Can skiers own and operate their home hill?
By Kirk Kardashian | Photo by Brian Mohr
Locals claim that when Les Otten, former CEO of the now-defunct American Skiing Company,offered to buy Mad River Glen from Betsy Pratt for $5 million, she puffed her corncob pipe and told him where he could stick his check. Pratt was tired of owning Mad River, but she loved the place dearly and would only sell it to those who cared as much as she did: the skiers. So in 1995, Pratt set up a cooperative and sold 2,000 shares, making Mad River Glen the only skiing co-op in North America.
Local interests trumped corporate bankroll, and gave skiers an aspirational utopia (with rocks and a silly single chair) where management answers to brown-bagging shareholders. But while plenty others try, few fully actualize the co-op model. Just look at Vermont’s Magic Mountain. In 2012, Jim Sullivan, the mountain’s manager and part owner, created a cooperative called the Magic Partnership and sold 333 shares at $3,000 each. One problem: Sullivan didn’t register the co-op in each of the states the purchasers resided in, running afoul of blue-sky laws that regulate securities offerings. Sullivan deemed the error too costly and time consuming to fix, so he transformed equity shares into memberships in the Magic Faithful Club, which gives members discounts on season passes and lift tickets.
California’s Bear Valley falls somewhere in between. In February 2014, a group of skiers formed a co-op; by June they had raised $2.5 million and negotiated a nonexclusive letter of intent to purchase the mountain. Then Canadian company Skyline International Development swooped in for the buy. Bear Valley co-op president Steve Troyer says Skyline was attracted to the mountain by the co-op’s show of community support. Now the corporate entity and the grassroots club are creating a joint venture—and the co-op will have a voice in operations. “I can’t imagine a better outcome,” says Troyer.
The Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) offers a variation on the self-determination theme. The startup company aims to manage small, sustainable ski areas that offer “lower skier density, lower price point, family fun, and no frills,” says co-founder Jamie Schectman. It’s no co-op, but since MRA took over management of Maine’s Mt. Abram a year ago, skier visits and revenue are up 35 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
The best approximation of Mad River to date? Shames Mountain way up in Terrace, BC. Technically, the co-op only owns the operation, which has a tenure on 7,800 hectares of Crown land. But the distinction doesn’t matter to co-op chair Meredith Skimson. “Everybody knows your name, and there’s tons of powder and not tons of people,” she says. “We get lots of calls from other ski hills to see how it’s working, and we encourage them to try.”
Still, Mad River Glen is the template, even if it is hard to replicate. The iconic mountain had a simple ownership structure before the co-op. It’s located on private land. And the founder financed the original ski area by selling small building lots on the mountain, which created generations of weirdly loyal skiers. “We have lots of funerals here,” says Mad River’s Eric Friedman. “People want to have their ashes spread on the mountain.”
From the Early Winter 2014 issue.