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The company pushing for a controversial SkiLink gondola connecting Canyons and Solitude ski resorts donated a room and catered a fundraiser for state Sen. Ross Romero's bid to be Salt Lake County mayor.
Romero said he arranged the event with Mike Goar, the managing director of The Canyons, and asked Canyons to stage the event because the resort used to be in Romero's state House district. But Romero said there was no connection between its hosting of the event and the SkiLink proposal.
He recognizes the gondola proposal could be an important and contentious issue for the next county mayor, but he said that he hasn't formed an opinion on the issue yet.
"I am just learning about SkiLink," he said. "But I don't agree with any commercial or residential development on top of that mountain."
SkiLink seeks to connect Canyons and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon, over the ridge line, but resort expansion is not allowed under the Wasatch-Cache National Forest Plan.
Talisker Mountain Inc., which owns Canyons, went to Congress, and Rep. Rob Bishop has drafted legislation requiring the sale of the land to the resort.
Canyons says the gondola will cut traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon, but opponents say it is an amenity that won't have a significant impact on congestion.
County Mayor Peter Corroon and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker have come out against the proposal and the legislation to push it. County Councilman Michael Jensen is backing the plan.
Nathan Rafferty, a high school classmate of Romero's who co-hosted the event, said there was "absolutely not" an attempt by Canyons to influence Romero on SkiLink.
Rafferty, who also is executive director of Ski Utah, said he was asked by another co-host attorney Adam Strachan, who has represented ski resorts in the past to help put the event together. Rafferty agreed and called Canyons to see if they could provide the locale and food.
"I wasn't even thinking about [SkiLink] at the time. … We were just looking for a place to host the event, and they were nice enough to accommodate it," Rafferty said.
There wasn't an attempt to influence Romero, he said, although, "it sure would be easy to draw that conclusion."
Carl Fisher, executive director of the group Save Our Canyons, said Talisker's $1,000 contribution to Bishop and $5,000 donation to Gov. Gary Herbert is part of a pattern of political donations that is disconcerting.
"It does worry us a little bit that The Canyons now has kind of a track record of making political contributions and attempts to buy candidates' positions on this issue," Fisher said. "We're hoping [Romero] will just look at the facts, and the facts are overwhelming that this project is not really what [Canyons officials] are pitching it to be.
"Time will tell where he comes out on the issue," Fisher said.
Romero said he and Foster plan to meet after Christmas to discuss Foster's concerns with the gondola proposal.
Sen. Ben McAdams, who is running against Romero for the Democratic nomination for county mayor, would not comment on the fundraiser, but he is not in favor of SkiLink.