A group founded by Snowbird and funded by other local businesses and resorts is investing to promote a federally funded gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon. On the other side of the problem, a nonprofit organization is hiring lobbyists to fight the plan.
Snowbird, who would benefit from the taxpayer-funded project that would bring customers right to their doorsteps, formed Gondola Works to champion the creation of a gondola that would stretch the full length of the canyon. Detailed renderings, slick commercials, and political advisors have brought Gondola Works to public attention, while Snowbird owns land where the potential gondola would be based.
Then there’s Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon, which started as a nonprofit in 2021 and has raised tens of thousands of donors and had a Political Action Committee (PAC) to distribute money to their preferred candidates.
The group isn’t just anti-gondola, as Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon president Michael Marker says they’re not interested in the other option for the canyon – widening the roadway on both sides to create bus lanes.
According to an ad by Gondola Works, Utahns have two options for solving Little Cottonwood Canyon’s traffic problems — a quiet, clean gondola with pristine views of the canyon, or an empty bus with trash-filled seats and chewing gum stuck to its walls.
“The experience of reaching the biggest snow on earth should also be great,” says the commercial’s actor, before flinching at the entrance of a bus.
The two-minute ad is one of Gondola Works’ well-produced commercials that portrays buses as dirty and barely used. Gondola Works apparently spends its money on commercials, online advertising campaigns and public policy advisers. The group declined to share information about Gondola Works’ finances.
Dave Fields, Snowbird’s president and general manager, told The Salt Lake Tribune the organization met in the summer of 2020 when the Utah Department of Transportation limited the scope of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
“It really started with us here at Snowbird,” Field said. “We know the gondola technology best here.”
Fields said other groups who joined were Alta Ski Resort, which would be another stop on the taxpayer-funded gondola, and CW Management Corp, which is run by Chris McCandless, a developer and former Sandy councilman who supports the project , was co-founded. The other co-founder of CW Management is Wayne Niederhauser, a former President of the Utah Senate who now serves as the state’s homelessness coordinator.
Last year, Snowbird quietly bought two pieces of land near the mouth of the gorge where the base station and parking lot of the proposed gondola would be located. CW Management owned the two base station property lots before they were sold.
CW Management owns 8 acres of land just south of the proposed gondola base station, although McCandless has denied any intention of developing the area into commercial or mixed-use properties.
Alta Ski Area general manager and president Mike Maughan said he, Fields and McCandless have worked for years to best address traffic issues in the canyon.
Exoro Group and Love Communications, both based in Salt Lake City, also joined the coalition.
Maura Carabello, a registered lobbyist and president of Exoro Group, a public policy firm, said her agency was hired by Snowbird to work on the Gondola Works project.
Tom Love, President and Founder of Love Communications, told The Tribune his company handles the placement of Gondola Works ads on TV, radio, billboards, social media and direct mail. However, Love said his company did not shoot or produce the promotional videos for the group.
When asked about the financial dealings behind Gondola Works, Fields declined to give details, but said they don’t accept donations. Carabello and Love also declined to share financial details with The Tribune.
Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon
Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon has spent most of its money on lobbying and public advertising campaigns, while also taking donations as a nonprofit organization. The group is acutely aware that UDOT can only make a recommendation on what to do with the canyon, while the state legislature will have the final say.
“We’ve known from day one that this is going to the legislature, so we’re trying to educate lawmakers involved in the decision-making process as to why this isn’t a good idea,” Marker told The Tribune.
Marker said his group started among people in his neighborhood before quickly growing. According to Marker, the group consists of four board members and a volunteer group that meets regularly. He added that nobody within Friends of LCC gets paid, apart from the lobbyists the organization has hired, and said the group spends money on social media campaigns.
Marker told The Tribune that Friends of LCC also had a political action committee (PAC) from September 2021 — when the group was formed — until its disbandment in May, as the group stopped making political donations that year.
Campaign finance reports show that they paid over $30,000 to Morgan May Public Affairs, a Sandy-based political consulting firm. Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon is listed online as clients of Morgan May’s co-founders Taylor Morgan and David May. In 2022, the group paid Avalaunch Media, a Lehi-based marketing company, $5,000.
The group contributed to two political campaigns in 2022. She donated $2,500 to Sen. Kirk Cullimore’s campaign and $1,500 to Rep. Robert Spendlove’s campaign.
Marker said the group opposes the nacelle from a tax perspective because it would cost the state over half a billion dollars to build.
Those who visit Little Cottonwood Canyon have likely seen banners and yard signs in contrast to the gondola near the mouth of the canyon. Marker says these come from within the group and volunteers handle their social media campaigns.
“One of our members teaches social media campaigns, and we also receive advice from our public affairs advisors,” Marker said in a text message. “Two other members already have experience in founding and developing non-profit organizations.”
As of Friday, it is not yet known whether the campaigns and lobbying efforts will have an impact on UDOT’s recommendation. The department’s final EIS, which will choose either an expanded bus service or the construction of a gondola, is due out later this summer. Each route will cost the state over $500 million.