Alaska News

Japanese firm reveals plans for huge resort proposal for Hatcher Pass area includes ski lifts, big hotel, airport

Originally published Aug. 5, 1988

A Japanese company with a lease to develop downhill ski slopes near Hatcher Pass has unveiled preliminary plans for a massive year-round tourist resort that would dwarf anything existing or proposed in Alaska.

The plans of Mitsui Ltd. are so tentative that some state officials are referring to them as a "preliminary draft concept." But it's the first time the company has revealed specifics about what it plans here, and the project goes far beyond what state officials envisioned when they decided to open a section of the popular recreation area to ski development.

Last week, the company sent state officials a colorful map along with a separate, brief description of its long-range development plans.

Among other things, the documents propose eight ski lifts, a large gondola up the side of Government Peak, a 300bed resort hotel, space for up to 1,000 residential units, a campground, golf course, airport, stores, "arctic museum" and recreational facilities ranging from an archery range to horse trails.

The company is talking about developing slopes with a capacity of up to 25,000 skiers a day, said Rick Thompson, project manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. By comparison, Alyeska Resort at Girdwood has a capacity of between 2,000 and 3,000 skiers, while the resort proposed above Eagle River could accommodate about 11,000.

Mitsui has said it wants to develop an international destination resort. In many ways, it mirrors the Eagle River proposal.


State officials involved with the project stress, though, that development of the Hatcher Pass project is probably years away, and say a ski area probably would be built in phases, if at all. And no one is sure, at this point, how the development here would fit in with the proposed Eagle River resort and whether there's enough demand for two large tourist ski areas within 50 miles of each other.

"It is a very preliminary sketch plan with the emphasis on very early," said Helen Nienhueser, another DNR official involved in the project. The Japanese company is just starting a feasibility study and has been doing surveying and other site work this summer. A final "concept plan" showing, in detail, what the company wants to do isn't due to the state until January.

Mitsui's preliminary plans were outlined Thursday at the first meeting of a team of government agencies and individuals set up to oversee the project. Interest in the company's plans is so great in the Matanuska Valley, though, that several dozen local residents packed into a meeting room to find out more about the project.

Local politicians and businessmen are excited about the plans, but others, including environmental groups and some government agencies, have begun to raise questions on a variety of issues, from roads, to water and sewage to whether development would hurt wildlife in the area. The plans are so tentative, however, that no real opposition has developed.

Mitsui, a large conglomerate that once ran a woodchip operation at Tyonek, signed a 55year lease earlier this year on 11,000 acres on the south and east sides of Government Peak. Most of the ski runs are proposed above the Little Susitna River, several miles southeast of the Independence Mine bowl.

In its contract with the state, the company is required to develop a relatively small-scale ski resort by 1993, or lose its lease. Among other things, it is required to build a daylodge and ski school and have the capability for runs with 1,500 feet of vertical drop. Beyond that, no other development is required in the lease.

No one from Mitsui was at the meeting Thursday, but DNR's Thompson said company officials have indicated they'd like to initially build three lifts, and expand later.

"They have a pretty good feeling about the project," Thompson said. Although studies could change the company's views, now "they're ready, willing and able," he said.

Once Mitsui submits more detailed plans, state agencies will start environmental and "socioeconomic" analyses. They will look at dozens of issues, including the effect on fish and wildlife, other recreational uses of the pass area and traffic.

The project is so tentative that no cost estimates have been done, although state officials in the past have said an international resort would cost at least $100 million. Mitsui hasn't sought any state financial aid in developing the project, although extensive road work would be needed to cope with large numbers of new visitors to the area. Now, the only road to the area is gravel, with a onelane bridge across the Little Su.

Mitsui was the only bidder on the project. Originally, the state proposed leasing around 3,400 acres, but added nearly 8,000 more after Mitsui said it needed more land for its plans. That addition prompted a lawsuit, still unresolved, from the Alaska Center for the Environment, which claimed DNR should have allowed more public say on the change.

At Eagle River, Austrian developer Robert Rogner has proposed a $250 million yearround resort in Chugach State Park. Rogner wants the state to finance much of the project, but state officials have put his request on hold until more detailed studies are complete.

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He's been a reporter and editor at ADN for 36 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the "People In Peril" series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the "Lawless" series. Reach him at