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September 2013

Blue Pages :: September 2013


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There has been some public activity in the wrangling over the price and control of the home turf of Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR). After more than three years of lease negotiations and the addition of Vail Resorts to the tussle, it’s still not clear whether PCMR has a lease for the land, owned by Talisker, which has ceded lease negotiations, and revenues from any lease, to Vail Resorts as part of the latter’s lease of Canyons.

That recent twist led PCMR to question the validity of the Vail-Talisker deal during a late-July court hearing, saying that the Vail-Talisker lease may have violated a lease agreement between PCMR and Talisker. PCMR says it may have had a right of first refusal--if, in fact, PCMR and Talisker had a valid lease, an “if” that is at the heart of the dispute.

Tamarack Could Get New Owner This Fall
After years in limbo, a series of foreclosure actions at Tamarack, starting with a group of townhomes and the Village Plaza, is expected to clarify the ownership of the resort by end of the fall. In addition to the main Credit Suisse on-mountain asset sale, which had not been scheduled at press time, two other real estate projects will also be auctioned. Word is that several groups have been working with Credit Suisse on bids.

Of course, the auction sales won’t be quite the last word; there’s a six-month redemption period following foreclosure before the new owners can officially take control. Even so, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

In the meantime, Tamarack Municipal Association (TMA) continues to manage summer and winter operations, as it has for the past few years. The redemption period means the TMA could continue to operate the resort this winter.

As a quick glance at the Ownership Timeline in this issue shows, small local ski areas are an endangered species in several regions. How can they be sustained and protected? Several routes are being explored.

Community support is one growing option. From eastern Maine to Yukon in Canada’s northwest, local groups are coming to the aid of the resorts that serve the citizenry. At both Black Mountain and Bigrock in Maine, the non-profit Maine Winter Sports Center is seeking to turn control over to community-based non-profit organizations. Supporters of Black, including ski teams, schools and universities, are well on the way to raising the needed funds and assuming control; that process is just getting underway at Bigrock. The Detroit Mountain Recreation Area in Minnesota has also taken the private-funding route. In all these cases, local towns are supportive, if not providing direct funds themselves.

Having the will, though, is not always enough. The non-profit managers of Sleeping Giant near Cody, Wyo., have found it a challenge to maintain the funding levels they need. An expansion into summer activities, including ziplines and aerial adventure, could help, but it will require Forest Service approval.

In Whitehorse, Yukon, the local government has stepped in to fund improvements and take responsibility for the local area, which is viewed as an important community asset. But that approach has struggled at Hogadon Ski Area in Casper, Wyo., where officials are trying to balance costs and benefits.

At Powder Ridge, Conn., private ownership is the route of choice. The town of Middletown took control of the area in 2007, and it has been shut ever since as the town has sought a buyer to reopen the facility. It hasn’t been a profitable investment; the town owes $2.3 million on a property it sold to a local developer for $700,000. But a functioning resort will boost the town’s revenues, and the local community supports the developer’s renovation and operating plan.

Then there’s the big-brother option, as practiced by Vail Resorts. The resorts it purchased, Afton Alps, Minn., and Mt. Brighton, Mich., were not financially weak, but instead fit into a larger plan to both increase the local skier/rider population and funnel them into vacations at Vail’s western destinations.

Community support, as described before, is one thing; full-on government investment is quite another. Especially when publicly-funded resorts compete with privately-owned ones. That issue has been fully exposed in the heated debate over New York State’s plans to expand and upgrade state-owned Belleayre.

New York’s ownership of Whiteface, Gore, and Belleayre has drawn complaints of unfair competition in the past, but the proposed $74 million development at Belleayre has catalyzed local opposition. Most vocal have been Plattekill owner Laszlo Vajtay and public officials in neighboring Greene County, who cite state competition with Hunter and Windham. Public officials in Ulster County, home of Belleayre, mostly support the proposals.

Aside from competing with nearby privately-owned resorts, Belleayre’s expansion plan draws ire because the ROI is very long-term, and based on an optimistic expectation of doubling Belleayre’s visits (presumably, some of which will come from its private competitors). Several people have pointed out that no lender would ever provide the funds given the limited return to the resort--and argue that government shouldn’t, either.

There are always growing pains with any new business, as zipline operators in California discovered in July. The operators were surprised when the state’s Permanent Amusement Ride (PAR) regulatory agency began enforcing its rules on several ziplines. To be precise, on commercial ziplines with mechanical, rather than gravity, brakes. Educational and religious organizations that operate challenge courses are also exempt from PAR’s rules. However, adventure courses with mechanical brakes were compelled to cease operations during their high season until they could obtain the engineering inspections and complete the paperwork to show the operations were in compliance.

This is just the sort of thing that the ASTM and the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) were trying to avoid with the standards they approved last year. But California hasn’t adopted those rules, and that leaves the PAR regulations in force.

According to ACCT, many ziplines were already meeting the regulations, but simply had not submitted the paperwork. ACCT worked with both the state and local operators to minimize closures and to make sure the rules are clarified and communicated for the future.

Multi-area passes have become all the rage. As with many trends in winter sports, this one got a big push from Vail Resorts (VR) and its Epic Pass. VR’s collection of destination resorts in Colorado, Utah, and California, all available on a single pass for roughly half the cost of a pass at Jackson Hole and other standalone destinations, has locked hundreds of thousands of skiers and riders into VR resorts.

The response has been prolific, as resorts have partnered to provide similarly big value at an irresistible price. A year ago, the Mountain Collective (Aspen, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, and Alta) offered its pass, which is more of a discount card than a true pass. No matter; it has been followed this year by a Wasatch group (Deer Valley, Park City, Alta, and Snowbird) that offers three free days to one another’s passholders, the $999 Big Cottonwood pass valid at Brighton and Solitude, Utah, as well as the 12-resort Powder Alliance pass. And the Collective itself has nearly doubled, to seven resorts.

The Wasatch group and Powder Alliance have taken the approach pioneered by Monarch Mountain, Colo., and its one-world pass. Member areas provide three free days of skiing to passholders from partner areas, not the unlimited access of an Epic Pass.

Burlington was the site of two important freestyle terrain meetings July 22-23. The first was a gathering of industry players working on the soon-to-be-renamed “Freestyle Terrain Notebook.” The second, the ASTM F-27 Snow Skiing Committee task force on terrain park jump features, included many of the same folks plus the usual ASTM crowd.

The group revising the NSAA Freestyle Terrain Notebook plans to make the guide available online at in a password-protected area. Initially, the group will post the contents of the 2008 notebook, and then update sections of it through the early fall. New or revised sections will cover park signage, a glossary of terms, jump feature design considerations, and a jump measurement tool, among others. Watch for news of seminars or a webinar this fall to inform park managers of the changes. In addition, SAM's Cutter's Camp 2014 will present an on-hill practicum.

The ASTM Freestyle Terrain Jump Features Task Group continues to review research into jump design, continuing its slow-and-steady work toward a possible consensus standard.