The Town (Park City) Stays in the Picture – Wall Street Journal

The Town (Park City) Stays in the Picture – Wall Street Journal

Sundance draws tens of thousands of movie fans to Park City, Utah, where real-estate agents sell them homes


Real-estate agents wine and dine the Hollywood set during the Sundance Film Festival, knowing that many of the attendees will return to the host town and eventually buy property there.  Reuters

Park City, Utah, has managed to maintain its low-glitz, down-to-earth image despite all the celebrities who own homes there—from Johnny Carson in the 1970s to Will Smith, Katherine Heigl  and Jeffrey Katzenberg today.

It’s still possible to remain anonymous in the ski-resort town, celebrities say. Former ABC anchor Charles Gibson bought his first home in Park City in 1987, the same year he signed on to host “Good Morning America,” and then built a bigger house in the mid-1990s that is visible from one of the Deer Valley ski lifts. Riding up the lift one day, Mr. Gibson says, a man sitting next to him pointed at his house and told him that Bryant Gumbel lived there.

“Hollywood goes to Aspen—that’s the place to be seen. Park City keeps a low profile,” says actor Kevin Sorbo, who is best known for his lead role in the television series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” and who is in eight movies filmed last year. Mr. Sorbo bought a four-bedroom condo six years ago in the St. Regis Deer Valley resort (a unit of that size is for sale there for $7 million) so he could ski, golf and mountain bike out of the limelight.

The annual Sundance Film Festival showcases Park City, Utah’s luxury properties. Photo: Getty Images.

But it is Park City—not Aspen—where the glitterati will descend this weekend for the annual two-week Sundance Film Festival. The cons are packed restaurants, an army of paparazzi and lots of what locals call PIBs (People in Black). Local real-estate agents see one huge pro: The influx of thousands of nonresidents is a perfect opportunity for them to lure in potential buyers—especially those looking for an un-Hollywood escape.

“I love Sundance. I have sold so many homes through Sundance. At least one person will fall in love with Park City. They may not buy that week but they come back,” says Paul Benson, an agent at Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, who sold three homes for a total of $27 million last year to people exposed to Park City through Sundance. Mr. Benson says the potential buyers aren’t just in the entertainment industry; they are also the investors and the corporate sponsors. He hosts dinners and events to get to know them.

Easy access helps make Park City—population 7,500 in the town proper—attractive to people from Los Angeles. Direct flights from LAX or Burbank to Salt Lake City take less than two hours, with a 40-minute drive to town.

Last year more than 30,000 nonresidents attended Sundance, and some 40% of those visitors said they would return to Utah during the following year, according to a study on the economic impact of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on the state of Utah by the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Katy Patterson, a sales agent at the Montage Deer Valley resort—where a four-bedroom, five-bathroom condo is for sale for $4.7 million—says that some 80% of the 33 owners at the resort are from the Los Angeles area and that three of the Montage’s sales last year were to people in town for Sundance. “It solidifies and helps push them over the fence,” she says. She uses the two-week event to wine and dine potential clients.

Risa Shapiro, a Hollywood manager at the Schiff Co., whose clients include Jennifer Connelly and Andie MacDowell, first went to Sundance when “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (starring Ms. MacDowell) played there in 1994. Six years ago, she bought a second home with five bedrooms in a luxury gated community about 20 minutes from Park City.

Second homes account for some 70% of the current real-estate market in the Park City area, up 7% since 2002, according to the city’s department of economic development. Prices, which took a dip in 2008, also are moving higher. In 2013, the average price for a single family home was $929,000, up about 6% from a year earlier but still below its peak in 2007 of $1.1 million. The number of homes and condos grew 20% in 2013, to 2,200, from a year earlier and the dollar volume was up 23% to $1.5 billion from 2012. There were 34 homes sold last year priced over $4 million, up 40% from the number in that price range in 2012. More people are building new homes too: The number of building permits for new single family homes was up 50% in 2013 to 34 permits from 20 in 2012.

The most expensive home on the market in Park City now, according to Zillow, is a $44 million, 12-bedroom, 16-bathroom, 22,000-square-foot estate on 60 acres in upper Deer Valley. In Aspen, it is a $45 million, seven-bedroom, 11-bathroom, 18,750-square-foot house on three-quarters of an acre. Park City has four homes priced above $20 million now while Aspen has 14 homes above that level.

A $44 million house would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, a time when the town was officially registered as a ghost town after silver mining operations went bust and before it became a ski destination. When Edgar Stern, the late Sears, Roebuck heir and developer (he died in 2008), opened a new resort called Deer Valley in 1981, he was still living and hobnobbing with celebrities in Aspen. He wanted to instill in his company in Utah the same management philosophy that had prevailed at Sears: Taking care of the employees was integral to providing good service, says his son Lessing Stern, chairman of the board of Deer Valley’s parent company Royal Street Corp. “He created a culture that was very staff oriented and that permeated the Park City community.”

Park City has made a deliberate effort to keep that working-class ethos. It is a balance between ensuring the town doesn’t become so expensive that it is unobtainable to the average employee, and so overdeveloped that it loses its charm. The city has more than 400 units of deed-restricted affordable rental and ownership housing. When the five-star Montage resort was built, an additional 2,800 acres of open space was annexed to Park City to offset its density and the land was put into a conservation easement. “The guy who owns a $10 million house can be friends with the chairlift operator,” says Dana Williams, the city’s former three-term mayor who doubled as a barista in a coffee shop while in office and played in a local band, Motherlode. His father moved to Park City from Hollywood, where he sold insurance to the movie industry, in the 1970s.

The 2002 Olympics first catapulted Park City’s real-estate prices to the upper reaches as more people saw the town as a world-class ski resort. The volume of real-estate sales more than tripled, to $2 billion in 2005 from $651 million in 2002. The average home price rose more than 50%, to $530,299 from $350,469 for the same period. In 2004, the St. Regis signed a deal to become the town’s first five-star resort with residences, followed by the 2010 opening of the Montage Deer Valley resort.

Today, Park City’s roster of star homeowners—in addition to the Hollywood players—includes big-name athletes such as  Michael Jordan, golfer Jim Furyk and Olympic skier Ted Ligety; politicians such as Mitt Romney, who recently bought a multimillion-dollar house in Deer Valley; and executives such as FedEx CEO Fred Smith and Papa John Pizza founder John Schnatter.

Actor Danny Masterson (“That 70s Show”) was an early adopter. He built a house in Park City in the ’90s. He and his brother, actor Chris Masterson, are co-owners of a bar in town called Downstairs.

Billy Bush, the L.A.-based anchor of “Access Hollywood,” says having his own house in Park City makes Sundance more enjoyable because it lets him step away from the madness of the festival in a way that staying in a hotel doesn’t.

Mr. Bush, who owns a four-bedroom, 5,200-square-foot house he bought for over $2 million right in town in 2005, also finds Sundance lucrative: One year he rented his house for $7,500 a night for 10 nights during the film festival. Mr. Bush has been looking at a larger, more expensive home on a 22-acre plot about 10 minutes from downtown. “It’s a real piece of the Old West,” he says.