From the start, we’ve tried to stay focused and passionate about helping to build something that could also put this part of the world on the map, in the same way the people who created that great property did, even when beginning in tough times and in a place no one really knew about.”
Catching Up in a Hurry
After the recession faded into the rearview mirror, the Red Ledges team rapidly began to make up for any time that was lost from a slower start than anticipated. The property is currently at about the halfway point for its long-range development plan, with 600 of 1,200 properties sold, 300 homes completed, and about 275 of 450 golf memberships filled, along with an equal number of lifestyle memberships.
There is now an on-site facility for the McLean School, and a second Nicklaus golf option, the Golf Park, opened in 2016. Originally conceived as a 9-hole executive course, its layout, and concept, changed significantly when Jack Nicklaus came for a final look and decided its par 4s should be turned into more par 3s, to not only create a 12-hole course, but also have all of the holes be part of a park where many other recreational activities—from walking dogs to soccer to picnics—would not only be permitted, but equally encouraged.
“We ended up with something that is very creative, and something I’ve never seen anywhere else,” Nicklaus said at the Golf Park’s grand opening.
And how the Red Ledges membership has responded to the amenity is also breaking new ground. “We track how people are using the park,” reports Johnson, “and many days, there are more non-golf users than golfers.”
Red Ledges’ movement into other stages of its development beyond golf was also hastened with the arrival in 2013 of Stephanie Potempa as the property’s Activities Director. A native of North Carolina whose career has included being a yoga instructor, wilderness guide and a corporate accounts manager for both the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Potempa hit the ground running in fashioning programs designed for all age groups and all abilities and interests. And that programming not only fully utilizes all parts of the Red Ledges property, it extends into the deepest reaches of the surrounding area as well.
“We have an annual summer hike to Mount Timpanogos [elevation 11,749 feet], and in the winter we ski at Deer Valley twice a week: ‘Rippin’ Wednesday’ for the more aggressive skiers, and ‘Cruiser Thursday’ for those who like to take it a bit easier,” Potempa says, in describing just some of how she has extended the reach of the property’s activities, both in terms of geography and seasons. “And our snowshoe tours are probably the most popular, because essentially if you can walk, you can snowshoe.”
Virtually every imaginable recreational activity is now made available to Red Ledges members. Horseback riding and equestrian activities are positioned as a special amenity through the on-site presence of the KB Horses stables, operated by Brenda Metzger, a former Silicon Valley executive who in her retirement became one of Red Ledges’ founding members and followed her passion for horses to start a second career.
Having that facility so accessible has proved to be an especially strong attraction not only for those who want to have a truly Western experience by taking rides into the hills, but also for children who can have uniquely up-close-and-personal experience with the horses. Gift certificates for the stables are included in all membership welcome packages, and Metzger says that the visits from those “six and smaller is really where we shine, by creating special memories.”
Plenty of more leisurely activities, including theater and museum trips, magic shows and photography lessons, now also appear on each day’s menu of options for those on the property. And the ever-expanding list is why Johnson characterizes Red Ledges as “not a golf club or country club, but a private, four-season resort-type community.”
“About 40 to 50% of the members will live here full-time, but the rest will be part-time vacationers, and they view this as a resort,” he explains. “With 1,200 properties, we need to try to be all things to all people, including Baby Boomers and those who are older.
“We want Red Ledges to be a good decision for the whole family,” he adds. “A lot of Baby Boomers are steeped in private-club traditions and will go to those clubs sometimes without families—but here they’re creating a place for their families, so we are. too.”
The need for variety in what’s offered on the property only promises to grow as membership momentum continues to pick up speed. “It took us 10 years to get our first 100 members, then one year for the next 100, and now we look for 60 to 100 with each new year,” Johnson says.
On the golf side, the swelling membership ranks have brought about almost a complete reversal in the ratio of member to guest rounds from the total of about 12,000 that Red Ledges is now seeing, Paupore reports. Where initially about 70 percent of the rounds were played by guests, it’s now just the opposite, he says, and that has prompted new initiatives within his department, such as this year’s first member-guest event.
A new rental program being developed by Director of Operations Harry Hirsch, who came to Red Ledges in 2016 after working at resort properties for Four Seasons and other companies, also only promises to widen the scope of what those who find their way to the outskirts of Heber City will be able to do both within the boundaries of the property, and well beyond it.
Building a Village and a Mountain
The pace has now picked up at Red Ledges to the point where there was plenty of construction activity on site as this summer’s season came to a close, and not just from new home building. The catchup process has reached the point to where the property is now moving ahead to open the first part of its new Village Center amenity next year—a very large, family-style pool with a bar and grille and locker rooms, all located between the 18-hole golf course and the Golf Park.
“Again, it’s all about families,” says Johnson. “If anyone wants to go play some golf or do something else in the park while others are at the new pool or bar and grille, it’s right there.”
At the same time, Red Ledges is also in the early stages of clearing space for Mountainside, a 30- to 50-seat neighborhood bar and grille that will positioned at one of the property’s highest points, offering a spectacular view.
“Next to [Mountainside] will be a two-lane pool and a hot tub,” Johnson says. “[The Mountainside amenities] will scream ‘adult.’ It’s where you’ll come on a date night, have a glass of wine and look at the mountains.”
And even after Mountainside is completed, Johnson says, there will be more to add at the Village Center—a larger restaurant, a spa, and more tennis, including some indoor courts.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he says. “We already have world-class sports, and more amenities are coming. There’s really nothing we won’t do or try, and I can’t remember the last time we said no to something.
“When we didn’t have a lot of money [during the early years], it made us think about all that we could with this great outdoor playground that we’re surrounded by,” he adds. “The climate here makes this a great four-season place, and we want everyone who comes here to fully embrace the Utah lifestyle. We’re lucky to have a property that will always give them the chance to do so without the crowds they might have to deal with in other places.”
And while Red Ledges still includes Park City as a location identifier along with Heber City in many of its marketing materials, it may not be too long before that won’t be necessary, either. C&RB