(Homepage photo of Rusty Gregory by Peter Morning)
A week ago, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory shook up the debate about the area’s ongoing financial woes when he announced that within a few weeks, “Mammoth Mountain will not be run by me.” The abrupt and unexpected announcement prompted applause from an audience that has at times been outraged at Gregory for the closing of June Mountain last summer and the firing of 75 long-term Mammoth employees the previous March on what is known locally as “Black Wednesday.” It also prompted incorrect reports that he was leaving the mountain completely, which a later letter to employees sought to clarify.
In the letter, Gregory recognized the calamities that have befallen the area, including the financial meltdown, ensuing recession, drought, municipal bankruptcy of Mammoth Lakes, and the closing of June Mountain. “Our company and our community will not realize the opportunities of the future by employing solutions of the past,” Gregory wrote. “It is time for new vision and bold action.” He went on to say that he would be staying on as CEO, but that the operations side of Mammoth Mountain would be run by a new six-person management team including a new Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Operating Officer. Gregory stated his future responsibilities would revolve around “deploying the considerable resources required for the company and the community to realize its full potential.” When asked for further comment, Gregory affirmed that the employee memo represents his position until he is available for further comment late next week.
The Sheet reported that two of the three members of the new management team will come from outside. Among these is the new Chief Marketing Officer, Erik Forsell, who comes with experience from Asics and surfboard brands like O’Neill, Rusty, and Lost. He’ll be assisted by former CMO Howard Pickett, whose position will supposedly rotate to assist the efforts of the Tourism Business Investment District, a proposed assessment on Mammoth Lakes businesses that would see the mountain pool resources with the town to better market the area, including June Mountain, which is set to re-open this winter.
Many June Lake residents blame Mammoth’s lackluster efforts at marketing the mountain as a big reason why June hasn’t made a profit since it was bought in 1986. As part of the company’s restructuring plan, Gregory has promised to make lift and snowmaking improvements at the mountain and market it more aggressively to young families. The Mono County Board of Supervisors has said that implementation of the June Mountain improvement plan is key to their support for a proposed land swap that Mammoth would undertake with the Forest Service that would give the resort developable land at the base of the mountain valued at $500 million.
Gregory has long argued for the land swap, a proposal that’s been on the table since 1998. He’s defended claims of corporate greed by saying that the $5 million in property taxes generated from the land are sorely needed in a county that is facing equipment replacement costs of $26 million in the next 15 years and in a town that declared bankruptcy after losing a $43 million lawsuit related to a bungled airport development. Mono County Supervisor Tim Alpers defended the land swap as critical to the area’s growth at a recent meeting that sought public comment on a letter of support for the swap. “We’re looking down the barrel at some real problems,” he said. “The only way is to grow our way out of it.”
Despite their desperate civic finances, many Mammoth Lakes and June Lake residents have been skeptical of the land swap, criticizing it as the final peg in the hole before Starwood Capital Group, the Connecticut-based investment firm that bought Mammoth from Intrawest for $365 million in 2005, would sell the mountain to another out-of-state firm, leaving the town and county hanging with brutal financial responsibilities without help from a dispassionate new owner. What is certain is that whoever is brought in as the remaining members of this new management team, the challenges facing them are vast, complicated, and contentious.