By KAY MATTHEWS
Was Taos County Commissioner Jim Fambro being disingenuous or just plain out of touch when he questioned attorney Chris Graeser about why he kept referencing Louis Bacon and the Taos Ski Valley during his presentation before the commission at the June 9 hearing on the Taos airport expansion? Graeser, who represents the group of Taoseños who have organized to try to stop the expansion (both administratively and in court), responded with a projected photo of the Wall Street Journal article about how Bacon and his fellow investors plan to make Taos Ski Valley, which Bacon, a billionaire hedge fund manager, bought in 2014, into an “elite” ski area where skiers will want to “invest” in the ski valley rather than the town of Taos. The article quotes Jerome de Bontin, a French-born businessman who with several partners plans to redevelop three parcels of land in the base area: “Now that so many good things are happening at Taos Ski Valley, the challenge is to convince people to buy here, as opposed to the town of Taos.”
The Wall Street Journal article also has this to say: “There are limits to how hot the market can get. The town of Taos is planning to build a new, longer airport runway, but for now, the nearest major airport is a three-hour drive south in Albuquerque.” That pretty much sums up why Chris Graeser was talking about Taos Ski Valley (TSV) at the county commission hearing. With the advent of the second runway at the Taos airport, larger types of planes, such as turbo prop jets carrying up to 100 passengers—will be able to land and travel directly to TSV so passengers can spend their money on the proposed new developments in the ski valley—350 million dollars worth.
When word first circulated that Bacon intended to buy TSV from the Blake family in late December of 2013, most newspaper articles touted him as an environmentalist who had established conservation easements on his ranches in Colorado. But as the Denver Post also reported, the easement placed on his 171,400 acre Trinchera and Blanca ranches (in southern Colorado near Fort Garland) was the result of his fight against Xcel Energy’s plan to run solar transmission lines across the property. As the paper described it: “One side of the environmental clash paints the 54-year-old hedge-fund-managing land baron and conservationist as a natural-resource champion protecting one of the state’s last unspoiled ranches. The other sees a deep-pocketed NIMBY guarding his own private Eden and thwarting Colorado’s pioneering push for statewide solar energy.” He’s the recipient of millions of dollars of tax breaks on not only his properties in Colorado but also in New York, North Carolina, and the Bahamas. In an interview with Forbes Magazine Bacon defends his fight against Xcel Energy and his role as a conservationist.
The Denver Post article also references Bacon’s grandfather Louis T. Moore, who sought to protect North Carolina trees from road development in the early 1900s and who Bacon says influenced him as an conservationist. The article doesn’t mention some earlier Bacon ancestors, Roger Moore, who ran a North Carolina slave-holding plantation in the 1700s called Orton Plantation, and his grandson, Roger B. Moore, an officer in the Confederate Army and chief of the Ku Klux Klan in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moore participated in the Wilmington Massacre in 1898 when a mob of white men, at the behest of southern segregationist Democrats who sought to retake the North Carolina government, shut down the black newspaper in town and murdered numerous African Americans in their rampage. Bacon purchased Orton Plantation in 2010 and is in the process of restoring the property. His business, Moore Capital Management, and his foundation, Moore Charitable Foundation, are named after his ancestors. One would hope Bacon is referencing Louis Moore, not the Rogers.
Whatever shadows his heritage may cast, Bacon’s business and lifestyle have generated their own difficulties. In August of 2013 Moore Capital agreed to pay $48.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that the hedge fund manipulated platinum and palladium prices. More recently, in March of this year, Julian Rifat, a former senior executive trader at Moore Capital, described by U.S. prosecutors as “the face of Moore Capital” in London, was sentenced to 19 months in prison after pleading guilty to a £285,000 insider-trading scam. He earned more than £700,000 a year and was paid approximately £1.4 million in severance pay between his arrest in 2010 and his sentencing.
Bacon has also been involved in numerous lawsuits in his personal dealings. He and Peter Nygard, a Canadian fashion designer, own adjacent estates in the Bahamas and have been locked in legal battles over the past decade, each claiming he is a model Bahamian resident. The disagreement first started over Bacon’s claim that Nygard had illegally expanded development on his property but soon deteriorated into defamation and retaliation with Bacon filing a lawsuit in January of this year accusing Nygard of orchestrating an “obsessive and malicious campaign” to paint him as a murderer, Ku Klux Klan member, drug trafficker, and inside trader. Nygard responded with a counterclaim in April that “Mr. Bacon has terrorized, intimidated, and corrupted native Bahamians and Bahamian government officials, and has made it his mission to destroy Mr. Nygård’s reputation and to cost Mr. Nygård as much money as he can in the process.” Nygard claims Bacon’s motivation is to force Nygard to sell him his property.
The Blake family, who inherited TSV from its founder Ernie Blake, has said it sold the ski area to Bacon because it couldn’t afford to make the upgrades necessary to compete in the ski industry. The trend all across the country, as the industry is faced with an aging baby boomer population, lack of snow, and competition for water resources, is to focus on fewer but wealthier customers. As Bacon’s fellow investors indicated, TSV will be following that trend with its development plans and upgrades. How compatible that is with Bacon’s reputation as a conservationist remains to be seen. He also comes with a lot of baggage as well as wealth. How that plays out in TSV’s future also remains to be seen.
The airport expansion opponents have long argued that the new runway will not benefit the town of Taos economically and is unnecessary, incompatible with the neighborhood, and may compromise the safety of local residents. At the all day hearing on June 9 the county commission postponed a decision regarding the expansion after county employees testified that there will likely be a significant drop in property values in the area that includes many more homes than the commissioners first believed. Several of the commissioners requested more information on this projected devaluation and a site visit to the airport area to assess the level of residential development. The hearing will be continued on July 14 at 9 am in the Taos County Chambers.