IMAGE: Kali Hudson
Rusty Gregory, CEO of Mammoth Mountain, had a decision to make, and the options weren't good. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which also owns June Mountain, had never missed a payment on its loans. But its financial state, far from robust, prompted a closer scrutiny on behalf of the banks. The lenders demanded that costs be cut.
Gregory dismissed 77 long-term employees. But the lenders told him another $2 million must be slashed from the books.
So Gregory cut June Mountain.
On June 21, 2012, Gregory drove to June Lake, stood before the town, and broke the news in person. June Mountain Ski Area would not open for business next winter. "I let them know what we were doing and that it was my decision to do it," says Gregory.
When a ski town loses its ski area, the grief manifests in stages. Tears were shed. The townspeople cried out to MMSA executives and their elected representatives in disbelief. Local elementary students got involved, selling lemonade and raising $140, which they gave to Gregory in hopes of reopening June Mountain.
Then came outrage, which led to mobilization. Nearly 3,000 people signed a petition to reopen June. Some picketed on street corners. A group of residents, leaders, and business owners organized. They tried to find someone to buy their mountain and free them from the grip of Mammoth. When that didn't work, a sense of desperation seemed to settle in. The town went after something close to Gregory —a deal with the Forest Service that is crucial for redevelopment and expansion plans at Mammoth, the 3,500-acre ski resort that is located 20 miles south from June.
The only person at June Mountain this year was the general manager, who kept the pipes from freezing and spun the lifts
now and then to make sure they still worked. PHOTO: Christian Pondella/June Mountain Ski Area
All the while, the streets in June Lake were quiet. Businesses closed. People stayed home instead of going out. The town became a shadow of its former self. As news spread of June's closure, skiers from across the country watched and wondered whether this was evidence of the death of the small ski area. Ciche Pitcher, who owns Discovery Mountain near Anaconda, Montana, a simple hill with nothing but a lodge, some lifts, and some damn fine skiing, empathized with June Mountain.
"Every area is going to be its own story," says Pitcher. "I hope that those small resorts are able to make it, mainly because I've got this—I don't know what else to call it—fear, that skiing will become this white-collar sport. This very privileged sport… And that world seems really sad to me."
June Lake's fate did not come about overnight. As Mammoth built up and out with a village and new chairlifts just 20 miles away, change never came to June Mountain. Ever since Mammoth bought it in 1986, June Mountain Ski Area has operated at a loss. Mammoth treated it as overflow on busy holidays, and says the town of June Lake needs more hotel rooms before it will make money. Conversely, June Lake says Mammoth neglected the ski area and never invested in its infrastructure or marketing, which in turn led to June Mountain's demise. Business was never sustainable at June Mountain, and the notion of closing the ski area down had been simmering for years. Former Mono County Supervisor Vikki Bauer says she saw it coming.
"I said, 'June Mountain cannot survive without more of a bed base. They will close June Mountain down,'" says Bauer. "No one wanted to believe me."
Gregory announced in April that June Mountain would reopen next winter. He promised a new chairlift and snowmaking equipment. Then, on June 5, Gregory announced changes in how things would be run. There's a new Chief Operating Officer who will take over the ski area, while Gregory focuses on the financial side of things for MMSA.
The community of June Lake took the news cautiously. There wasn't much trust in Mammoth before this last year rolled out, let alone now. But they have nothing except Gregory's word to hold onto. So they are looking ahead, developing a new identity for June Mountain, and prepping the ski area for next season. And then they will wait to see if June Lake's second chance will be its savior.
If you take Highway 395 south from Reno, the road will lead you out of the casinos and into the rugged high alpine country of California's Eastern Sierras. You'll drive through the sleepy town of Walker, the wide-open plain of Bridgeport, and the shores of Mono Lake. Drive for about 150 miles, and then take a right turn on California Highway 158, known as the June Lake Loop.
The two-lane road wraps around a basin of four lakes. At 10,909 feet, Carson Peak looms at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped valley, its reflection cast on Silver Lake. June and Gull Lakes sit on the south edge of the loop, the town of June Lake between them. And Grant Lake rests on the opposite side of the valley. Meadows and mountains and rivers—the locals call this place the Switzerland of California.
June Lake's heyday arrived in the 1930s, when a hydroelectric power project brought investment and residents to the area. The town's post office opened in 1927, its first school a few years later. Restaurants and bars sprung up, like the Tiger Bar, which opened in 1932 and still serves up cold beers on tap. By the '50s, the town was a well-known fishing destination and summer tourism boosted the economy. Skiing didn't arrive until 1958, when the Forest Service announced it would give a permit for a new ski area in the valley.
"One of the nice things about June is, in a lot of ways, it hasn't changed a lot from the '70s," says Keith Potter, whose history in June Lake dates back to his childhood 40 years ago. "It's still really rural, really quiet."
The slow pace and quiet living are what June residents love about their town. It's a place people go to escape, and it has its share of second homeowners and retirees. The ski area has never been an all-encompassing destination resort like its neighbor Mammoth Mountain. It's the ski area where people went to avoid the crowds. The type of place fresh tracks were found a week after it snowed, a place families have been skiing for generations. But in the case of June Mountain, that was not enough to sustain a business.
"In the '70s, '80s, and even the early '90s, if you had a ski area and you turned the lifts on and it snowed, people showed up," says Potter. "Nowadays, people don't have time. But they have money. So when people go [skiing], they expect a whole lot more. They want Vail. They want Sun Valley. They want to roll in and have a lot of nice amenities."
June Mountain General Manager Carl Williams says that in a good year, June earns a small profit. In a bad year, the losses are deep and MMSA absorbs them. Mammoth also covers a number of expenses, including payroll, liability insurance, technical support, that save June a lot of money in overhead costs, says Williams.
Located on the spine of the Eastern Sierras, June and Mammoth Mountains are at least a five hour drive from their primary market, Southern California. IMAGE: Kali Hudson
"We got the announcement that they were closing June Mountain and meanwhile, they [MMSA] are putting new chairlifts in at Mammoth," says Jarrod Lear, a June Lake resident and member of the June Lake Revitalization Committee.
Meanwhile, Gregory and Mammoth executives say that updated infrastructure alone will not bring more people to the mountain. Because June Mountain is at least a five-hour drive from its primary market—Southern California—it's not a place people go to for the day. Gregory wants to see more beds in June Lake to accommodate more tourists.
"To be a viable, sustainable winter resort community, and to be able to support a ski resort, [the town of June Lake] needs a thousand new hotel rooms," says Gregory.
"I urge the supervisors in the strongest possible terms to oppose the current project," wrote Cheryl Criss of San Diego, a June Lake property owner for 30 years. "Anything else will be the death warrant of June Lake."
The uproar delayed the Rodeo Grounds proposal, and then the economy crashed and Intrawest backed out. Bauer says the community eventually came to a compromise, but it was too late. The Rodeo Grounds property remains undeveloped and it is listed for sale at $2.9 million.
"At the end of the day, the community came together. Even the people who had staunch opposition came to realize that yes, there needs to be some change in June," says Williams.
For the first time in 50 years, Bauer shut the water off to the Gull Lake Lodge, a two-story motel that's a five minute drive to the ski area. She opened her doors over the Christmas holidays, but otherwise the motel was closed for the winter.
"Of course, it wasn't me that got the most hurt," says Bauer. "It was my maids."
Ralph Lockhart, who co-owns the Double Eagle Resort and Spa, says he lost about half of his usual winter business without the ski area open, and eight of his employees left because their hours were cut. With June's chairlifts stagnant, stools sat empty at the local bars. The ski shop in town locked its front door and put a sign with a phone number in the window. When longtime June Mountain snowboarder Jimmy Lim headed into the backcountry to ride, he had the mountain all to himself. And, like many June Mountain employees, 30-year June ski patrol director Eric Diem transferred to Mammoth.
"I have a lot of heart and soul for June Mountain and June Lake," says Diem. "It was really sad to see this place be a ghost town."
Most of the businesses in June make their money in the summer, and nobody reported closing their doors for good. June Lake endured one winter without its ski area, but no one wants to go through it again.
"We've been here long enough to know that there are years where business is slow," says Bauer. "We would survive, but it wouldn't be pretty."
The shock from the swift decision to close June Mountain is still palpable a year later. Minutes from community and county meetings last summer show people speaking up in confusion and fear. Once the reality settled in, mobilization started. Town residents and Mono County formed a revitalization committee, and the first to-do item was to oust Gregory and find a buyer for June Lake.
The locals call this place “the Switzerland of California.” PHOTO: Christian Pondella/June Mountain Ski Area
The revitalization committee approached the Tahoe-based Mountain Riders Alliance with the idea to buy June Mountain from MMSA. CEO Jamie Schectman says that June would have fit with the MRA's mission, which centers on a co-op style of ownership for smaller, local hills. But the negotiations didn't get far. The Sheet, an alternative publication in the Eastern Sierra, reported the MRA backed out when Mammoth attached a $14 million price tag to June.
"In my humble opinion, MMSA would never sell June because the first thing that would happen is the new owner would lower the lift ticket prices and [Mammoth] would lose 100,000 skier visits," says Schectman. "There needs to be more competition."
The option to find a buyer for June Mountain was off the table, but June's winter economy still needed stimulus in a bad way. So Mono County gave the revitalization committee $100,000 to host a series of events they hoped would bring visitors with cash in their wallets to June Lake. The committee strung Christmas lights across town and hosted free live music at local bars. They hosted a winter triathlon in March complete with snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and laser tag. Organizers were pleased with the turnout, but critics said it was mostly locals who showed up and the short-term events failed to stimulate the economy.
Meanwhile, MMSA faced consequences with regulatory agencies for closing the ski area. The U.S. Forest Service issued a letter of noncompliance to MMSA for closing June, which violated their land-use permit. And in February, Mammoth finally submitted an operating plan to guide June Mountain while it was closed. But the winter was already over by that point, the damage done.
The campaign to save June Lake had almost run out of steam. There was no buyer. The triathlon brought a few people into town, but business was still dead. Regulatory penalties were no more than a piece of paper. So the town of June Lake went after a new strategy. This time the battle would go Washington, D.C., and would threaten a pivotal component in a plan Gregory says is crucial to the vitality of Mammoth and Mono County.
The Mammoth Mountain Inn is an aging A-frame structure that has stood at the base of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area since 1959. Gregory intends to rebuild it. In 2011, The Slate reported on MMSA's conceptual plans to build a three- to four-phase project on that property that would cost as much as $600 million. But to finance such a project, you must own the land underneath the Inn. And that's the catch. The Inn was grandfathered into Forest Service-owned property.
You can't just buy property from the Forest Service. Land must be exchanged for land. On the suggestion of Olympian skier and environmentalist Andrea Lawrence, Gregory started collecting parcels of land that have more value to the Forest Service than the Inn property, including a lot of ecologically sensitive land near Mono Lake. But in this deal, because of the value of the property the Forest Service is handing over to Mammoth, cash is still involved, which means the land swap must be approved by the federal government.
By closing June Mountain Ski Area, June Lake residents say Gregory has not proved himself as a good steward of public land. And he does not deserve "special legislative treatment" in regards to the Forest Service land exchange, according to a letter written last winter to Feinstein and Boxer by the Friends of June Mountain.
The June Lake community was holding the Land Swap hostage until Gregory committed to both reopening their ski area and giving it the attention and investment June Mountain needs to become a viable business.
"How can there be an exchange of federal land to an entity that is in clear violation of a Forest Service special permit?" reads the letter written by the Friends of June Mountain. "We are seeking our senators' immediate aid to reopen and keep June Mountain operational for the integrity of our beloved community's survival."
The bill still hasn't passed through the Senate, but now that Gregory has pledged to reopen and invest in June Mountain, the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted to support the land swap at their June 18 meeting. June Lake activists say their plan worked, stopping the land swap in its tracks and forcing Gregory's hand. Gregory says he never expected June Lake to go after his deal with the Forest Service, but he also noted that politics in Washington surrounding the Senate Resource Committee played a role in delaying the bill's passage.
"I'm not sure that I saw it coming," he says. "The community in June was very scared, upset. And when we're scared and upset, we look at our leaders… I was certainly the one standing in front."
At a Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting on April 9, 2013, Gregory stood in front of the town once again, but this time the news was welcomed. He pledged that the lifts at June Mountain would run next winter, and he outlined a strategy to finally invest in snowmaking, a chairlift, and marketing to make June Mountain a successful business.
"Rusty made some very, very hardline commitments in front of the Board of Supervisors, the television crew, the Forest Service, the community… That would be hard for him to backtrack on," says Potter. But even with such a public commitment, Potter and other June Lake residents are wary. "No one is going to trust him until some of this stuff starts to happen. It's his ball. He holds it to June Mountain."
The future of June Mountain lies in rebranding and finding a niche market. They want to become “California’s family
destination resort.” PHOTO: Christian Pondella/June Mountain Ski Area
"We're getting the hill back in shape from being all by itself this winter," says Williams.
The vision for June Mountain revolves around one word—family. Like Pitcher has done in Montana with Discovery, the survival of a small ski resort lies in knowing its market and finding a niche. For June Mountain, that market is young families and entry-level skiers. That means June will expand its ski school program, offer cheaper ticket and lodging packages, and build a new chairlift to replace the J1 chair, a two-seater that takes skiers from the parking lot to the rest of the mountain and is as old as the ski area itself.
As soon as June is running next winter, the planning and permitting process for the new J1 chair and snowmaking equipment will begin. If everything moves quickly, Gregory says June Mountain could have its new chair in two years.
"I take Rusty Gregory at his word for the planned enhancements and capital improvements that they're proposing," says Lockhart, the co-owner of Double Eagle Resort and Spa. "If he says he's going to do it, let's watch and be vigilant."
With summer here and fishing tourism bringing life back to local businesses, the town of June Lake has turned a corner. Residents are optimistic, but everyone is still hyper-aware that Gregory holds all the cards to the future of their mountain and town. I asked Gregory if closing June Mountain again is off the table after everything that happened this year. The best answer he could give me started with an "if."
"If we can," says Gregory. "[June] has been losing money since we bought it, and the only time we shut it down is because we were forced to by our lenders… My job is to try to do the right thing, and that's different than trying to be the most popular guy in town. I owe it to my community to make the best decisions."