Nolan Rosall helped resurrect Boulder & guide ski industry

by Allen Best

Nolan Rosall and the firm he co-founded, RRC Associates, have become significant figures in many ski towns, mountain resort valleys, and the ski industry itself.

The firm engages in planning, conducts surveys for town governments, but is known especially for its work with the ski industry.

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, credits Rosall with helping the ski industry better understand its customers.

“He brought to the industry an understanding of demographics that they didn’t have before,” says Berry. “If you think back to the ‘70s, the industry was growing like crazy, but suddenly in the ‘80s we got trapped in that national figure of 52 million skier days annually, which some thought would last into perpetuity. Nolan wanted to know why we were trapped at 52 million, and he was the first guy to start getting the answers.”

In the late 1990s, explains Berry, Rosall delivered research that identified the life cycle of the sport’s existing participants. And from there, the ski industry itself began to better understand its customers, their probability of participating and the messages that were necessary to draw more skiers to the slopes and keep them there.

That research, the foundation for Model for Growth, which was introduced by Berry’s organization in 1999, appears to have paid off. Within the last decade, the ski industry has started growing again—not in pace with the population, but at least surging past the barrier of 52 million skiers, and has twice edged above 60 million. In a few places—Nevada, California and Colorado—the participation in snow sports is actually outpacing population growth.

Nolan Rosall

Rosall retired from full-time work with his firm on Jan. 1. Before he left, Mountain Town News talked with him about his work with mountain resorts—but also his prior work from 1974 to 1979 as the director of planning in Boulder, Colo. Although not a mountain town by most definitions, Boulder has been—and continues to be—extremely influential as an incubator of ideas.

In this issue of MTN, Rosall talks about the work he did in Boulder to help revitalize the downtown area and create the Pearl Street Mall. If it’s a shining economic success now, that success, he says, is grounded in basic principles of the planning profession.

A graduate of Cornell University, with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, Rosall had worked first in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he helped create affordable housing projects. The model for affordable housing before that had been the giant projects, such as are typified by Cabrini-Shrine in Chicago. In Puerto Rico, they created smaller nodes. Then, he worked in Reading, Pa., an industrial town on the edge of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. His job was to figure out how to stabilize the economy and redevelop the downtown.

That experience landed him a job in Boulder in 1974. Boulder was originally a farming town and supply depot for the mining camps to the west, but by then the University of Colorado had grown to 25,000 students. Boulder has also drawn several national laboratories.

Despite the strong economy, the downtown area was skidding into obsolescence. Many storefronts on Pearl Street were empty, few basements and upper floors were in use, and the red brick exteriors in many cases had been covered with metal facades. Crime was rising, and shoppers had fled to suburban shopping malls.

“I found this incredible environment in the outskirts of Boulder, but the core, what I would consider the heart of the city, was essentially not functional,” says Rosall.

Railroad tracks had been pulled out, but uranium ore still tainted what is now the site of the Boulder County Justice Center. A lumberyard still operated on Pearl Street. The downtown area, along with the adjacent residential neighborhoods, had effectively been red-lined. No investment was occurring. In the foothills just below the Flatirons, the Chautauqua resort was getting little use. Firefighters saw the Chautauqua auditorium as a firetrap and wanted it demolished.

Attractive higher-income demographics have helped Boulder, as has a strong infusion of federal and state funds, but it has consistently been a leader in planning endeavors, including the pedestrian mall.

Boulder leaders understood they had a problem. As early as 1966, a task force had been appointed. A contingent of young leaders, who had once focused their energies on opposition to the Vietnam War, had started transferring their energy to local improvements, laying the foundation for preservation of open space. Rosall points out that he didn’t accomplish the revitalization of central Boulder unaided. “There were others obviously who had the same feelings,” he says.

Change was rapid, but not easy. Controversy abounded. And success depended upon many broad strokes.

“It was more than just a mall,” says Rosall. “A huge number of philosophic and legislative changes occurred that created opportunity for the downtown and mall to be successful. I think that’s the message that gets lost in a lot of communities. They look at it as a single project, rather than the transformation of a whole area and the neighborhoods adjacent to it.”

Importantly, officials from both the city and county governments began reading from the same page. To funnel business back downtown required an end to the zoning that allowed more and more shopping complexes in the unincorporated areas outside the town. It requires deliberate attention to the fading glory of the Chautauqua resort. Development of the linear park system, along the creeks and elsewhere, was also an element.

As many towns in the West have discovered, creating an urban mall requires more than just closing off traffic. Rosall describes several deliberate elements. First, the mall is only four blocks long. It was accessible, so that people could peek before committing. Building owners were encouraged to remove their faddish corrugated aluminum facades in favor of the original brick. And, not least, the street was reconfigured. Instead of a hump in the middle, with drainage to gutters on the side, the drainage was put in the middle. It’s a subtle thing, but with profound consequences upon how the space is perceived.

Rapid success 

Success was rapid. Downtown became an attraction, complemented by special-event programming. Sidewalk cafes appeared, and the quality of retailing upgraded. Key to the strength of the upgrading was the unique offerings of entrepreneurially minded shop-keepers. Franchises remained a minority, and today continue to be only 20 percent of the mix on the mall.

Getting buy-in from property owners was crucial, says Rosall. Then, almost all the buildings were separately owned. Creating a special improvement district, required their involvement—and money. Two-thirds of the improvements were paid for through the district, and the balance through municipal block grants.

This happened to a large extent by plan, says Rosall, but it required many people buying in—literally.

“You had a lot of people with skin in the game to make this work and really become an important ingredient to the success of downtown,” he says.

That success spread to adjoining residential neighborhoods, now some of the most expensive in Boulder. In time, high-end residential development occurred in the downtown area itself.

In this transformation of the old into the new, Boulder enjoyed certain advantages. With the university just a few blocks away, it was like slope-side real estate, but with greater reliability than snow.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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2 Responses to Nolan Rosall helped resurrect Boulder & guide ski industry

  1. Jeremy Rosall says:

    Thank you for this really well written article about an amazing guy (my Dad). It is certainly the most comprehensive one I’ve ever read about the work he did to help redesign downtown Boulder. I know he will miss working in the ski industry as much as it will miss him.

  2. Matt Purvis says:

    What an exceptional piece on an exceptional individual! Nolan is a visionary, and as humble a person as I’ve ever met (he’s my step dad, so I know first hand).
    Well done Nolan, Boulder is a better place thanks to you.

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