PHOTO: Courtesy of Bolton Valley
Given the flurry of resort conglomeration in the past two weeks, when more than two dozen resorts were packaged up under one of two giant corporate umbrellas, you'd be forgiven for thinking that skiing's independent spirit had been officially snuffed out. Like big box stores shoving aside mom-and-pop diners, we’d all have one ticket to eat off a single homogenous menu.
But not so fast. Skiing has always been a haven for those with an independent streak. It’s why mountain towns continue to attract people who’d rather live a life of adventure and unknowns rather than the uniform existence offered by a society built on concrete and steal. As two recent examples show, that streak of independence remains strong in the skiing world.
Last week, amid the Aspen/KSL buyout of Intrawest, including 10 ski resorts across the country, little Bolton Valley, Vermont, returned to its roots when the DesLauriers family, its original owners, purchased the resort back from a pair of real estate developers.
And then just a few days ago, John Kirchner became the sole owner of Crystal Mountain, Washington, successfully acquiring this gem of the Pacific Northwest from Boyne Resorts.
"In the past two weeks, the biggest changes ever to take place in the ski industry have happened," said Kirchner in a statement. "Over a two-day span the first week of March, no less than 28 ski resorts changed ownership, the most interesting being the Aspen/KSL groups' acquisition of Intrawest Resorts plus their acquiring Mammoth Resorts. The other being the March 31 sale of CNL Resorts, which includes the local ski areas Stevens Pass and Summit at Snoqualmie to a private equity partnership in New York.
"The fact that Crystal Mountain is now a locally owned and owner-managed ski operation runs totally counter to the corporatizing trends in the ski business," he added. "The number of large resorts that are locally owned and managed can be counted on maybe one hand."
Kirchner, who started his career with Boyne and even helped orchestrate that group's takeover of Crystal in 1997, said that Crystal will now be free to reinvest locally to help the resort manage its own needs.
At Bolton Valley, a hill with four chairs, 71 trails and an extensive Nordic system, located outside Burlington, the transition brings the resort back full circle. Founded in 1966 by Roland DesLauriers and his son, Ralph, the family hill outside of Burlington comes back under the DesLauriers name, with Ralph and his son, Evan, along with local investors, regaining ownership. The DesLauriers ran the resort until 1997, when it was sold to developers. It changed hands several times—a sign that perhaps skiers should be in charge of skiing.
"When I grew up, none of my classmates at Burlington High School skied. Skiing was a sport for the affluent," said Ralph DesLauriers, in a statement released on the ski area's website. "When I built Bolton Valley back in the '60s, I made it my mission to give every Vermont child the opportunity to ski. We established after-school programs where kids could take the bus up after school and learn to ski—and tens of thousands of kids all over Chittenden and Washington counties have learned to love skiing at Bolton Valley. It's one of the things I'm most proud of, and it's that same family-centered mission and love of Vermont that's driving me and my kids back into this business."
But as Kirchner pointed out, there are now very few big resorts under independent ownership. It remains to be seen if they can hold out and let decisions be made by skiers up on the mountain, or suits in a boardroom.